I happy to report John Wick: Chapter 2 is significantly stronger than its original 2014 predecessor, which was a surprisingly solid action flick. In fact, the sequel is really, really good – considerably better than most will give it credit. Filled with extraordinary action scenes supported by fantastic performances and a sturdy narrative arc, this movie proves tailor-made for fans of bloody action movie extravaganzas. Also, it just might convert moviegoers who typically dismiss these ultra-violent pictures into fellow gun-fu flick fanatics like myself.
Like all great sequels, John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t a simple retread of the original. Director Chad Stahelski and creator Derek Kolstad craft an interesting new story that not only further develops, but expands on, the world-building destruction of its titular hero.
Retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has made peace with the Tarasov family for stealing his car and killing his dog. However, we’re reminded that John could only retire and therefore be released from the criminal underworld if he completes an “impossible task.” Well in this sequel, Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio) tracks down John Wick, telling him time has come to complete that impossible task. After some ‘harsh negotiation’, John reluctantly accepts and embarks on the mission that will prove way more complicated than originally expected.
While I liked the original film’s story, I thought the script had structure issues past the first thirty minutes. That movie had didn’t heighten the stakes in-between each action scene, so they become less and less emotionally involving as the film progressed. Chapter 2, however, constantly elevates the stakes, giving each action sequence more meaning and thus more riveting. The screenplay is extremely well-structured, with the action scenes better reflecting the situation John is in as a character.
Too often movies will use action scenes as breaks from any character development. Keanu Reeves, screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and director Chad Stahelski always find opportunity to enhance the audience’s understanding of their hero among the machine guns and karate chops. This could be a simple facial expression by Reeves, a delicately dropped plot point by Kolstad, or a deliberate choice of scenery that symbolically mirrors John Wick’s emotional state by Stahelski.
Better still, this movie doesn’t just stop with presenting an engaging protagonist. The supporting cast of characters are fantastic with Laurence Fishburne, Common, Riccardo Scarmarcio, Ian McShance, Lance Reddick, Ruby Rose and even freaking Franco Nero (the original Django) all with critical supporting roles. Even bit players with only a single scene leave large impressions. It’s not unlike how older movies cast actors with a particular physical charisma and unforgettable face that could instantly communicate the character’s personality.
But as much as I am talking about characters, and that is key, I’m also happy to say the action scenes are extremely exciting. In my review of the latest xXx, I mentioned how the one exciting moment was when Donnie Yen actually performed real martial arts. But here, Keanu Reeves performs his martial arts stunts and that’s fantastic. His moves are convincing and fun to watch. Plus, the film draws on numerous other genres and techniques to create its own exciting style. I loved seeing some good gun-fu, lateral camera movements, and appreciated the handheld wide lens shots emulating great 70s cinemas.
Stahelski also uses his scenery to his utmost advantage. A subway, a sewer, and hall of mirrors (possibly influenced by French Connection, the Third Man, and Lady from Shanghai respectively) all motivate the fighting tactics used and make a more exciting scene. And the action scenes are built on tension, not just a total bombardment of fast moving, shaky images. I followed every frame without getting lost. Also, I never quite knew when a person who would get killed. I was surprised how and when each villain (and there are plenty) gets killed. The action scenes are constantly surprising, something rare among many of today’s predictable action sequences.
Alfred Hitchcock once said a good movie is worth the price of admission – and the babysitter. John Wick: Chapter 2 certainly fits into that category. Not just because it’s money well spent, but it’s definitely the sort where a babysitter is needed for a movie this violent. Like the original, here’s a film designed for the adult viewer, jettisoning the cartoonish buffoonery other lame-brained, watered-down action tricks that drag down lesser films. It’s an action masterpiece that takes the material seriously, a confident swing for the bleachers by filmmakers creating something sure to be remembered long after the opening weekend box-office.