High expectations can be a deadly element to carry into any film, especially a sequel to a surprising, unexpectedly successful film such as John Wick (2014). The sequel, which continues the adventures of its titular character, has a tough hurdle to overcome. Thankfully, John Wick Chapter 2 far exceeds any expectations with a fast-paced, surprisingly rich, dive back into the world of John Wick. The film not only ramps up the action but the colorful, hidden facets of the world in which the film resides elevating the action with a cast of new characters, elaborating on backstory, and exploring the consequences of John’s actions within the first film. Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick firmly establishing the character as a top-notch action hero along the lines of James Bond, John McClane, and Jason Bourne. The action is spectacular, focused at times, over-the-top in another instant, entertaining throughout. Director Chad Stahelski handles it all with an expert’s eye, never loosing focus of the choreography and stunt work. Nothing is lost. The thrills extend to the cast as well with Ian McShane returning as Winston the proprietor of The Continental; Riccardo Scamarico stepping into the “bad-guy” role; Common giving Reeves a run for his money as a fellow hitman; Ruby Rose as a henchmen with deadly skills; and, Laurence Fishburne entering the scene as the mysterious and bombastic Bowery King. John Wick Chapter 2 is a rousing success, a thrill-filled, exhilarating action film worth getting excited for.
John Wick Chapter 2 picks up shortly after the events of John Wick (2014) as John looks to reclaim his car before even heading home. His car is in the hands of Russian crime boss Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare). The film starts off with a bang and never lets up. After returning home, finally, behind the wheel of his car, John faces another ghost from his past, Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who holds a marker over John’s head – he wants John to take one last job. Reluctantly, and at the advice of Winston (Ian McShane), John takes the job and things go from bad to worse. With a $7 million contract on his life, John is in for the fight of his life.
Screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski keep things straightforward but slather layers of world building on a simple story of revenge, betrayal, and survival. Between incredible mind-numbing action sequences, the film turns another corner providing another glimpse at John Wick’s assassin underworld. Not only does the film expand on the Global implications of The Continental (kudos for casting Franco Nero as McShane’s European counterpart), it introduces the “High Table” of crime bosses that sit over the “rules” of the trade; secret organizations for purchasing guns and appropriate attire; and, the world-wide expanse of other assassins itching to knock down the legendary John Wick. It is fascinating, like a version of Bond’s visit to Q but on steroids. The best of the bunch is the introduction of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and his network of transients that spy on the world for the network. Layered on top of that are the previous relationships John has had with the varied characters he encounters and the stories they whisper.
“Is this a formal event or a social affair?” – Tailor
“Social.” – John Wick
“How many buttons?” – Tailor
“Two.” – John Wick
“And what style?” – Tailor
“Tactical…” – John Wick
These are the film’s valleys, if you will, the points when the film slows down to paint a deeper picture between the broader action strokes throughout the bulk of the film. During these moments, when the film allows its audience a moment or two to chill and breathe, it wonderfully colors its story with a world that is as engaging as the myriad of stunts, gun-play, and bloodshed that surrounds it. It is in these moments that John Wick Chapter 2 is able to transcend its basic action film narrative. Right down to the very last frame, the film continues to build and build on this world, making the third film not only inevitable but ideal, leaving its audience craving more.
Of course, the film belongs to Keanu Reeves in his best action role since Neo in The Matrix (1999). As amazing he was in John Wick (2014), he is that much more impressive in John Wick Chapter 2 with more action, more stunts, and more gun-wielding acrobatics. A highly cinematic, physical performance that comes across much like a violent, bloody dance, highly choreographed and brilliantly executed – to the point of exhaustion. At just over 50 years young, Reeves shows no signs of slowing down, kicking ass as well as a man half his age. If nothing else, the gruff disposition elevates the background of the character’s coming out of retirement and a hint of vulnerability while not compromising “the man, the myth, the legend” – as The Bower King proclaims upon his introduction. Reeves is not required to show extremes in his emotions, everything is reserved and constrained. He is a man of few words and few “tells” – he keeps his emotions held tight to the vest. The result is rather convincing and helps fuel much of the dialog as he negotiates with those who could easily turn against him at any moment.
“So, I guess you have a choice. Do you want a war? Or, do you wanna just…give me a gun?” – John Wick
“Somebody…please…get this man…a gun.” – The Bowery King
Certainly, the film has intriguing world building and it has a extraordinary performance by Keanu Reeves; however, the film will live or die by its action. It is first and foremost an action film. And, on that raw level, it succeeds. There are very few films a wall-to-wall action as John Wick Chapter 2. It is everything an action film needs, breathtaking, exhilarating, and exhausting. Each set piece out shines the previous sequence. The action in the film is reminiscent of the very best from John Woo and Chow Yun-fat. Director Chad Stahelski guides John Wick from one encounter to another with fanciful fisticuffs and astounding firepower. It may be a scene where Wick needs to escape a ball room full of killers. Or, it may be an extended, brutal hand to hand battle with fellow assassin Cassian (Common) in an epic clash that rivals Roddy Piper wrestling Keith David in They Live (1988). And, yet, the film knows when to turn on a dime and stun its audience by having Winston exhibit his power, not by flash and violence, but with a quiet display of reach and influence.
John Wick Chapter 2 is exactly what it needs to be – an unparalleled action film with rich characters, intense choreography, and amazing stunts. Add in terrific back-story, world building and enticing exposition, the film exceeds expectation. The only thing the film truly lacks is a captivating character arc. The film is basically the story of John Wick facing the consequences of the previous film and struggling to survive the night. Luckily the elements the film does provide are so rewarding that it matters little in the scheme of things. The action is impressively directed by Chad Stahelski presenting the events clearly with a kinetic execution. Keanu Reeves has rarely been better, John Wick is a terrific role for the actor, sitting comfortably next to Neo, Jack Traven, and Johnny Utah – it threatens to top those roles. John Wick Chapter 2 also benefits from an amazing supporting cast featuring Common, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Peter Stormare, and Franco Nero. And, there is a certain thrill to see Reeves reunited with Laurence Fishburne on screen. Fishburne’s scene-chewing, over-the-top approach to the Bower King is the perfect counterpart to Reeves reserved, direct dialog. It is exquisite and begs for more. In fact, by the end of John Wick Chapter 2, the most rewarding accomplishment is the strong desire for a third chapter which the film effortlessly sets up. Bring on more John Wick!
John Wick Chapter 2 (4 / 5) – “John, what have you done?” – Winston.