Although it wasn’t a massive box office smash upon its release in 2014, the Keanu Reeves action thriller John Wick turned a lot of heads. It was a stylish, imaginative, unapologetic throwback to the kind of high concept, Hard-R action films that weren’t being made in America anymore. It was profitable in its theatrical run, but while more people came to view the film once it hit home entertainment, the prospect of a sequel seemed somewhat dicey. John Wick was one of the best mainstream films of that year, and in some ways it reoriented the scale by which American action films should be measured. This year with John Wick: Chapter 2, the scale gets broken, set on fire, and the ashes get shot to smithereens. It’s one of the most deliriously fun and gorgeously stylish action films I’ve ever seen; what you might get if Michael Mann, Walter Hill, Buster Keaton, Bugs Bunny, Shane Black, and Wong Kar-Wai teamed up to remake The Raid. John Wick: Chapter 2 is so gleefully over the top that we officially need a new definition for “the top.”
With his score settled with the Russian mobsters who killed his puppy and stole his car, legendarily feared assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves, just as droll and charismatic as the previous film) tries to leave his old life behind once and for all. But almost as soon as his previous beef has been squashed, a former business associate comes to claim a debt that can’t be avoided. In exchange for help with the “impossible mission” that John initially completed for the Russians so he could retire and get married, he entered into a blood oath with Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian assassin with ties to the “high council” of assassins (don’t ask, just go with it). Santino forces John into another unwinnable situation before he can pack up his guns for good, blowing up John’s house and every remaining trace of his dead wife’s memory in the process for good measure (but don’t worry; John’s new dog is fine). John has to travel to Rome to assassinate Santino’s sister (Claudia Gerini) so she’ll vacate the seat on the “high council” that was bequeathed to her by their father. If John refuses to do this, he’ll be marked for death for ignoring the code of the assassin. If John goes through with it, a price will be placed on his head so large that every assassin in the world will want to take him out.
One of the first things viewers will see in John Wick: Chapter 2 is footage from a silent slapstick comedy being projected onto a New York City skyscraper, and with that cheeky, knowing moment of homage, returning director Chad Stahelski (this time working solo, with the first film’s co-director David Leitch off working on Deadpool 2 and the upcoming thriller The Coldest City) sets the tone of things to follow. The action starts immediately with a car chase where bodies ping pong all over the place as much as the bullets. There’s very little letting up once John Wick: Chapter 2 gets started, but the story beats and moments of respite come at perfectly paced intervals and unfold long enough for the audience to breathe and for investment in the action to be regained.
In an age where critically knocking a franchise for its “world building” abilities is commonplace (and in many cases, justifiably derided), it’s nice to have a budding franchise like this to show how it could be properly employed. When audiences are first introduced to John Wick, they know exactly what he’s about. They know he’s a sympathetic figure with a violent streak and a head filled with demons and pain. We know that no matter how outlandish his world gets, nothing about how he views the world will change. He’s a near perfect protagonist; a perfect balance of ambiguity and understandable righteousness. Returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad makes sure that John’s sandbox grows to ridiculous dimensions, but that the hero remains the same throughout. John wants to change even if this ridiculous world around him doesn’t. Reeves’ Wick is the perfect tour guide for such an insane world, and outside of some callbacks to the first film that are so obvious in execution that they become hilarious again, Kolstad and Stahelski make sure the character keeps moving forward instead of backward.
While there are a few returning faces here from the first film to preserve a sense of continuity and community (and, yes, to further establish this as a franchise), John Wick: Chapter 2 places emphasis on new blood instead of revelling in past glories. Although inarguably more cold blooded and conniving, Scamarcio’s villain isn’t as threatening or magnetic as Michael Nyqvist and Alfie Allen were in the previous film, but the people who surround the villain are fascinating and give Reeves plenty to work with. Ruby Rose steals a few scenes as Santino’s deaf bodyguard, and Common emerges as the film’s MVP, playing the protector of Reeves’ Italian target. Common and Reeves engage in a pair of brawls and shootouts here so intense that one could watch an entire film of just these two characters going mano-a-mano. It’s also nice to see Reeves sharing a few scenes with his Matrix co-star Laurence Fisburne, who plays the charismatic leader of an army of homeless people. They have remarkable chemistry, and if there’s a single line reading funnier and more out of place than watching Fishburne exclaiming his desire to go to a certain chain restaurant, I would like to see it now.
It should go without saying that the action has been amped up by Stahelski to ludicrous degrees, and it’s astounding that 53 year old Reeves can still do most of his own stunts without looking like he’s lost a step. Stahelski owes his career as a filmmaker thus far largely to Mann and Hill, both of whom are lovingly referenced throughout via cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s resplendent visuals. It’s a patently silly concept for an action film that treats its material like a blank canvas on which works of art can be created. The first John Wick had these ambitions, but the sequel takes them a lot more playfully and thoughtfully, leading to a climactic shootout in an art gallery boasting an exhibit that turns the space into a literal funhouse of mirrors, thusly obliterating the line between lowbrow and highbrow art and function.
Some might bristle at the film’s sometimes self-referential nature and the now more obvious deigns towards franchising, but there’s no denying that John Wick: Chapter 2 has clarity of vision. In an age where so many action films are sloppy, but accepted on the grounds of being entertaining, it’s heartening to see something so precisely constructed. This is a confidently made and produced motion picture designed by people who want to give viewers a great balance between something entertaining and something that’s visually engaging. It might be one of the rare films that comic book aficionados and formalist minded cineastes can find common ground on. More importantly, if the films in the franchise are this viscerally exciting and well made, I would watch a thousand of these. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a perfect sequel to a near perfect action film, giving audiences who liked the first film exactly what they want in greater amounts and adding things they never knew they wanted until they saw them.