2014’s John Wick appeared pretty much out of nowhere and was quickly embraced by action fans of all stripes as a potential new genre classic. It was not so much the character or storyline that made John Wick such an enjoyable piece of action filmmaking though; it’s premise was a weary one, former elite killer comes out of retirement for revenge after being wronged, even if it had a somewhat novel spin in that it was John Wick’s dog that got killed to provoke him rather than his wife. The great success of the film was two-fold, first in its manner of choreographing its action scenes, employing long takes and practical effects which really helped it stand out in a world fill of quick edits and massive CGI explosions, but also the world it presented.
John Wick takes place in a world that superficially resembles the real one yet is populated almost entirely by criminals, many of whom, like Wick, work in a fascinating underground network in which employees abide by a strict code and specific hotels act as sanctuaries and armouries. It’s a fun concept that was ripe for expansion in a sequel, and that’s just what John Wick: Chapter 2 does.
In many ways this is a sequel that does almost everything right, it builds upon the world of the original while retaining every aspect if it’s appeal. It achieves this by not simply going about trying to repeat and one-up its predecessor at every turn as well – you might be pleased to learn that John Wick’s new dog is just fine.
The film picks up right where the first left off with an action-packed opening scene in which Wick (Keanu Reeves) emerges from the shadows to take out a whole bunch of goons working for Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare) the brother of the first film’s villain who is currently in possession of Wick’s car. Enjoyable as the scene is, it’s actually more of a fun piece of misdirection, it effectively re-introduces the protagonist but Stormare’s character isn’t in the film otherwise and the sequence, while initially appearing to tease a typical family revenge plotline is actually unrelated to the film’s driving force story-wise.
Instead we soon learn of a new aspect to the assassin’s code called ‘Markers’, these are effectively favours owed that must be fulfilled upon request, and Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio)has one on Wick, which now he’s emerged from retirement, he must deliver on. Again, the film manages to retain a level on unpredictability though, as it looks to be setting up Wick carrying out this task as the movie’s endgame, but in fact it’s just the conclusion of the first act, with the main film revolving around Wick being prey rather than predator.
The film is clearly in possession of a higher budget than its predecessor, and returning director Chad Stahelski (working solo this time after co-directing the original) makes the most of it, sending Wick off to Italy and staging one of the film’s major set-pieces during a lavish party taking place around some ancient Roman site. He still shows some restraint though, holding off on the action after the film’s opening sequence for some time. It’s a decision that pays off, as when the action sequences come they’re every bit as, if not more impressive than the first’s. The movie unleashes Reeves to perform a monumental number of kills in a variety of different ways; we even get to see just how he’s able to take out three men using only a pencil. Stahelski shoots these scenes in a similar manner to the original, opting for longer smother takes and only appears to utilise CGI for blood spatter, something far more effective than it might sound.
Another highly entertaining aspect of the movie is the more we see of the Continental Hotel chain, apparently they exist all over the world and we get to see just how Wick prepares to carry out his task, acquiring all the necessary equipment in a series of amusing exchanges with other employees there. Such sequences further add more detail to world of the film, with odd little touches like everyone being able to speak whatever language is required and using some upper-class jargon to refer to their equipment, along with the Hotel’s usage of a mixture of modern and older technology to communicate that help the film feel even more unique.
These scenes also feature a number of amusing cameos from the likes of Franco Nero and Peter Serafinowicz in a particularly memorable role as “the Sommelier”. There are also a few returning cast members such as Lance Reddick and Ian McShane who gets a slightly larger role as the New York Continental’s manager. There are a few more newer characters who make a decent impression as well, such as Common as a rival assassin almost as adept as Wick, and with whom he shares a number of fantastic fight scenes, and a Matrix reunion with Laurence Fishburne turning up as a scenery-chewing underground crime lord. Most striking of all though, is probably Ruby Rose as a mute assassin who squares up against Wick on a number of occasions. Communicating only via facial expressions and sign language, which of course Wick understands, seeing Rose in this so soon after the inferior xXx: The Return of Xander Cage makes me think someone should give her an action lead soon enough.
The other aspect of the John Wick world I greatly admire is how Stahelski completely nails the tone; it’s a very violent movie with a gigantic body count, but by having it take place in an unrealistic world, Stahelski carefully balances having the violence possess weight and consequence whilst simultaneously allowing the audience to revel in in. It’s the kind of movie that can introduce something quite silly like bullet-proof suits but still have it matter when Wick gets hurt.
John Wick may well prove to be a definitive action franchise of the 2010s, and indeed Keanu Reeves’ most iconic role. Chapter 2 is a sequel every bit as satisfying as the original, and one I can’t imagine disappointing any fans of the first. It concludes by pulling off the tricky feat of wrapping up in a gratifying manner while setting up a further intriguing premise for another sequel, and one I sincerely hope gets made.