If you’re like me, you’re a fan of things that are awesome. If you’re also like me, that list of things that are awesome includes Keanu Reeves, action sequences that make entire theaters go “OH SHIT,” cool mythology, impeccable filmmaking, and whole lots of neon lighting and electronic music. If so, 2014’s John Wick was a special sort of revelation and John Wick: Chapter 2 was firmly at the top of your most anticipated list.
Well, for everyone out there like me, let me assure you. John Wick: Chapter 2 has high expectations that it not only meets, but exceeds. This film rules.
Picking up just a few days after the events of John Wick, the eponymous assassin (Keanu Reeves) believes that he may finally be able to rest. But out of his past comes Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime lord come to collect a blood oath Wick once swore to him. And try as he might, Wick can’t get out of it, which plunges him back into the assassin business, on a mission to kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini).
When Wick succeeds (to no surprise), Santino double crosses him and puts a bounty on his head. This puts Wick on the run as he deals with Gianna’s vengeful bodyguard Cassian (Common), Santino’s elite force led by the enigmatic mute Ares (Ruby Rose), and basically every assassin in the city of New York.
I will waste no time in pretending I don’t know the foremost concern of anyone scanning this review, so I will assure you that John Wick: Chapter 2 manages to top the action proceedings of its predecessor, as hard as that is to believe.
The original John Wick was an underdog story, a first time pair of directors (only one, Chad Stahleski, directs this film) directing a star that unfairly had passed into punchline. The success of that first film gave the second a much longer leash, a bigger budget and more room to expand on the aesthetic of the first.
And boy, does it run with that room.
John Wick: Chapter 2 maintains the confident and clean direction of the first one, the motion direct and the geography always perfectly laid out (minus one scene that perhaps ranks more chaotic than normal for this franchise so far). What it does now is expand on the possibilities of both numbers and location. Free to stretch its wings, its locales become more interesting. One extended shootout is set in catacombs beneath Rome, lit only by a few blasts of light. Another is set in an art exhibit that I can only describe as mind-bending. Given the freedom, it goes for the gusto.
Yet as far as it goes, it never loses sight of its basics. John Wick‘s signature action trait is its grace. Brutal grace, almost like a ballet of death. Every motion is motivated and revealing of character, there’s a brilliance in the motifs that John Wick keeps returning to in order to take out the well-armed men who try to get in his way.
It’s no surprise, the direction and work of the last film was brilliant and this one keeps that up. It’s only a relief that the decoupling of the original directors seems to have had no effect on the skill at work. Chad Stahleski keeps the film moving with the same brisk pace and gripping visual sense, and diving just a little further into what are now key aesthetics of this franchise. The neon glows a little brighter, the subtitles a little more stylized.
But John Wick wouldn’t be the cult (well, perhaps cult no longer) hit if it was just really smart action filmmaking. It’s the weirdness and specificity and absolute confidence in the characters and the mythology being crafted. And on that front, again, John Wick Chapter 2 finds smart ways to meet and expand on the original.
Keanu Reeves continues to prove that John Wick is the character he was made for, every strength he has as an actor is on display here. The stoicism that hides a bubbling cauldron of pain underneath, the physicality that goes into his performance and absolute confidence in every motion he makes. Reeves is key to the success of these films.
He’s joined by a largely fresh supporting cast who all manage to find their individual moments to shine. Common plays a match for Wick who manages to match the Boogeyman at every turn, a rival who adds a new dimension to the action and also just a ton of fun to watch. Common pulls off badass stoic like nobody’s business. Ruby Rose is the mute head of Santino’s security and just a boundless fount of fun and charisma. Between this and xXx: Return of Xander Cage, it’s becoming clear that she should be showing up in any and every action film, headlining if Hollywood knows what’s good for ’em.
The approach to character here is something akin to plunging headfirst into the pool, mostly letting things be uncovered naturally with as little stop for explanation as they can. It’s the approach they take to the mythology too, letting little details that the characters know simply unfold before us, like the Sommelier who helps Wick choose his guns for the evening event. It makes the additions feel natural, less like deliberate world-building and more like discovery for the audience.
It’s possible to level the criticism here that the film spends less time than its predecessor developing out the inner lives of its characters, grounding it less in the surprisingly real revenge emotions that John Wick managed to find. I’ll say that I don’t disagree, but that I think John Wick: Chapter 2 has very different questions on its mind. It’s less emotional, more philosophical. It’s starting to broach into the question of the people who live their lives in darkness and whether or not they can ever really escape from it, and how much someone ever really can do “One Last Job.”
What’s clear though is that John Wick: Chapter 2 is the best action cinema can be. Bold, confident, and totally assured of its own vision and way forward. A complete triumph of filmmaking and a clarion call to keep big-budget filmmaking as unique as it can be and as it has the potential to be.