When John Wick was released in 2014, it was a welcome surprise. In a cinematic era dominated by over-cut, poorly conceived blockbusters, Wick delivered slick, beautifully choreographed action sequences that took critics and the independent film world by storm. Keanu Reeves starred as the titular retired hitman, a welcome return for an actor whose past decade of work has been thoroughly middling. With Reeves’ stuntman Chad Stahelski co-directing, John Wick grossed over $85 million on a $20 million budget and welcomed quality back to the genre. Providing just enough story to justify ridiculous fight scenes proved to be a winning formula.
Stahelski takes sole directing credit in Chapter 2, and the budget has been doubled. But the core qualities of the first film remain intact. Like most sequels, the difference lies in the scale. Whereas the first chapter felt distinctly small and seemed content with existing on its own terms, Chapter 2 is bigger in every sense of the word. Wick travels around the globe, demolishes an absurd number of vehicles and venues and threatens the world’s supply of ammunition — all while dressed in a series of tight-fitting suits.
Reeves is the perfect leading man for this sort of picture. He spends a majority of the film bruised and speaks in robotic tones one line at a time, but like all great action heroes, he shows rather than tells. The 52-year-old actor has a long history of performing his own stunts, and he reportedly prepared for the role by training in judo, jiu-jitsu and marksmanship. The onscreen result is a protagonist who looks, sounds and acts like he is completely invincible. Reeves has never been more badass.
The plot expands on the original film’s backstory, but really only acts as an excuse to put Wick in the middle of highly stylized set pieces. After taking revenge on a mobster who stole his car in a heart-pounding opening sequence, the hitman returns home to find the villainous Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) demanding Wick’s services.
D’Antonio’s sister (Claudia Gerini) holds a seat at the High Table, the governing body of an international league of assassins. In order for Santino to gain power, Claudia needs to be assassinated. When Wick refuses, D’Antonio promptly destroys Wick’s house and forces him into action.
What follows is a two-hour adrenaline fest as Wick kicks, shoots and stabs his way through a ludicrous number of henchmen. This may sound like a brainless series of cliches, but what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 remarkable are the environments in which the fights occur. One notable sequence involving mirrors and an art exhibit is particularly mind-bending, and a showcase for Stahelski’s skill behind the camera.
But the world that Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad build around Wick and his adversaries is the true star. Wick regularly employs the services of outwardly normal people (a homeless man, a seamstress, a sommelier) who are all aligned with the criminal underworld. Stahelski slowly reveals this wide-reaching league of assassins with a tongue planted firmly in his cheek. What would normally appear ridiculous is portrayed as absolutely normal to the characters. The result is a vaguely surreal universe, populated by a stunningly original gallery of allies and enemies, at which it is easy to both laugh and marvel.
Plenty of complaints can be leveled against this film. The plot is thin, the characters are parodies, and the entire ordeal acts more or less as a trailer for the inevitable third film, but when a movie accomplishes what it sets out to do with such style and heart-pounding skill, it’s easy to ignore the flaws and just have fun. John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of those movies. It’s dark, ferocious, and the most perfect action film in years.