‘John Wick’ was nothing short of a palate cleanser for the action-movie-featuring-a-grizzled-star subgenre, that had suffered for years from terrible sequels to ‘Taken’ starring Liam Neeson (the franchise’s first film was arguably the tinder that fired up this recent surplus of copycat flicks) and rip-offs like ‘The Gunman’ with Sean Penn. ‘John Wick’ was stylish, brilliantly choreographed and executed by an actor with genuine martial arts chops. What’s more, it was properly smart, plotting a lean story through a fascinating criminal underground that fizzed with cool touches like its own currency and an elaborate network of services like clean-up crews and hotels.
The good news is that ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ does everything that a good sequel should; it largely sticks to its guns (meaning that it features a lot of guns), but it also pushes out against the frontier of its predecessor, deepening the mythology and expanding the world through which John moves. Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad have both returned to the fold after the first film; they know exactly what the audience wants from the budding franchise, and they know how to deliver it in its purest form.
The first sequence gives us a condensed introduction to John through the eyes of his prey, a Russian gangster (Peter Stormare) who is also the brother of the last film’s antagonist (fittingly the character responsible for making the same, fearful introduction in ‘Chapter 1’). John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a legendary assassin known as Baba Yaga, or The Bogeyman, a spectre that haunted any crook’s nightmares, until John retired from his life of violence for love. After being dragged back into his bloody trade after the death of his wife in ‘Chapter 1’, John has one last target before returning to his well-earned downtime: the car he had stolen from him in ‘Chapter 1’.
It’s a fine way to start an action film – the driving stunts are in-your-face and ferociously precise, while the hand-to-hand combat is bone-crunching and believable. Reeves pulls off the moves with confidence, though that’s not to say with ease – every blow leaves its mark, every breath he draws gets more ragged than the last. Though a dogged and skilled fighter, Wick is the antithesis of the today’s seemingly immortal superheroes, and inhabiting his skin is Reeves, the most believable American action star working today. Carrying over the emphasis on long, unbroken takes from the last movie, it never gets old witnessing Reeves carrying out Wick’s custom brand of ‘gun fu’, dripping with efficiency and brutality. It looks sleek too, the screen washed with the palette of a city draped in night, lights reflecting off chrome, concrete tinted orange under streetlights.
Retirement doesn’t seem to have time for John – no sooner has he returned home than an old, Italian acquaintance and a blood oath made long ago reappear on John’s radar, drawing him back into the murky underworld to carry out an assassination in Rome. Taking the action abroad is another clever move from the script – it inherently widens the scope while replicating the pleasure of uncovering the secret world hidden in plain sight in New York that was so valuable to ‘Chapter 1’, albeit with an Italian flavour. The Italians have their own hitman’s hotel, run by Julius (Franco Nero), and one of the more fun scenes occurs when John visits an armourer called the Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz) to tool up.
The movie plays out in four broad movements: John hunting in Rome, John being hunted in Rome, John being hunted in New York, John hunting in New York. It’s not as cleanly streamlined as ‘Chapter 1’ (which was John hunting in New York from start to finish), but these distinct passages do differentiate the plot at least. In amongst the hunters and hunted are bodyguard Cassian (Common, a strong foil for Reeves), mute enforcer Ares (Ruby Rose, a little melodramatic), crime lords Gianna and Santino D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini and Riccardo Scamarcio, both excellent in very different roles), and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, magnetic, and enjoying a nice ‘Matrix’ reunion with Reeves). In New York, the always brilliant Ian McShane and Lance Reddick return to their roles of Winston and Charon from ‘Chapter 1’. However, it ultimately doesn’t matter how good any of these actors are, because there’s no wresting control over any scene in the film from Reeves.
There’s an interesting existential crisis at the heart of the ‘John Wick’ movies: can a man ever really change? John wants to leave his past where it is, but it always manages to drag him back into his former self, and when he wears his old skin so well, should it really be considered old? Unsurprisingly, ‘Chapter 2’ lays the groundwork for further mulling of this question in ‘Chapter 3’, but it manages to do so in a surprising, haunting way. I don’t exactly know where the next instalment will go from here, but the one thing we can bet on is that John Wick will still be ‘a man of determination, commitment and sheer will’.
In summation, I want to paraphrase a line that I read in another online review of the movie: “The action sequences in this movie are like an orchestra and Johnathan Wick is the conductor.” Lucky for us, Wick is as good a conductor as I’ve ever seen.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting