Like the character himself, John Wick came out of nowhere and shot audiences in the face. It is a rarity: an action-thriller that uses minimal CGI and is based on an original idea. The screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, created a deeply mythologized underground world of assassins, one that is so firmly entrenched that it has its own hotels and currency. The directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, were career stuntmen working at the helm for the very first time, in deep concert with their star, Keanu Reeves, who was perfectly cast as a human lightning bolt of destruction. They visualize the extensive combat of the film in wide framing, like an old-school musical, so as to more fully realize the dance of death in which Mr. Wick is always leading, and never led. The punches hit hard, the gunshots are loud, and the body count is high. Stahelski, working on his own this time, has done the seemingly impossible again by making a sequel that is even better than the original and that expands upon its impressive groundwork. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the Godfather: Part II of shoot-em-up cinema.
Wick (Reeves), in the wake of his return to the criminal underworld, is called up by a former associate, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), to repay a debt. Wick initially refuses, so D’Antonio blows up his awesome house – and not his dog, thankfully – forcing Wick to accept an assignment to kill D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), whose seat at the head of the Camorra D’Antonio craves. Wick makes for Rome, where he finds Gianna and kills her, after which D’Antonio double-crosses him and burdens him with a $7 million bounty, a process that involves notifying every hitman and -woman in New York and loosing them onto Wick’s trail. Wick is also on the run from Cassian (Common), Gianna’s loyal bodyguard, as well as Ares (Ruby Rose), the deaf but lethal head of D’Antonio’s goon squad.
I hate to give away this much plot detail, despite the fact that story isn’t much of a priority in the John Wick films. We’re here to watch Reeves obliterate waves of humanity in the most stylish, brutal manner possible. There is something to be said for the fact that at first, John Wick: Chapter 2 seems to be headed down a similar path of the first film. Wick has been wronged and is out for absolution by whatever means possible. His objective is to murder Gianna, up to which Stahelski builds with more of the fanciful details of the first film – we watch as Wick is literally outfitted with a bulletproof suit, an embarrassing amount of weaponry, and the plans to the catacombs beneath Rome. Then he gets the job done, more or less without issue, and it’s less than 45 minutes into the two-hour runtime. The realization that this second chapter has something more up its sleeve is one of the great pleasures of this film.
It’s not often that you see a sequel with twice the budget of the original take even more chances with its premise, but that is what Stahelski does here. He takes the foundation laid down in the first installment and widens the scope to almost overwhelming proportions. It was always a certainty that Wick was going to get into a violent shootout every 15 minutes or so in the first film, but now that there is a price on his head, you never know where the mayhem is going to come from. Because the network of assassins is so thick in New York, every suspicious character on the street is a suspect for Wick, and he’s almost always right to be suspicious (there are mercifully few innocent casualties in this film). We are thus witness to a fantastic montage of Wick being repeatedly jumped by randos as he straggles back to safety, pushing the limits of our suspended disbelief at the sheer amount of punishment this man can take.
Despite that Reeves, at least in his younger years, was somewhat of a classy actor, he knows where his bread is buttered, so he leans even further into his persona as a man of few words and a lot of bullets. He delivers his dialogue in a halting, grunting fashion, as if he is loathe to waste the time when a fist or firearm would do better. These films are aware of Reeves’s star quality and otherworldly presence, and don’t bother to ground him in any sort of physical reality, a good choice for the limited performer. His motivations are few but essential, as he strives to live a peaceful life cocooned in the memory of his dead wife and the affection of his dog. It isn’t difficult to root for Wick, hardened and severe as he is, because we can empathize with him on such a basic level. This is essential when the man you’re rooting for is such a well-oiled machine of slaughter.
Maybe you want from your movies more of a personal touch or regard for the well-being of your fellow man. The John Wick films are not meant for you, so you should go watch Moonlight or one of the other Oscar-nominated films. It’s misleading to say that they are created out of pure adrenaline, because John Wick: Chapter 2 is too precise and clinical in its depiction of violence to be called so. In this way, these films feel inordinately fresh among the Bourne-inflected, shaky-cam hot messes we’re used to seeing at the movies in the last ten years. It feels almost subversive that nearly every bullet Wick fires hits its target, as if the film is challenging action cinema to clean up its act. A new sheriff is in town, and he doesn’t miss.
Action | Summit Entertainment