The original John Wick is one of the only movies I’ve come across where every context it’s brought up in it is cast in a favorable - if not blindingly glowing - light. You either love it, haven’t seen it yet, or appreciate what it’s doing from afar (and also you hate fun). Unfortunately, it’s hard from the outside to see just why the movie was so revered. Words like “revenge flick” and “non-stop action” are inevitably brought up and the sequel doesn’t betray those roots in the slightest. Like the first film, there’s very little in terms of “message” or character development - the bad guys start bad and stay bad for the remainder of the film. Keanu is the chaotic force of almost-good that we witness navigate the depths of a society of high-class assassins, rooting for him but fearing him all the same. John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up literal days after the events of the first film but does the film improve on the first or merely fall flat?
For those uninitiated few, John Wick is such an interesting character because he isn’t one. John doesn’t spout one-liners or banter playfully with those he fights. He doesn’t wax poetic about why he’s justified in his killing to his peers and rivals. He doesn’t feel like the macho Schwarzenegger-esque stars of the 80’s action flicks who keep their fighting fair and above the belt. John is a truly reluctant hero who doesn’t want to be doing the things that he does, but he is freakishly good at killing. The character side-steps the normal arc of “realizing the emptiness of revenge” in that he exacts his vengeance already knowing that he will not derive pleasure or bring back what is torn from him. It’s not clear how Keanu Reeve’s character got into this world of peddling death, but the actor really brings across a feeling that he would do anything to keep from being submerged into it again.
What truly separates John Wick and its sequel from any other bland direct-to-Netflix action film are the real stars of the show: the cinematography and choreography. Where any other filmmaker would shoot an establishing shot, Stahelski treats us to vistas worth staring at. No shot feels accidental and every cut happens at the right rhythm. The film jumps locales from daytime roman architecture shots to Manhattan rooftops to unnaturally stark white New York subway stations. There are mesmerizing reflection shots that bend the mind as you try to comprehend a hallway of mirrors reminiscent of a carnival’s funhouse. There are gritty catacomb stills that paint John dwarfed by the massive stone walls, where the eye is continuously drawn to the beams of flashlights pointing from soon to be expired men.
If it’s any consolation, the henchmen are all dispatched in the most visceral fighting and gunplay of any movie in the past decade. The choreography is straight up masterful. Reeves moves like a scalpel amongst a sea of sledgehammers for long (20+ second) shots - dancing around nameless goons, dispatching them in a slew of headshots and overhead throws. That’s not to say that John is impervious. He also gets visibly and believably tired, allowing the film and audience a chance to breathe as our lead chases or gets chased by the ever-growing list of enemies.
In terms of story, one of the strongest points of the John Wick Cinematic Universe ™ is that there is no “As You Know”/”Tell Me Again” talk: in other words, the audience feels truly thrown into the middle of a teeming universe of murder for money. Characters know each other and have complex pasts but often don’t explain where or why – because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Whether this approach to the story is purposeful or just easier on a writer who didn’t want to bother with explanations (that could let the viewer down) remains to be seen.
In terms of missteps, there is only one portion of the movie that betrays the grim mood, and that is a section where two assassins are locked in a very slow paced walk parallel to one another -whilst shooting silenced pistols, the bystanders failing to notice anything is occurring. It comes across as comedic, and you feel bad for laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation that’s bookended with gruesome headshots and stabbings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a slight displeasure with the ending. The sequence leaves absolutely no question that there will be a chapter 3 to the detriment of being able to stand up on its own. If this is the only concession John Wick: Chapter 2 makes to contemporary film-making, I can’t complain.
For a movie that has characters point out every ten minutes how Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is back from retirement, I can’t help but feel grateful that he is. To be graced with an action movie that just wants to look cool and be fun without worrying about what is popular, or toning down its violence for a PG-13 rating is refreshing. While a cliffhanger ending is unfortunate, I can’t deny I’m already eagerly awaiting the (as of writing this confirmed) sequel. There’s no sophomoric slump here – just an increase in the trail of bodies one man is forced to leave.