MOVIE REVIEW – Keanu Reeves returns as the crazy, yet imperturbable professional assassin, in a major step forward for the series. The second chapter to 2014’s out-of-nowhere movie hit has the same action verve and flair for inventive set-pieces that the first film did, and if anything, returning director Chad Stahelski (working solo this time) and screenwriter Derek Kolstad raise the stakes for this unexpected franchise.
The true beauty of 2014’s John Wick and a likely driver of the cult following it’s grown in the time since its release is how smoothly it revived the visual intelligence and sly humor of the ‘90s star-centric action vehicle. For a movie as brutally violent as it is, and with such a campy story on its face (dying wife leaves a man dog, the dog is killed by Russian gang members, so the man exacts bloody vengeance for 90 minutes), the first Wick felt like an old-style action flick in the best possible ways.
The choreography was flawless, and the violence so extreme in a way that’s largely been replaced by bloodless piles of bodies in the post-9/11 era. Also, Keanu Reeves, the leading man carried himself with the kind of onscreen presence that so many glowering Bourne clones have tried and failed to match in recent years.
Grand Theft Auto
John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up just moments after the initial film ends, as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) engages in an intense car chase on the neon lighted night streets while heading for the garage housing his beloved 1969 Mustang, which was stolen from him by the Russians: the men of Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), the brother of the Russian gangster Wick killed the last time around..
The opening juxtaposes Wick fluidly moving in and out of shadow killing all manner of men who stand in his path. All the while, Abram listens to the ricocheting bullets and belabored screams of his henchmen growing almost cartoonishly overwrought with dread. The scene works by leaning into Wick’s mythic nature even more heavily than the first film and establishes the sequel’s excellent comedic stylings.
As in the first film, the legend of John Wick, aka the Bogeyman, is recounted by others well before Wick appears in the flesh, which also has the effect of establishing the character’s background story for anyone just entering the fray with Chapter 2. With the old score from the first part finally settled, Wick finds himself unwillingly pulled into a new mission.
So much for that early retirement…
Indeed, as much as John Wick wishes nothing more than to retire finally, he has a favor called in by way of a Marker, a sacred oath of the High Table (the council governing all assassins around the world). A Marker is a blood oath made by one killer to another, promising that in exchange for a favor at present, the holder of the Marker can call in repayment on that favor at any time, without question, under threat of death and “excommunicado” from the assassins’ order. Right as John buries most of his currency and weaponry under several feet of concrete and aims to settle into his new life with his new dog (who remains nameless), Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at John’s house with his Marker, ordering the reluctant Wick to un-retire (again) and assassinate the only person standing between Santino and a seat at the High Table: his own sister.
A killer on the run
John Wick: Chapter 2 builds on the first film’s wild premise without wasting any time on rehashing the rules; for all of the film’s merits, its trust in the audience to understand its universe’s functions is one of the more admirable. Director Chad Stahelski, working solo this time (the first film’s co-director David Leitch moved on to the upcoming Deadpool sequel), plays well within an increasingly large sandbox, expanding the parameters of Wick’s world just enough to tease at future mysteries while richly paying off much of what’s already been established.
When Wick dutifully repays his Marker-mandated debt, he’s burned as so many assassins are, and left to fend for himself with a $7 million contract on his head, sent to every killer in the city. Soon he’s under assault by a host of equally talented murderers, from his first target’s right-hand man (Common) to Santino’s ASL-speaking protector (Ruby Rose) to anybody else in the city who’d like to make a few million dollars. Only his instincts, and perhaps a familiar face or two, can help Wick find his way back to the land of the living. (Well, that and the Continental, the assassin hotel/neutral territory that all killers call home.)
Keanu Reeves delivers his best work since The Matrix in this series, so it comes as an extra delight when Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne shows up in the latter half of John Wick: Chapter 2. Common and Ian McShanse are also especially good as a fellow hit man and the manager of the New York Continental Hotel, respectively.
The international hotel chain is also a carryover from the first film, but here given more elaborate life as a way station for hired guns and other perfidious evildoers. (Film icon Franco Nero gets one of the film’s funniest lines as the manager of the hotel facility in Rome.)
John Wick: Chapter 2 also has a very good humor about itself, with details such as the hotel’s sommelier really being a gun dealer, showing the inner workings of the international phone and banking network that gets set in play as soon as a contract is taken out on a life, words and phrases suddenly flashed on the screen, and a wild sequence set at an art exhibition that becomes an obvious tribute to Orson Welles’ hall of mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai.
Formerly a stuntman and Reeves’ frequent body double, Stahelski has burst out as a vivid and creative action director with these two John Wick films. He has a true talent for making Reeves and everyone else – and everything – pop and look good.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is a hyper-violent pulp action movie to the core, but it’s also an exemplar of how to make such a film with style and intelligence. It’s a hard-hitting film, the gunshots concussive and the methods of killing a human being sometimes ridiculous, but it’s one that takes care to offer more than the vicarious thrills of choreographed bloodshed.
It’s an action film set in a world it takes the time to understand and flesh out, and those set parameters are utilized to creative, often sickly funny ends. Above all, Chapter 2 accomplishes what its first film did, in a far more pronounced way: it leaves you wanting so much more, eager to see what John Wick will do when backed into his next corner. And if the series continues to rise in quality at this rate, we really could be looking at America’s next iconic action series.