John Wick: Chapter 2 does exactly what you want from a sequel. It ups the action, elevates the stakes but not to a ridiculous extent, invites us deeper into the criminal underworld so tantalizingly glimpsed in the original and invents a dizzying number of new ways for John Wick to kill people. Seriously, there’s this one thing he does with a pencil…actually, it’s best if I just stop there. Whether taking place in the catacombs of Rome or stuck in a mirror room straight out of Enter the Dragon, the gun fu and kung fu choreography in this movie is so endlessly inventive and perfectly executed that it demands to be seen, not described.
The chief question, really, is simply whether or not Chapter 2 is better than the original. The answer is an emphatic “Yes!”. If the same creative team returns for the inevitable Chapter 3, I have little reason that they’ll again one-up themselves in what has turned into one of the strongest new film franchises in recent memory.
But how did we get here? How in the world did Keanu Reeves stage this mid-career comeback through a vehicle which could have gone so wrong?
On paper, the plot of the first John Wick sounds like a parody of the hyper-violent action fests of the 70s and 80s: a retired hitman goes on a revenge killing spree after a Russian mobster’s arrogant son kills his puppy and steals his car. What is this, doggy Death Wish? You can surely get a good fake trailer out of that, slip it right next to Grindhouse’s Thanksgiving and Werewolf Women of the SS, but a full-blown movie? And you’re going to play it completely straight? And you’ve got two first time directors (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch) behind the camera?
Somehow, though, Stahelski and Leitch, who came to Wick with over two decades of stunt coordination and second unit direction work under their belt, pulled it off, to the point that Wick is now a cult-classic and its newly released sequel a box office and critical hit. As Vox said of the first Wick, “Judiciously curated influences, a perfectly chosen leading man, and elaborate choreography masking its own intricacy all combined to make this film in particular stick in the cultural landscape. John Wick hits with the blunt force of a shotgun blast.”
Plus, as it turns out the “you killed my puppy, prepare to die” plot is exactly as bare bones as it needs to be, providing just enough emotional heft (the dog is awfully cute, but it’s also a symbolic extension of Wick’s deceased wife) to carry us through multiple prolonged action sequences. Chapter 2, again written by Derek Kolstad but directed just by Stahelski this time, similarly tells us enough to keep things going but never too much to distract us from the action.
Fresh off his brief return to action in the first movie, John (Reeves as stoic as ever) attempts to return to retirement and solitude, haunted by the memories of his dead wife which seem to lurk around every corner of his house. However, just when he thinks he’s out someone to whom he owes a favor shows up with a “I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer” attitude.
This sets off an assassination plot in Rome which dovetails into John again chasing (Riccardo Scamarcio) and being chased by fellow assassins (chiefly Common and Ruby Rose) all over the world. We learn a bit more about the political machinations of the “High Table” which governs this underground network of global assassins. And we branch out from The Continental hotel sanctuary to glimpse even more corners of this gradually expanding universe, such as old-fashioned call centers where tattooed women receive and process the kill contracts or subways where assassins pose as homeless people to spy for an influential figure played by Laurence Fishburne.
Mostly, though, we watch John Wick shoot people. A lot of people. As in even 80s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger might look at it and say, “That’s a ridiculously high body count!” (except 80s-era Arnold probably couldn’t have pronounced the word “ridiculously”). So many people die in this film I predict some enterprising YouTuber will eventually make a mock “In Memoriam” video honoring their memory, most of them rudely ushered off to the great henchman heaven in the sky by John’s brutal efficiency. The endless death parade is thrilling for all of its stylized glory, a clear credit to new-to-the-franchise cinematographer Dan Laustsen, but also a tad numbing due to its sheer relentlessness. It’s to the point that when John finally has his standoff with Ruby Rose, the #2 villain of the story, it feels a tad anticlimactic, just another tightly choreographed fight scene in a film filled with them.
However, that’s what you sign up for with a John Wick movie. Similarly, if you are someone opposed to Hollywood’s glorification of gun violence in a post-Sandy Hook/Orlando world then John Wick: Chapter 2 is not the movie for you. As Vulture argued, “Gun fu movies [like John Wick] tend to be closer to video games or other fantastical entertainments; the gunplay might be made to look cool, but it’s also obviously fake. Rightly or wrongly, that seems to exempt it from the same accusations of insensitivity [as Jason Bourne, which is meant to take place in the real world].”
Chapter 2 is supposed to be fun, clearly R-rated fun, but fun nonetheless. We’re supposed to be filled with glee when Stahelski and his stunt team give us something we’ve never seen before in this genre, such as one bit where Wick and the rival assassin played by Common use silencers to discreetly exchange bullets while walking amongst completely oblivious civilians. The plot needs to be sufficient enough to carry us along, Reeves’ performance stoic with just enough humanity layered on the edges to make us root for Wick and the action endlessly inventive. Chapter 2 does all of this, and impressively pulls us further into the universe whilst still holding us at just enough of an arm’s length that we can’t wait to revisit this world and learn more about it in Chapter 3. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
The gauntlet has been thrown down, Hollywood. Here’s a near-perfect sequel. Can any of the other sequels due out the rest of the year match it? [Fingers crossed for Logan.]
THE BOTTOM LINE
To prepare for the daunting task of following up John Wick, director Chad Stahelski watched every action sequel he could think of, essentially crafting his own “Hollywood Sequel 101: What Not To Do” independent film course. The goal was to prevent John Wick from turning into yet another Taken or Death Wish-esque franchise where the same basic thing keeps happening to the main guy, and then he kills people. After all, how many dearly departed dogs can John go through before the pet store or humane society cuts him off?
Thankfully, Stahelski learned all of the right lessons and delivered a version of John Wick: Chapter 2 which successfully avoids the dreaded clichés of action sequels. Instead, Chapter 2 is similar enough to the original to be enjoyed but unique and different enough to stand on its own and actually improve upon its predecessor.