When John Wick came out in 2014, it was hailed as a welcome return to action for star Keanu Reeves, playing a stoic, haunted hit man seeking revenge for that most emotionally manipulative (and effective) of motives: the murder of his dog. But while Reeves was a reliably solid if inexpressive presence in the role, what really set John Wick apart was the stylish work of directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch: former stuntmen, they had a sharp instinct for clean, straight storytelling, some striking world-building, and, best of all, in a genre where it was often absent, a commanding sense of how to coherently stage, shoot, and edit action scenes.
The inch-deep narrative and occasional dumb movie moments (including one whopper in the middle of the film that took this viewer clean out of the rest of the picture) stopped John Wick from being an instant classic, but John Wick: Chapter 2 may very well earn that accolade. Superior in almost every way to its predecessor, Chapter 2 – directed solely by Stahelski this time while Leitch goes off to make Deadpool 2 – is a gorgeous and frequently dazzling film to look at, while expanding the surreal world that the first movie hinted at and delivering a jaw-dropping array of action and violence.
The new movie picks up almost right where John Wick left off, as our assassin sets out in the opening scene to retrieve the beloved 1969 Mustang that was stolen from him in the first film. Laying waste to a warehouse full of Russian mobsters in a bravura sequence, Wick returns home, finally certain he can retire for good – until Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (a suavely malevolent Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up and demands that Wick make good on D’Antonio’s “marker,” a gold piece that compels the assassin presented with it to repay a past favor.
In this case, Wick is tasked with taking out D’Antonio’s own sister (Claudia Gerini), who heads the Camorra crime syndicate and has a seat on the High Table, a consortium of criminal organizations that includes the Continental, the international assassins’ guild of which Wick is a member. Even an appeal to Winston (Ian McShane), chieftain of the Continental, can’t get Wick out of his obligation, so he reluctantly ventures to Rome where he must confront and defeat an army of criminals while trying to preserve what’s left of his life.
One of the most distinctive aspects of John Wick was the introduction of the Continental, the shadowy society of assassins that seemed to operate in a world just out of sight of ours. The existence of the organization, with its arcane rules and code of honor, added a layer of surreal atmosphere to the first movie that the sequel enhances tremendously. We get a better sense of just how large this secret society is (the European branch, complete with plush hotel just like the New York headquarters, is ruled by Italian genre favorite Franco Nero), how it’s part of the larger High Table, and how vast its reach is, but what makes it work is that the whole structure is never over-explained or laden with any extensive origin story. Its existence is just a given in the offbeat universe that these films have developed.
Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad have worked to introduce a more colorful supporting cast this time around, getting away from the generic Russian gangsters of the first film (although we do get a great Peter Stormare cameo as one). Common and Ruby Rose are as different as you can imagine, but both play fellow assassins – the former working for D’Antonio’s sister, the latter on D’Antonio’s payroll – who are sworn to slaughter Wick but also acknowledge their respect for him (Common and Reeves shine in a mid-movie bar scene that sets up the dynamic gracefully).
The film is also peppered with smaller characters like the Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz), who arms Reeves to the teeth yet lovingly describes each new weapon as if in a wine cellar. The only new character that goes somewhat astray is Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, head of a network of homeless killers living under the streets of New York. In a film that does so much with so little dialogue, his overly wordy scene slows things down to a near standstill and – the fun of the mini-Matrix reunion aside – is the only wrong move in the film’s otherwise staccato pacing.
As for Reeves, he is exactly the same as in the first film, but his stiff, clipped demeanor works here to his advantage. Stahelski keeps large swaths of John Wick: Chapter 2 as non-verbal as possible, and his eye for unusual images, fully controlled sense of geography and spatial relationships, and mastery of action drives stretches of the film without anyone uttering barely a word. Perhaps the single most stunning moment is an extended sequence that takes place in a neon-lit house of mirrors, with Reeves, Rose, and Scamarcio all chasing each other through a beautiful kaleidoscope of glass and color that is the kind of feast for the eyes you just don’t see in most raggedly shot action films.
The film, of course, leaves the story open-ended and lays out the premise for a third chapter, but for once you leave the theater energized and inspired instead of exhausted and nursing a headache. Taking a little from Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, and a bit more from the early work of John Woo, John Wick: Chapter 2 is as close to pure cinema as an action movie can come.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is out in theaters Friday, Feb. 10.