Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Written by: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scarmarcio, Common, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne, and Lance Reddick
Distributed by: Summit Entertainment
The most remembered moment of the original John Wick is in the scene where the titular assassin confronts the father of the man who stole his car and killed his dog. The big money shot line that appeared in every bit of advertising occurs in this scene, where John famously declares: “People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.” It was a great moment not just because it makes for an awesome character moment, but it also served as a meta-statement on behalf of Keanu Reeves himself. In the decade or so prior to John Wick’s release, the actor hadn’t exactly been on top of the world, as most of his roles were in films that ended up either critical flops, commercial flops, or both (see 47 Ronin for proof positive of that). But John Wick gave him his first major action hit in quite a while, being a commercial/critical success; rightly so, as it was an incredibly entertaining and satisfying action film in every respect. Keanu, much like his own character, was back. And now, a few years later, the lethal ex-assassin is back yet again with John Wick: Chapter Two.
Picking up a few weeks after the end of the first film, we find John finally retrieving his stolen car, although it’s in a beaten up state following an incredible opening action sequence. Shortly thereafter, he’s contacted by an Italian crime boss named Santino D’Antonio, whom he made a blood oath with and is now attempting to cash in on that favor. Despite initially turning the favor down, Santino blows up his house and forces him to agree to the task of murdering his sister Gianna so he can take her place as a major crime lord. Despite managing to accomplish this task, Santino puts a hit out on John, forcing a seemingly never-ending series of assassins on his tail. John Wick must now fight his way through the onslaught and exact his revenge upon Santino.
Much of what makes the first John Wick great is thankfully still present in this sequel. The main strength is the action set pieces, both in terms of fight choreography and editing. The simple fact that the editing is kept simple and clean, compared to the more spastic and erratic nature of most American action films, keeps everything extremely focused. Instead of constantly being thrown off, the viewer is allowed the clearest view of all the action, which makes the crazy shootouts and hand-to-hand fights immensely satisfying to watch. On top of this, the set ups and choreography are continuously engaging as the movie finds new ways of staging classic shootouts and fistfights, from a shootout in the Roman catacombs to the opening fight where taxis constantly dash on and off screen, and even offering the single most violent use of a pencil I’ve seen in a movie since The Dark Knight.
The action highlight of the film comes during the final major shootout which takes place in a NYC art museum. The museum plays host to an exhibition focused on mirrors and reflections, so John is forced to navigate an unending series of mirrors while battling through waves of assassins. Bad guys are coming out of every direction, and the viewer is constantly left engaged, darting their eyes all across to get a feel for the environment and how John can possibly win here. The fact that this fight manages to keep everything focused and precise despite how inherently disorienting this setup should be is a testament to how strong the filmmaking on display is here. This is one of those moments where I desperately want to see the behind-the-scenes featurette for, especially considering how you manage to never see the camera crew pop up once in this battle.
The movie’s world building is as strong here as last time, maintaining the fully formed lived-in feeling that suggests at least 6 movies must have existed before this one. The banter between Wick and his various enemies and allies offer an extremely substantial look at the world and the seedy assassin underground, with the most fun example of this being a scene where John seeks the help of a crime boss played by none other than Lawrence Fishburne. This encounter, like every other, treats Wick’s character with an immense amount of gravitas, as it’s clear that everyone has some kind of story or history with him, and the interplay between them all provides a strange sense of levity to the intense and bloody proceedings.
The strongest character relationship comes in the form of Wick’s rivalry/antagonism with two of the other major assassins in the story: Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (played by Common who delivers a surprisingly great turn as an action badass) and Santino’s security enforcer Ares: a mute assassin who speaks solely in sign language. Cassian and Ares make for extremely strong secondary villains, perhaps even more engaging than Santino himself. Wick vs. Cassian and Ares provide for some of the most bizarrely humorous bits throughout the film, such as when Wick and Cassian are forced to call off a fight because the Rome Continental hotel does not allow assassin business to be conducted there, so they just end up buying each other a round of a drinks. There’s another great moment during the film after the hit is put out on John Wick as he fights his way through the New York subway system. He encounters Cassian again, and the two engage in one of the most hysterically casual shootouts in film history, as the two stroll through a hallway firing silencers at each other as the crowd around them seems completely oblivious to everything around them.
But all of this action would ring hollow if there wasn’t a strong main character for it all to be built around, and thankfully John Wick himself remains one of the best characters (and probably my current favorite role) that Keanu Reeves has ever portrayed. Far from being a one-dimensional badass, the writing and acting manage to preserve a noticeable amount of complexity and nuance to the character. Continuing the character conflict from before, we see the effects of being dragged back into the criminal underworld seriously taking their toll on him. Despite the unnerving malice coming from his killer instinct, there’s a really tangible sense of regret and anxiety every time he’s forced into battle. The man just wants to live a normal life, but he’s constantly made aware that he may never be able to escape, and Keanu’s performance continues to sell you on those underlying emotions.
I could continue to go on about how ridiculously satisfying this film is, but nothing could match just actually watching it. John Wick: Chapter Two is a good sequel that expands on its predecessor, unveiling more of its crazy world while constantly delivering shotgun blasts (both literally and figuratively) of pure gnarly and bloody action at every turn.
Final verdict: Watch it in theaters. Watch it in theaters twice. Then buy the Blu-ray. Then watch John Wick 3. Then watch the spinoff about the dog. Dog Wick.