In the original “John Wick,” a crucial moment of the film sees Keanu Reeves, who plays the title character, tell Viggo Tarasov, a Russian crime leader whose son Wick wants revenge on, that “he’s back.”
Having retired from being a professional assassin, Wick, as is wont to happen in action movies, has been coaxed back into the seedy criminal underworld. Indeed, at the conclusion of the first film, when Wick gets a new dog and walks off into the night, that could easily have been the last audiences saw of the enigmatic main player.
Thankfully, that’s not the case, because when Wick says he’s back, he means it.
The film, “John Wick: Chapter 2,” isn’t a story of Reeves’ stoic character revitalizing his passion for killing for profit. No, that love burns long and deep in our hero, and is never really in danger of extinguishment.
Unlike other similar films, in which the character is motivated by corny, “We need a hero, only you can be that man” clichés, Wick is refreshingly frank—he just wants his car back.
“Chapter 2” takes joy in the task of expanding upon the lore of the original film, a task that is expertly achieved by whisking Wick between Rome and New York, showing his good standing with The Continental, a hotel in which assassins are forbidden from shedding blood.
Part of the charm of the original film was its tidy underworld, a seedy ecosystem that had no problem living in the shadow of the regular world. “Chapter 2” expands less upon the alternate reality, but the film still works on many different levels, particularly in the chore of humanizing Wick.
Director Chad Stahelski, only one half of the original director duo, manages to bring back the stylish aesthetic of the first film all by himself, and, at the same time, somehow ups the bar for visceral brutality that the film’s predecessor set so high.
While Reeves will never be a DiCaprio, he is not asked to be, as the star of “John Wick: Chapter 2” is clearly the unfathomable violence.
Gone are the lulls that plagued the first movie, as “Chapter 2” opts to divide into three sections, effectively spreading the action out. The constant flurry of chaos wears The Boogeyman down, meaning that foes who would never have had a chance, thanks to fatigue, now pose a serious threat.
In their cross-continental skirmishes, a club scene manages to spill into the ancient catacombs of Rome, which prove to be a jigsaw puzzle of death, and the modern-art mirrored-funhouse fight is cinematic majesty. Wick proves that anywhere can be a battleground if you try hard enough.
Cassian plays a charachter somewhat akin to Wick’s equal, while Ares is a terrifying, sign-language speaking bodyguard. The foes prove to be a real menace to Wick, whether it’s because they’re trying to brutally kill him, or unapologetically steal the scene.
If “The Lion King” was too violent for you, “John Wick: Chapter 2” will have you in a therapist’s office. The disturbing level of violence had me in a state of shock that I hadn’t revisited since “Hostel” first hit theaters. One scene takes a cue from Heath Ledger’s Joker, circa the slamming of a pencil into a gentlemen’s eye, while another features a disemboweling that heads upward from the groin; god bless whoever is coming up with these ideas.
The choreography, cinematography and scripting are as tight and precise as the first film, an artful juxtaposition of grace and brutality. Assassins fire blindly at one another through the mist of plaza fountains, and untold numbers of collateral dead pile up as Wick takes gunfights to the streets.
Eventually, Wick finds himself at odds with The Continental, headed by Ian McShane as Winston, and, without giving anything away, Wick’s begins to show a few cracks in “Chapter 2,” proving his formerly ironclad exterior may be softening.
The biggest difference between the first and second film is, as I alluded to earlier, the relative omission of the underworld in “Chapter 2,” as the directors instead choose to highlight Wick’s personal conflict. The decision isn’t bad by any means, but wasn’t the best part of “Lawless” when Jack and Howard killed Rakes together after he shot Forrest? The Rakes vs. Bondurant sub-plot was incredible.
And, given the way “Chapter 2” ends, in a parachute-won’t-open, adrenaline-fueled free-fall, it should come as no surprise that rumors of a third film are already swirling.
If you want falling action, see another movie; there is none here. Some would call the lack of decrescendo a flaw, but let’s be clear, you know what you’re getting with John Wick. If Reeves had the same energy as Gerard Butler did in “300,” high school teams would watch John Wick before games.
With a cast of new faces who play their roles superbly (can someone get Ruby Rose more high-profile roles, please?) and an illustrious homage to Hong Kong’s “gun fu,” Wick has somehow become an icon of action hero purity after just two films. Dragged down by only Reeves’ acting and the diminishing mystery of the film’s back plot, “Chapter 2” delivers everything a fan could ask for.