John Wick came out of nowhere in 2014. There wasn’t a huge amount of buzz for what, on face value, seemed like a run-of-the-mill actioner, albeit this one starring Keanu Reeves. Well, those that threw caution to the wind were rewarded. Yes, the plot was straight out of countless bargain-bin action flicks, but the confidence and polished direction brought to the table by helmers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch made it a fun little ride, and an unexpected franchise starter to boot.
The first film was downright simple, perhaps a little too simple in my books, but efficiency and fun was delivered nevertheless. A follow-up would have to be careful not to get cocky and give the story an unnecessarily convoluted expansion, and it would have to take the slick action we saw in the first to a whole new level. I have some very good news.
John Wick: Chapter 2 continues on the story of Reeves’ brooding anti-hero, who was out for revenge in the first chapter after his puppy – given to him by his late wife – was killed and his car was stolen. Hey, kill a puppy in movie land and all bets are off; Wick went on quite the killing spree. Chapter 2 doesn’t skip a beat, catching up with the unstoppable widow in a big opening, as he attempts to retrieve what’s his from a seemingly never-ending group of disposable thugs. It’s an ultra-kinetic, over-the-top, extended opening action sequence, with Stahelski (directing on his own this time) showcasing a refreshing vigour that leaves the first film looking a little tame in comparison.
And so the tone is set. As Wick goes back to retirement, quite literally burying his tools of combat, we await for his inevitable return. Faster than you can say, “Hmm, something tells me that laying down that concrete again could be a waste of time,” Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at Wick’s door, calling in a debt. Our reluctant hitman is dragged back into the world of assassins; bad news for him, and a death warrant for those in his way. It’s a solid story to continue on, although the fact that he’s an unwilling participant is perhaps nailed home a little too hard in the film’s first half, especially since we all know he’ll be sending baddies to their graves before long.
Screenwriter Derek Kolstad expands upon the world he teased at in the first film. The intricate world of assassins has its own laws, its own morals, with honour among killers being of upmost importance. There isn’t an overly impressive tale to be told here – it is, essentially, a simple, straightforward actioner again – but Kolstad ensures there’s much more texture to everything, reveling in the workings of this underground society. It’s like a parallel world to ours, where cops are barely spotted and assassins are willing to duke it out in any crowded setting they happen to be in. From the humour, to the tough-guy talk, to the intricacies of this order, Kolstad takes it all up a notch while using what made the first film enjoyable as his guide.
Another plus going for Wick 2: a strong extended cast. While no one character is particularly layered or memorable, not that you’d really expect it here, a number of fun performances fill out the side roles, including Ian McShane, back in slightly bigger capacity as the owner of the Continental Hotel; Laurence Fishburne, enjoying himself as the Bowery King; Aussie actress Ruby Rose, playing a mute ass-kicker; and Common, a standout among the cast as a proficient hitman out for revenge. Even with the occasional bits of cheesy dialogue, everyone seems to be having fun, adding to the film’s infectious quality.
But this is Reeves’ show, and the man’s in his domain. The actor balances out Wick’s fury with a tangible level of anguish, a reluctant warrior hurting on the outside nearly as much as he is on the inside. Whether he’s performing a crazy amount of stunts (many for real, as Stahelski clearly wants you to see), promising death to his enemies, limping in pain, or mourning, Reeves puts in his all. Perhaps it isn’t an obvious, showy role, but this is up there with one of the actor’s best turns.
Let’s not forget one of the main reasons we’re here: the action. Fans of action cinema need to get to this one – now. Stahelski and co. craft beautifully shot, impressively choreographed sequences of combat – both hand to hand and bullet to bullet – and bring to mind some of the wondrous viciousness we witnessed in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. An array of relentless action sequences begin to unfold a little past the halfway mark, and they build in ambition and brutality until the film’s close. There’s no denying the entertainment value offered with the violent spectacle, although the relentlessness does occasionally risk on numbing the intensity. Also, the fact that this one-man army is just so adept at killing does take away some of the tension; it’s not often, at all, that you’ll find yourself worried Wick may bite the dust. Nothing detrimental mind you, most action aficionados will be applauding almost all the way through.
It’s quite the compliment to say that John Wick: Chapter 2 surpasses the first film; it does, in almost every way. It’s a violent, wild sequel that has its sights firmly trained on entertainment, and like its determined assassin, executes with urgency.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10