John Wick is not only one of the greatest action film of the last two decades, it is also one of my favorite films of all time.
Its simple, fairly absurd premise combines with a compelling world of underground dealings and behind-the-scenes criminal machinations to give Keanu Reeves a playground to showcase his incredible training in martial arts and close-quarters firearms skills, often in tandem. Alongside the excellent, clear camerawork and choreography (with former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch behind it all), John Wick is a riveting piece of action cinema that reinvigorated Reeve’s career and opened the doors for Stahelski and Leitch to take over other exciting projects (the Highlander reboot for the former and Deadpool 2 for the latter).
Chapter 2 surpasses it all. It truly is bigger and more badass than its predecessor, and this is almost entirely a great thing.
The film opens a short time after the ending of the first, and handily ties up two questions that some (myself included) may have had – what’s he going to do about the rest of the Russian Mafiya, and what about his car? The prologue answers this with some car-fu, some broken bones, a kneecapping and a great cameo by a certain lovably villainous actor whose presence I won’t spoil for those who haven’t checked into the cast.
After getting his car back and making peace with the mob, Wick finds himself explosively pulled back into the global underground of shady string-pullers after being forced into repaying a debt from his former life, just as Ian McShane’s Winston warned previously. What follows is a series of riveting, expertly executed gunfights and foot chases that are longer and drop way more bodies than the first film – this film’s nightclub shootout and subsequent chase racks up a body count that rivals the entirety of the first film on its own.
This escalation of violence and scale is owed to the differing circumstances of John’s work – instead of a reactionary, vengeful assault on those who wronged him, John is using the full extent of the underworld’s resources to complete a less-personal job. He does so reluctantly, of course, but to see him prep the field and gear up with some cutting-edge hardware all provided by a cast of colorful characters who make the most of their short screen time is truly enjoyable and a far cry from him running out of ammo for his P30 at a critical moment in the first installment.
Changes and improvements have been made to the action in order to give a distinct flavor to this second chapter, chiefly in the choreography and environments. The gunplay now incorporates the act of reloading into the choreography and pacing, something the original only did once or twice, and Wick uses his firearms as improvised melee weapons to greater and more spectacular effect. He also spends more time going hand-to-hand, and has a bit more use out of the environment. Despite gunning down many more goons in this film, he also has a few more evenly-matched duels to keep him grounded as a vulnerable character. The more sprawling nature of the film in a figurative sense translates literally, with each fight covering more ground than the previous film’s contained locations and showing more welcome variance.
Alongside the escalation of stakes and widening of scale comes a much more prominent sense of humor and fun, both in dialogue and simply in situations and events. The film makes both figurative and literal jabs at the legendary “pencil incident,” and the gleeful absurdity of the action scenes leaves lots of little moments for chuckles and grins between headshots (and in one instance, because of the headshots). This of course is to say nothing of the wonderful cast – from the returning McShane, Lance Reddick and John Leguizamo to newcomers Common, Ruby Rose and Reeve’s fellow Matrix alum Laurence Fishburne, everyone is highly watchable and is clearly having a boatload of fun with their performances, regardless of the length of their involvement.
My only issue from the film bubbled under the surface before becoming more prominent as the final few scenes played out, and had to do with the undermining of the established “rules” of this film’s universe. Not the Continental’s literal rules, but the ones behind the scenes that govern how everything works.
By the end of the first film, John was a mess, crawling along with a heavily-bleeding wound he sustained early in the film that he nearly succumbed to, spurred on only by the video of his wife he keeps in his phone. Once again John takes a significant amount of punishment here, but the film flip-flops a bit too much between him being injured, limping and vulnerable to a perfect killing machine to allow the façade to continue to fully work. In addition to this, the extent to which the world John keeps trying to leave operates gets a little absurd by the end, in my opinion beyond the point of believability within the established lore.
Barring that nitpick, John Wick Chapter 2 is an exceptional piece of action filmmaking, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, even if they have not seen the first – while they might miss some of the callbacks and a few of the jokes, the film introduces so many new aspects of its world and reintroduces Wick’s legendary abilities well enough that a first-timer can have a great time learning alongside the veterans. Just…make sure they watch the first one after, too. It deserves it.
Oh and don’t worry, the dog is fine.
Once again serving up the best in-camera stunt work and action choreography American cinema has to offer, John Wick Chapter 2 escalates and expands on the original in nearly every respect to create one hell of a ride, provided you can suspend your disbelief a tad higher than with the first film.
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