It only took two movies, but the filmmaking in the John Wick series has finally lived up to the hype.
Being the living embodiment of the Slowpoke meme, I missed out on the first John Wick and the incredible hype that surrounded it. When I came to the table, I really loved the characters and the action but hated a lot of the structure and its main villain (people should have learned not to cast Michael Nyqvist as their big baddie who must fight the hero in hand to hand combat after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and honestly I didn’t really get why people went bug nuts for it. It’s pretty much the same DTV action (although with much less camera-shaking) I’ve been watching my entire life but with three major differences: A great deal of heart, an intriguing private world of assassins, and a lot of encouragement from other critics that it was alright to like it. The sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2 keeps the critical adoration and the world of the assassins, and loses much of the heart within its story.
After an opening that sees Wick kill more Russians than cirrhosis, all in pursuit of the car stolen from him in the last film, Keanu Reeves’ John returns home to a state of blissful normal. He and his play fetch, he hangs up his guns, and he’s looking to get his car fixed up. Of course, it wouldn’t be a John Wick movie without some Eurovillany invoking some sequelitis nonsense, in this case a blood oath or some shit, in order to get Wick back into action, and this time, they blow up his house. Wick is tasked with going to Rome to kill a member of the high council of Assassins by her brother, who wants her seat at the table, and of course he doesn’t have any way out of this because of arcane rules enforced by dudes like Ian McShane (reprising his role as the owner of the assassin safe haven Continental hotel from the last film). Of course it’s a double cross, so John’s got to avoid getting his ass killed by folks like Common and Orange is the New Black star Ruby Rose, all while plotting his revenge with help from folks like hobo king of New York Laurence Fishburne.
First, let’s get this out of the way. This has some of the worst “we need the main character to come back and do things so we’ve got to force him to do it” sequel nonsense I’ve seen in a modern action film, and I think that undermines a little bit why people liked the first one. Wick was an active character in that movie, making choices that affected the people around him, like deciding who to kill first and what kind of headshot to do it with. I jest, but he had proper motivation for going out and kicking ass — Alfie Allen ruined his post-wife life with a dumb home invasion and a dead dog. That motivation was a little silly, but it connected with people by way of both cheap emotional manipulation (killing a pupper will never not be this) and the outright ballsiness of that cheap emotional manipulation. This time, he’s forced to do it by a plot device that puts him under the thumb of the villains for the whole film, and it renders John a passive character, floating from setpiece to setpiece. It’s weirdly demoralizing, and rips a lot of the heart right out of the film like Mola Ram in Temple of Doom. Also, it’s amazing how these rules work in the moment but feels totally useless and annoying once the theater’s a fond and distant memory. They’re just kind of dumb when you get down to it, and if not for the aesthetics of the Assassin world I think people would hop on it as a point of criticism.
Happily, these are minor quibbles and I can tell you outright that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a straight-up masterpiece of clear and concise action filmmaking. Director Chad Stahelski is firing on all cylinders here, and it’s incredibly inspiring to watch. The same solid action filmmaking that defined the first one is back, with its clear geography and progression, and they really put into work establishing these locations. Simply having Wick walk through one of the areas he’s planning to escape from and dropping weapons all over the place does wonders for the action sequence that’s going to come later. The clarity means that, instead of one collective “oh shit!” moment that a lot of DTV-type movies hold until the end, there’s almost 30 in one collective sequence at any given point in this movie. And the humor. Thank god for the humor. This sequel continues the first’s ethos of “Reality? Who gives a shit about that?” and because of that we get some incredibly funny humor buried in the action. There’s a scene involving silencers that fucking killed in my theater, and it just works beautifully as a rejection of Bourne-style realism for the fun of the moment. There are two sequences in this film that are all-timers in terms of action, and that’s not counting the two that are just merely better than anything we’ve seen in the past two years.
Reeves, of course, is stellar as always.
Wick is truly the perfect role for him, and it’s a much better fit than always being the second half of a Socratic dialogue like he was in The Matrix movies or the legion of almost-franchises that kept him afloat in the aughts. He gives a lovely intensity to everything he does, and his typical aloofness only enhances the character’s aura of danger. It also helps to amplify the performances around him, especially Fishburne’s wonderfully wacky scene-chewing, and it’s nice to see the two of them on screen again after all of these years. The other performers hold up well, especially Rose and the gun-toting sommelier played by Peter Serafinowicz, and there’s a really lovely cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero, that gives some true cred to the Rome setting. There really isn’t any weak spot amongst the ranks.
All in all, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a marked improvement on the original in every area but story, and that’s still enough for me to heartily recommend it to any fan of Reeves or action or what have you. Given that the ending sets up an intense-sounding Chapter 3, I’m really excited to see what Reeves and company are able to conjure up for the third installment, and I know they’ll bring creative action to the table and some excellent humor. All I’m asking for is a little more of the heart behind the action, as it typically makes these things go better together. We get to care about who’s getting shot in the head and why they deserve to have their brains splattered all over the wall, as opposed to just sitting back and oohing and ahhing.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.