John Wick: Chapter 2 is well-named. It picks up at the end of the last movie as simply as if we’ve flipped a page in a book. After the impossibly cool opening sequence, our eponymous hitman tracks down his beloved muscle car, stylishly dispatches a number of faceless goons, and returns home with his new dog, seemingly glad that his foray back into the world of professional killers is at an end. Of course, it isn’t.
A fellow traveler of the hitman underworld shows up on his doorstep, calling in an old favor to demand Wick return to the world he has now tried to leave for the second time. Wick refuses, and as punishment for his refusal, his house is blown up, inspiring him to go off to Europe on a vengeful tour of death and destruzzzzz……
Sorry, Your Reviewer nodded off there for a second. Truthfully, Your Reviewer thinks plot synopses are boring to write and even boring-er to read, and so begs your forgiveness for going light on that part.
What’s important is the plot of John Wick: Chapter 2 works. It cleverly follows in its predecessor’s footsteps, throwing new challenges at its main character, delving further into the underworld of assassins he lives in, and just generally doing that perfect sequel dance of giving its audience more of the same, but different.
Indeed, one of the traits that distinguishes the John Wick franchise from most of its other mid-budget action kin is how strong its sense of identity is. The first movie took place in a kooky alternate universe that seemed to be partially founded on all the unanswered questions of other action movies (for example: Who cleans up the mess these guys leave?). Chapter 2 fleshes the world out, showing how these people operate internationally and exploring some of the darker corners of their society at home. At virtually every moment, there’s a distinct approach here that separates it from the action-movie herd.
In a way that’s almost reminiscent of, say, the Blade movies, the Wick series has a grammar and aesthetic that’s all its own.
Which renders it a joy to watch. A typically fun sequence features Wick gearing up for a hit, which in this universe means talking to the hotel’s “sommelier” about which particular combination of weapons is best suited for the assassination event. Like a foodie deciding on the perfect wine to pair with a particular sort of fish, or a socialite nailing down the perfect suit to wear to the opera, there’s a high-society discernment to the way these guys do business that’s both pretentious and genuinely cool.
It shows up in the small details, too. There’s a great moment where Wick pulls out his smartphone after a brawl only to discover the screen is cracked. As he makes a couple futile stabs at the device, the old-school black rotary phone next to him rings. In a world where even prestige action titles like Jason Bourne have descended into tedious technobabble and repetitive gimmicks, the old-school class vibe of the Wick series is a filmgoer’s relief.
Similarly refreshing is the feeling of watching an action movie that actually knows how to show action. Returning director Chad Stahelski isn’t interested in lying to the audience with bad choreography and shaky camerawork. The fights here are reminiscent of the first, with shooting and editing that focuses on showcasing the extraordinary work done by star Keanu Reeves, an assortment of colorful character actors, and the stunt team assembled around them.
The violence takes its toll, of course. It doesn’t spoil anything to say that by the time John Wick (the movie) reaches its kaleidoscopic hall-of-mirrors climax, John Wick (the man) has been faced with some fairly unsympathetic questions about whether or not he actually wants the peace he claims to seek. This is kinda bad for you, the movie seems to suggest. But isn’t it fun?
In this way, John Wick becomes a stand-in for us, the audience who likes to pretend we want resolution to his story when really what we want is an excuse to watch him chew through baddies with ever-cooler weapons and ever-sicker martial arts moves.
Viewers can draw their own conclusions about all this, but suffice it to say the thematic through-line of all this mayhem is pretty interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing. DISCLAIMER: Your Reviewer is into that sort of thing.
And even for those who aren’t, that John Wick: Chapter 2 is able to be this self-critical without ever sacrificing the fun factor, is further evidence of how much control the filmmakers exert over this movie.
As the quote atop this review indicates, John Wick struggles with retiring. Let’s hope the guys in charge of his movies are similarly afflicted.
–David Rice, Outpost editor & fx artist