JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2
By Nathan Evans
I’m not going to bury the lead here: ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is one of the greatest actions films of the past decade, if not one of the greatest action films of all time. The film is the follow up to 2014’s ‘John Wick’; a movie that had no reason to be as good as it was. In fact, when I saw the trailer for the original film I rolled my eyes pretty hard. A hitman comes out of retirement to avenge his dog? Don’t get me wrong: I was GOING to see it, but I was expecting a few cheap chuckles, some fun action sequences, and to forget about the whole thing the second I walked out of the theater. That’s not at all what happened.
Stuntmen turned co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s original entry was a clever, darkly comedic shoot ’em up, powered by veteran action star Keanu Reeves, that featured a surprising amount of efficient world building that rivaled that of the original ‘Star Wars’. It was a spare, moody, straightforward revenge tale that actually allowed its audience to witness the action onscreen with its careful camera placement and patient editing; an outlier in today’s ‘Bourne Identity’/ Paul Greengrass, shaky cam inspired action climate (I’m not knocking that technique by the way. I refer you to my five star review of last year’s ‘Jason Bourne’).
I’m happy to say that director Chad Stahelski, flying solo this time, repeats the success of the first film with even greater results. Keanu Reeves returns as the title character known to the criminal underworld as The Baba Yaga, or The Boogeyman, or Death’s Emissary; whichever you prefer. The film picks up where the last one left off, with John attempting to resolve one of the plot threads that was left dangling: the retrieval of his beloved muscle car from the Russian gangsters that stole it. Of course this results in an extended, impressive scene of vehicular mayhem that sets a hard hitting tone the rest of the film is all too willing to follow.
From there John seeks to return to his peaceful retirement, but the waves made by his brief resurgence draws in a nefarious character, Santino D’Antonio, a name that seems to fill even the likes of John Wick with fear. John owes D’Antonio a hit, a contract he initially refuses to fulfill, which of course leaves D’Antonio with no choice but to blow up John’s house. With no home to return to and no other recourse, John agrees to D’Antonio’s terms, a choice that sets off a series of events that begins with John executing D’Antonio’s wishes, and eventually leads to almost the entirety of New York City’s murderous contractors attempting to execute John.
Much like the first film, the plot of the movie creates a framework for Stahelski and his veteran stunt team to craft a film filled to the brim with relentless action sequences that features John Wick’s signature brand of martial artistry: Gun-Fu; a unique style of fighting, introduced by the first film, with a focus on gravity defying Kung-Fu and Brazilian Jujitsu moves modified to incorporate a gun nut’s dream selection of firearms. Reeves, an actor well in his quinquagenarian years, pulls off the stylish martial art better than an actor half his age, and he does it throughout most of the film’s runtime. ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ just might feature the highest body count I’ve ever seen in a film to date; nearly all of them death by headshot of course.
Not only does the film boast a tremendous amount of thrilling action sequences, but the droll, twisted sense of humor from the first film also returns; only this time Stahelski and the film’s screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, have an even better handle on it. As I previously mentioned, I was a fan of the humor in the original ‘Wick’, but I felt it began to run amok a bit by the end of the film. This time around Stahelski doesn’t allow it to eclipse the movie’s dark tone. The humor is baked into the film’s DNA to the point that you almost don’t realize you’re laughing at the increasingly ridiculous violence onscreen.
One of the most impressive aspects, though, is the way in which the film builds upon the assassin’s underworld even further. What we saw in ‘John Wick’ really was just the tip of the iceberg. To continue the comparison to ‘Star Wars’, ‘Chapter 2’ does exactly what ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and all great sequels should do: it gives us the full scope of the world the film lives in, and that world is terrifying in its enormity. Who knew there were that many people in the killing business, let alone that there were that many people that needed to be killed?
Rounding out the former’s number are rapper turned actor, Common, as a rival assassin named Cassian, and Ruby Rose as D’Antonio’s right hand woman, Ares; a mute bodyguard who communicates through sign language; a cool choice as it allows the filmmakers to play with John Wick’s stylized subtitles even more. You may remember Rose from last month’s awful ‘xXx: The Return of Xander Cage’. As I stated in that review, she was the best thing in that film and she’s a welcome addition here, almost stealing the show from Keanu himself. I emphasize the word almost, because Keanu is revelatory here.
I don’t know if Reeves and fellow action star Tom Cruise are in some kind of competition to see who can stay younger longer by kicking the most ass, but Reeves outpaces Cruise with this film. Yes, his athleticism in the film is jaw dropping, but his growth as a performer is nothing to downplay either. John Wick feels like the perfect fit for the actor, and Keanu uses the character to deliver the best performance of his career. You read that right, in my mind John Wick overshadows Neo and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan as Reeves’ defining character.
Other than an important scene (which I won’t spoil) that I feel is too graphic for the film (an odd nitpick seeing as how the film is already hyper violent), I really have no complaints when it comes to ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’. The film is superior to the already excellent original, and it’s confident enough to set up a sequel (with one of the best end sequences I’ve ever seen in a film) that I hope comes to pass. I can’t get enough of the film’s comic book cinematography and the video game logic that powers the action sequences. It’s probably the purest film of its genre, and it’s most definitely not to be missed.
RATING: 5 OUT OF 5