John Wick came out in the Fall of 2014 and did not make much of a splash at the box office, despite sporting a robust 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. It opened with $14 million on its way to $43 million domestically. Over the course of the past few years, though, it found an audience on cable, streaming, and disc and has possibly even moved out of being a cult classic and into a bona fide, beloved action film. Delightfully, the creators of John Wick have made plans to make it into a trilogy, and this year we have been given John Wick: Chapter 2, taking the story in a new, interesting direction and upping the amount of bullets and destruction that John Wick leaves in his wake.
The film opens with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) tying up a few loose ends from the war he was engaged in from the original film. Being a hitman who had left the game before being dragged back into it by the killing of his dog that was a gift from his dead wife, John is not able to extricate himself from it again as easily as he had hoped, and his past comes calling in the form of Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a powerful figure from his past that helped him get out in the first place. Calling on a blood debt that John owes him, Santino asks John to perform an impossible task, a task that winds up putting John on the radar of every assassin as it results in a bounty being put on his head as he tries to get back at Santino for it.
Chapter 2 of this planned trilogy is every bit as thrilling and enjoyable as the first chapter. Like the best sequels do, it expands the world and expands the story. The universe that John Wick exists in is a slightly heightened version of our own. There is an underground syndicate and a kind of secret shadow society of criminals and assassins that run the world, have their own code, their own currency, and can move about freely in society. When the local cop comes by to check on an incident at John’s house, just like in the first movie, he casually asks, “You working again?” It’s unclear if this secret world of assassin work is something that this particular cop is aware of specifically pertaining to John Wick or all cops are aware of it; ultimately, it’s a detail the film can be ambiguous with, because either answer is awesome. Similar to how The Bride can fly on a commercial flight with her Hattori Hanzo sword by her side, John Wick can casually walk through an airport holding a barely concealed gun with a silencer beneath his suit coat and stealthily trade bullets back and forth with someone as they walk through a crowd.
Speaking of the suits, a nice little addition to John Wick: Chapter 2 is the implementation of bulletproof suits. This is useful because they really have increased the number of bullets involved, which was already at an astronomical level in the first movie, and despite how great John Wick is, he can’t dodge every bullet that comes his way. In some hands, suits with a thin layer of Kevlar sewn into the lining would almost be a bridge too far, but this film is made by people who can pull it off without it being too ludicrous. The beauty of the ballet of bullets is maintained by the thinnest of “tactical” margins.
Expanding a world is always a gamble, and some sequels don’t know how to build off of their origins. They do a great job of it here, building off a line from the first film where Ian McShane’s Winston asks John, “Have you thought this through? I mean, chewed down to the bone? You got out once. You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond… you may well find something reaches out… and drags you back into its depths.” These end up being prophetic words as just as John is ready to head back into retirement, something does reach out and drag him back to the depths. Santino informs John that he never would have called on him for his blood debt out of respect for his dead wife if he had not come out of retirement. The film doesn’t just pile on more bullets and more action, it includes the consequences of past deeds.
While Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and John Leguizamo return as supporting cast, most of the cast is new this time around. Santino’s crew is led by Ruby Rose as Ares, a mute dynamo of action. Common appears as Cassian, an adversary and former colleague of John’s. Laurence Fishburne has a small role as a man in charge of part of New York City who has a unique crew working for him. Peter Stormare gets a great opening sequence role, and the legendary Franco Nero appears are the proprietor of the Italian counterpart of Ian McShane’s criminal hotel in New York City.
John Wick is a character that perfectly suits Keanu Reeves. It’s the perfect action role for him. And the action is expertly crafted. It is clear that the director, Chad Stahelski, is a former stuntman and stunt coordinator. The action choreography is exquisite. The gunplay, the hand to hand combat (one of which features a pencil that rivals that scene in The Dark Knight), and the car sequences are all fantastic. And the framing of it all is part of why it works, because everything is visible, the camera is not too close so that you can’t tell who is throwing the punch, and there is not a succession of quick cuts to make it look action-y. These are experts showing off their craftsmanship.
John Wick: Chapter 2 was as delightful a film experience as I was expecting it to be based on how much I loved the first one. It’s action done right. There is something to be said for a film that knows what it is, what the tools of its genre are, and how to get the most out of what everyone brings to the table. I can only hope John Wick: Chapter 3 is a satisfying and only a only a few years away from being released.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars