"You stabbed the devil in the back. To him this isn't vengeance, this is justice."
The first ‘John Wick’ was the kind of break out phenomenon that only comes along once in a while. After all it is one thing to make an action film as superb as that, but for it fly so completely and utterly under the radar until its release is a rarity in this day and age. Naturally that means any sequel will automatically lack the out of the gate surprise the original had, which is a shame. But it’s difficult to get too worried because ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ does have just about everything else.
As a former super assassin, John Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) plans at retirement are expectedly cut short when an Italian gangster shows up on his doorstep with a gold marker, compelling him to repay past favours. Ordered by the kingpin of the secret assassin society The Continental, to respect the organization's ancient code, Wick reluctantly accepts the assignment to travel to Rome on a special assignment only to become embroiled in a greater plot.
Maybe it is the relief of seeing a sequel executed with such brilliance, maybe it is the fact that having endured the likes of ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘The Return of Xander Cage’ to see an action movie of this level of craftsmanship was the breath of fresh air I needed at this exact time. Whatever the reason, I walked out of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ with such a euphoric sense of satisfaction and excitement that I have not felt for an action film in what seems like a painfully long time. While I cannot guarantee that it is quite as superb as the first, this second chapter is more ambitious, more audacious and equally as exhilarating as its predecessor.
Like any great sequel should, ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ expands upon the foundations that were so expertly built before it. But instead of just escalating everything director Chad Stahelski has retained the tight narrative focus that made ‘John Wick’ so involving. He increases the scope but never forgets to incorporate those same unique elements that made the first film stand out from the richly detailed world building to the wry humour. At this point you may have noticed my numerous comparisons to the first film but frankly it is difficult to separate them.
That is not necessarily a criticism of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ though. While its increased scope and epic outlook distinguish it from the first it is still very much in touch with what made in the unique cinematic experience that it was. The fact that it picks up right where the last one left off further evokes this effect that we have not been apart from John Wick for long and in all honesty that is most definitely a good thing. It plunges straight into the mythology of its own world and rarely stops for breath. It moves with such a frenetic pace that is always involving but somehow never exhausting. As an audience member I never felt confused or overwhelmed by the action as it was unfolding.
I have little doubt that such an affect has a lot to do with Stahelski’s superb direction. He wields his camera with a sweeping and graceful tone that captures the unfolding action in all its glory, with stunningly orchestrated wide shots, motivated edits and full command of a legion of massively talented choreographers who can stage this action brilliantly. In fact I certainly would not think it a coincidence that the film features footage from Buster Keaton’s classic work, as everyone involved in ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ clearly took a page out of his book when it comes to committed and practical stunt work. But for all this traditional elegance Stahelski makes you feel the raw violence of each scene. It keeps you constantly aware of the very real stakes the film has and its reputation for taking no prisoners. You feel the impact of every gunshot, punch and whatever else Wick can throw at his adversaries or vice versa (which is a considerable amount).
But speaking of Wick himself, I suppose it is time to finally address Keanu. I don’t think Reeves has had a vehicle that has as effectively demonstrated his brilliance as an actor than the ‘John Wick’ franchise. On the surface it is easy to look at the role and dismiss it as a mindless killing machine. But the subtle depth within John Wick as a character, combined with his intimidating presence and dry style of humour makes the character a wonderful showcase for Reeve’s versatility. But his greatest asset is on a physical level, where his balletic yet brutal presence manages to convey so much with seemingly so little. Simply put there is no possibility that this franchise would work without Keanu in the lead role, he has so utterly and completely made it his own that I will gladly repeat what I said of the first one in that this is Reeves’ best performance ever. But by no means are the supporting cast reduced to background objects. In fact if I were a character actor I would be looking to get a role in the next ‘John Wick’ film as the clear cut but ridiculously memorable entourage that populates the film is the perfect role for an actor to sink knot and revel in. From Laurence Fishburne’s underground crime lord to Ruby Rose’s mute security enforcer.
‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is just about everything you could possibly want from a movie like this.