Rated R (Violence, Language)
Directed by Chad Stahelski (John Wick, Highlander [upcoming])
Written by Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber, John Wick)
Cinematography by Dan Lausten (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Crimson Peak)
Music by Tyler Bates (300, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Joel J. Richard (The Bourne Identity, John Wick)
Produced by Basil Iwanyk (The Town, Sicario) and Erica Lee (Wind River, Soldado)
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane
At the end of the last movie, John Wick, our titular hero – aka The Boogeyman, aka Reeves’s eighth character named “John” – straight up knifed the big bad in the neck. Then he saved a pitbull from euthanization. That helps us know he’s the good guy. Four days later, John Wick: Chapter 2 starts.
We open with an excitingly filmed and powerful car chase. Though he is now driving a beautiful 1970 Chevelle, John isn’t satisfied. He wants his ’69 Mustang back from the last baddie’s brother, Abram Tarasov. Though John kills pretty much every single one of Tarasov’s men, he spares Abram himself, hoping for peace once more. Wick then gathers his wrecked Mustang and his pitbull pup as he heads back to retirement. Only we know retirement will be a bit more difficult than that. Else we wouldn’t have a movie.
Pretty soon, Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio) appears, demanding John fulfill his “Marker,” a binding blood oath, symbolized by a handy dandy medallion, the thing that allowed John retirement in the first place. John refuses, and, of course, Santino blows up his house.
At least the dog lives this time. . .
How many great sequels do we action movie lovers have? Not many. Mad Max 2, Terminator 2, Mission Impossible 4 and 5, Bourne 2 and 3, Die Hard 3. There aren’t many others. Thank goodness we finally have another to add to that list: John Wick: Chapter 2.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of the best action sequels that I have ever seen. Though that isn’t saying much, I’m sticking with it because John Wick 2 gives us everything we desire in an action sequel. Whereas John Wick combined the low-budget actioners of yesterday – like Death Wish and Mad Max – with slick, modern production values, John Wick: Chapter 2 has grander action set pieces executed flawlessly, further development of our hero and the world in which he resides, and, overall, a movie that serves as a great companion piece to the original without disturbing the previous film’s workspace. With a bigger budget, the action becomes fantastically grandiose but mostly no less grounded. A little bigger, a little better, a little deeper, a little stronger. John Wick: Chapter 2 loses almost everything bad about the curse of the sequel.
First of all, I love the world-building here, which elevates the John Wick franchise to a further mythical nature while adhering to the foundation of the original movie. Indeed, John Wick 2 expands the mythological nature of the first movie and proves this world is truly a universe of its own. Most of today’s entertainment is missing out on a certain mythological element that these two John Wick movies contain, and that’s great to see. Some people have complained about some things being unrealistic in John Wick and John Wick 2, but that’s really missing the point.
Introduced in the first and built upon here, the filmmakers have created for us an intriguing fantasy crime world. In that world, John Wick is the personification of death, which is so true because he is certainly humanized enough to make him relatable but not too much to keep him from being an ominous figure. You know this is a fantasy, but it is grounded in a reality of its own that seems very real indeed.
On top of the world-building, the characters are fantastic. The filmmakers ascribe to each character unique and eccentric qualities that make them stand out. We especially see this with Laurence Fishburne’s character, “The Bowery King,” who presides over a world beneath the underworld. He’s not on screen for long, but his presence is both felt and important.
The music, too, is really cool. There is an awesome and invigorating guitar riff that flows throughout the film, and indeed the whole soundtrack is very cool. Talking about music, the assassin jazz band from the first movie gets a serious upgrade. It’s awesome.
As for my favorite thing, this movie contains some of the best filmed and executed action set pieces that we have seen in recent years, and this is supplemented by the fact that many of these actors are doing their own stunts. Especially Keanu Reeves. His continual commitment to bringing us an enjoyable film is definitely laudable. And there is no shaky cam in sight, none of these silly quick cuts. All the fighting is in-camera, hand-to-hand, gun-fu style action, sleek and subtly aggressive. They hold on the action wide and don’t look away.
I love, too, that, in many ways, this is an artistic action movie. Stahelski is a visceral storyteller, and without much exposition, we quickly begin to know the ins and outs of John Wick’s world. In addition, everything here feels rehearsed in the best of ways, much like Hong Kong cinema, of which Stahelski is a huge fan. The filmmakers train their actors, seamlessly integrate stunt doubles, and make their action simultaneously beautiful and thrilling. This movie is also a love letter to many of the great action movies before it, especially the museum fight toward the end, which contains delicious references to the final act of Enter the Dragon.
This is not to say that John Wick 2 is a perfect movie. It does have a few issues. For one, the motivation isn’t as strong here as it was in John Wick. For that, the movie lacks a bit of the punch that John Wick‘s story had, in that it was a smaller, more personal, more fulfilling revenge flick. Though you do understand why Wick must get back into the Boogeyman business, there is no real emotional connection to that fact. He just kinda has to do it, and that’s that. You know he hates all this, or at least parts of it, but the weaker motivation results in a slightly weaker satisfaction when the baddies meet their fate and John lives to die another day, because our empathy with Wick’s situation isn’t as strong, though our empathy with John himself is strong as ever. This is all made worse because we have a somewhat weak main villain, though we do get some adversaries that can more or less match Wick’s prowess.
Also, the dialogue, as in the first time around, isn’t the best. Many lines are stiff or stilted, but the actors do their job and make this issue almost unnoticeable. Especially Reeves. If the script throws a bad line at him, he says it so slickly that you don’t notice. Everything he says sounds effortlessly cool. Ultimately, like the first film, this movie rides on Keanu’s performance. Like any good action movie hero, Wick is so likable that you want to go on this journey with him. You care about what he’s doing up there on the big screen because of him. He has an unusual gravitas that draws you into his character, and the whole affair works because of him.
Other than those two things, one problem some people have had with Chapter 2 is the unbelievability of some of the ways things play out. I can’t spoil it, but, although I do agree that a few things happen here that stretch the realms of believability, even within this fantasy world that the filmmakers have built for us, they can be chalked up to two things: coolness and location.
When the unbelievable things happen, the movie has built up enough equity with us that we accept it and cheer, because it’s so freakin’ fun! Does coolness sometimes override logic? Sure it does! The especially unbelievable things are just so especially cool! As for location, New York City and Rome are the two main locales of Chapter 2 and huge influences in the architecture, color, and tone of the film. Aren’t those two cities both beautiful and bizarre? The filmmakers tap into this. Some of the ridiculous things build upon the oddities of their locations, and the resulting cultures, to make everything work.
By the end, John Wick can – but doesn’t have to – continue. Perhaps as a trilogy, maybe more. I’m all for it. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick: Chapter 2, and I’m going to give it an 88%.