“He did warn you.”
After his rampage in the first film, assassin extraordinaire John Wick is no longer viewed as retired, causing long buried ties to resurface. Forced to take on a task in Europe, Wick soon finds himself with another personal beef to resolve. Violence ensues.
Some of the questions I had going into John Wick Chapter 2 weren’t answered positively. The first film has such a simple, primal story to frame all of that brilliant inventive action. Could a sequel find something similarly urgent without treading the same ground?
It’s no lazy rework, but the story isn’t as good. It’s not linear enough to allow it to build momentum as easily, and it’s only in the last 40 minutes that it really feels urgent. The airy second quarter in particular feels like a segment of a story that’s less significant than the first film. John Wick got it so right, quickly establishing the character and his motivation, and it was always going to be a struggle to match that in John Wick Chapter 2.
If I had to pinpoint the major problem, though, it would be with my line of questioning, because the story issues prove to be a minor hindrance in the return of Keanu Reeves’ action hero. John Wick Chapter 2, while falling a little short of the original, is a terrific and massively satisfying action film.
Writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski, both returning from the first John Wick, pack each action sequence with a wealth of originality. It’s never contrived, but there’s always a new fight move, an interesting location, a weird looking character and some horrifying and surprising way that their face is being destroyed. This is detail oriented action cinema, where there’s so much to take in that the film demands repeat viewings. The fights in this film are exceptional.
John Wick Chapter 2 is always visually engaging. In the world of John Wick, no one ever walks past anything boring. The use of colour is eye catching and and lively. It’s a film to be seen with the image bright and the sound turned up loud (the punishing sound design deserves to be heard at the sort of volume where you question whether you might be damaging your ears).
The villains all look interesting. There are so many of them that there isn’t enough screen time in the world to fill them all in. But you can visibly distinguish each one, and each look suggests a bit of character. It is so effective in making the world real. Be it Peter Stormare’s delightfully sleazy, cigar chomping mobster or Riccardo Scamarcio’s Santino, an immaculately dressed greasy cherub.
We’ve all seen sequels and prequels so enamoured by the details of their predecessor that they shrink the world they take place in. Here, the nods to John Wick are mixed in with additions that grow the legend of the character and enrich the world. They’re able to retain the air of mystery around John Wick, which is desperately important to making the character work.
John Wick Chapter 2 is unpredictable. Not in an immediately obvious sense; we all know that hyper-skilled face shooter Wick will end up committing haunting acts of violence against countless opponents. Rather, the unknown is in the build. We don’t when he’s going to stop and talk, we don’t know when the jokes are coming and we don’t know when he’s going to fight and if it’s doing to be a punch up, shoot-out or knife fight. It cannily uses misdirection, too, building scenes around our action movie expectations before subverting them by having Wick do something at odds with what we’ve braced ourselves for. All of this serves to make the film tenser. An added sense of paranoia later in the film heightens the atmosphere further.
It’s funny, too. It makes you laugh like a decent horror movie can. Those are tension relief laughs and they are incredibly satisfying. They come from character moments from the wonderful supporting cast or from action movie tough guy lines, delivered knowingly by Reeves from writer Derek Kolstad’s self-aware script.
Keanu Reeves is, again, wonderful as John Wick. Reeves is able to sell cooler than cool Wick, a physically and emotionally vulnerable action hero who can commit jaw dropping acts of violence while still seeming entirely sympathetic and likeable. It’s important that we acknowledge the physical performance Reeves puts in, too; we can see that Reeves is taking part in many of these elaborately choreographed fights and he’s brilliant in them. While the cast are uniformly great, Ian McShane demands mention, putting in a performance rich in swagger.
Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is so elegant and stylish that nothing short of the slickest of shoot ‘em up would suffice. That perfect match of character to film makes John Wick Chapter 2 a triumph of genre filmmaking, a visually stunning action sequel that will have you wincing yourself stupid. If this is how sequels to John Wick are going to turn out, roll on Chapter 3.
John Wick Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from Friday.