John Wick: Chapter 2 has the impossible task of following up one of the most unlikely successes in the history of Hollywood, yet it does exactly that with an incredible fervor and panache. It cranks up much of what made the 2014 experiment work past what you’d expect to either function or exist, managing to surprise you just as much and with as much flair. Unless you dislike being entertained, this should top your list of movies to watch.
Most interestingly is that Chapter 2 is less efficient in its storytelling, but it is more methodical and expansive. It continues to dance the fine line of not taking itself seriously while taking its setting and characters seriously. It picks up what could be mere moments after the original film with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) chasing a motorcycle through Manhattan before attempting to liberate his stolen Mustang from a chop shop.
It is a fast and frenetic thesis statement for the entire movie. There is no shortage of visual flair, indulging in highly cinematic angles and allowing for the naturally manufactured colors of the city wash over the entire sequence. You’ll see car chases, car combat, car fu, hand-to-hand combat, gun combat, and gun fu, all with the same deliberate chaos and precision that made the first film’s action so digestible yet constantly teetering on overwhelming.
Then the movie takes its time. It steeps itself in the premise of both the story and the world. Wick has, for the second time in his life, hung up his suit and thus put the murderous side of him away. But almost immediately, he is forced back into action, abiding the rules of his shadowy organization, once Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his house to call in a lethal favor.
In this time, while shuttling Wick to Rome and expanding the network of The Continental, we follow along the emotional and logical divide of the character. In order to exact revenge, he must first free himself of this obligation. And as he prepares to finish this task, we see how this underworld unfolds in its various metaphors. A sommelier, for example, offers a tasting, but instead of pinot grigio and ports, it’s handguns and shotguns.
It’s at the same time fun and focused. It adds to an evolving idea throughout the film that this entire worldwide establishment is some sort of twisted representation for the kingdoms of heaven and hell, and this is nothing more than a clash of demons. There’s nothing in particular for it to follow through on, but it adds a layer of metaphysical consideration that you otherwise wouldn’t expect. And it certainly integrates a new kind of grander and uneasy tension.
This all happens at the expense, however, of the savage, nearly animalistic efficiency with which the original operated. But it also doesn’t need that anymore. If you are watching Chapter 2, you almost certainly know who John Wick is and what he does. And if you don’t, it somewhat lovingly indulges in the Robocop school of thought for building up your protagonist in having multiple badasses straight up tell you that this guy is a dude you don’t fuck around with.
Besides, when this movie gets down to do its dirt, it goes off the rails in the best way possible. It takes the rails and stabs everything in the face with them. And with stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski returning to the helm, it achieves a clarity that so few modern action films manage. As Jackie Chan puts it, you need to see more than the reaction; you need the inciting action, too. And Stahelski zeroes in on this idea with a frightful, exciting tenacity.
It operates with extraordinary kineticism where everything—including the background, the sky, and even the walls—is moving at an incredible rate. But it’s not with the flash and sizzle of something like Hard Boiled or the over-the-top, fetishized action of The Matrix. Instead, it’s with a grounded yet unrelenting ferocity. You can especially see it in the fisticuffs. There are no gravity-defying flips (save for some advanced judo) but instead an exhausting and realistic slog while remaining in constant, powerful motion.
That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t look good while doing it. On the contrary, this is probably one of the more beautiful films you’ll see this year. The entire last act is just gorgeous. Set in a mirror-laden art exhibit, it plays with the same overwhelming confusion that the characters feel seeing reflections at every turn. One shot in particular is likely to make you say aloud in true Keanu fashion, “Whoa.”
The ending is, I’m sure, to draw controversy. Whether it fits the character will be highly contentious, and it should as you can look at Wick as either a force of nature or something that simply needs to be sated. But it could also unfortunately be seen as something done simply to allow the franchise to extend into a third chapter, but that, at least, I feel like fits the overall mood and attitude of the series.
If that means, though, that we all get more John Wick, then by all means, let’s give it a shot. And for all the rest that the film gets exceptionally and exceedingly right, a little indulgence is in order. It’s not often you see another pillar of the action genre get erected.
Final Score: 9 out of 10