In September 2014, I laid eyes on the poster for a goofy-looking Keanu Reeves movie called “John Wick.”
“Here we go,” I thought. “It’s ‘47 Ronin’ all over again.” Surely it would be another flop in Reeves’ unfortunate attempt at a post-“Matrix” career. But, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s first “John Wick” film was a symphonic opera of bullets, blood and brutality. It established a neat underground world of suave and dignified hitmen while reinstating the astonishingly physical Reeves as a virtuoso action star who threw himself into every stunt.
Now, Stahelski has gone solo in facing the high expectations that come with following up a cult hit. Wick’s blend of John Woo and James Bond is no longer a surprise, so it is now up to the story to match up with the action sequences.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” picks up almost immediately after the first film. Our favorite bullet-blasting ballet dancer has just gotten his car back and is finally ready for some R&R with his new nameless dog. However, serenity is short-lived as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a figure from Wick’s past to whom he owes a blood oath, comes back into the picture. He asks Wick to assassinate his sister Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini) so that he can take her seat on the hit man council. Wick initially refuses, but after Santino D’Antonio takes a grenade launcher to his house, he becomes a little more flexible. Naturally, things don’t quite end up that simple, with this mission eventually pitting Wick against virtually every hit man and hit woman in the world.
The original film got a ton of mileage out of a very simple premise. Boy gets dog, boy loses dog, boy kills everybody even remotely responsible for taking dog. This second chapter is a bit more convoluted and as a result, takes a little while to get going.
As we wait for the action to kick into high-gear, Reeves has to carry things a bit more with non-violent performing, which is rarely a good choice. While he was equally emotive and intimidating last time around, a lot of that came from not giving him a great deal of dialogue. He has a great deal more here and a lot of it is a little weak. He never enters “Parenthood” or “Dracula” territory but he’s a lot less imposing when he’s forced into conversation.
A lot of the mystique that the first film established gets whittled down in this first half. We find out a lot more about The Continental hotel and the way the whole assassin society functions and frankly, it benefited from being mysterious. That isn’t to say that what we see is bad. In fact, a great deal of it draws from some of the best elements of Connery-era Bond films. However, a few of the new world-building tidbits and characters are pretty silly, and not in the self-aware vein that the returners from the first film (Ian McShane and John Leguizamo) were. Laurence Fishburne, in particular, embarrasses himself in an overtly hammy performance as the leader of a branch of assassins that pretend to be homeless people. I wish I was making that up.
All of these flaws might have sunk “John Wick: Chapter 2” into disappointment territory if the monumentally stylish action didn’t return in full force. Fortunately, Stahelski does his best to somehow up the ante from the original, and it succeeds for the most part. We get plenty of the perfectly-filmed, headshot-ridden shootouts from before, but Stahelski isn’t satisfied to stop there. The second half of this film is comprised of one insane moment after another. Several hand-to-hand combat scenes between Reeves and Common, who plays the most vexed assassin on Wick’s tail, just might break a couple of bones in the audience. In fact, every confrontation between hitmen is a stone-cold stunner, with Stahelski taking full advantage of the environment, weapons and different physical capabilities of Wick’s opponents. It becomes the assassin war movie that “Wanted” could only dream of being.
Reeves really starts to shine in these sequences. His dedication to the stunt work is nothing short of inspiring. You can tell he’s had years of martial arts training and knows how to handle a gun. A great deal of time is spent establishing Wick as a deity of violence and Reeves gives us that in spades. The work he puts in is what allows Stahelski to create such amazing action, as he never has to cut away to hide a stuntman.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” largely lacks the simplicity and spontaneity of its remarkably robust predecessor. It grinds under the weight of everything it’s trying to establish and while the enhanced world building is certainly appreciated, it doesn’t always work. However, Stahelski does deliver enough stylistic carnage to largely mute those flaws. By the time the climax hits, we’re as invested in the world of Wick as we were before, and a solid final cliffhanger hints at a promising first installment. It’s not the instant classic that came before, but it certainly earns a few gold Continental coins in its own right.