John Wick: Chapter 2, the follow-up to 2015’s jaw-dropping (and -shattering) 2015 action movie revelation, hits cinemas this Friday. There’s a distinct air of familiarity to the whole occasion though – after all, star Keanu Reeves has been here before. In 1999 he and a pair of relatively untested co-directors ushered in a paradigm shift in Hollywood with an arctic cool feature, buoyed by revolutionary action movie filmmaking, in which Reeves played a black clad, near-mythical figure who dispatches his enemies with a skill that borders on the supernatural. I am of course talking about The Matrix, helmed by the Wachowski siblings, but you can effortlessly swap that title out for co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s John Wick.
And just like The Matrix, John Wick’s runaway success with both critics and fans has prompted the development of a sequel (and probably sequels, plural) that expands on the intriguing mythology and world-building done by its progenitor. Gratefully, that’s where all the uncanny similarities end though. While The Matrix Reloaded was an overwrought flub of a sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2 – which sees Stahelski going solo behind the camera this time – is every bit its predecessor’s match as a virtuoso modern action movie masterpiece and then some!
Picking up just days after the events from the first film, as Wick ties up loose ends from his one-man pogrom of the Russian mob for killing his dog and stealing his car (a reasonable response), this second chapter doesn’t fall prey to the all too often seen sequel curse of “Go bigger”. Well, it actually does go bigger – much bigger – but in the best way. This time around, the gonzo brutal-tastic action goes global as Reeve’s titular assassin is forced to Rome due to an old marker being called in by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmacio). In essence, D’Antonio demands Wick’s exquisite skills for a simple assassination job – barring, of course, the mountain of bodies Wick will need to clamber over to get to his target.
In the intensely codified underground criminal society of which Wick is an unwilling returnee, to refuse this marker would mean death. Success in his task would probably mean death too though, as his target’s wards, including fellow equal parts smooth and deadly killer Cassian (Common), will not abide the killing of their honcho. And so a few unexpected character twists – including an iconic face-to-face with Matrix alum Lawrence Fishburne who plays the regally named crime lord The Bowery King – a brass hillock of spent ammunition and many broken/punctured/eviscerated bodies later, and Wick is “working” again.
The previously mentioned “marker” and the Bowery King’s distinct domain, are just two of the new elements John Wick: Chapter 2 introduces into this universe of strictly by the book mass murderers who can even boast their own currency and hallowed ground as part of their rigidly unbreakable bushido (bu-shoot-o?). There’s also a “High Table”, “blood oaths”, a room full of tattooed pinup ladies operating pneumatic tubes and Cold War era computers to issue contracts, and much more. And these out of left field touches doesn’t just stop with artifacts and clandestine groups.
Ian McShane’s Winston, the proprietor of the hallowed Continental Hotel, gets to do more than just add an air of veteran gravitas as he spouts sage observations about the rules at “Johnathan”, also showing off godlike powers of influence. And popular breakout Ruby Rose adds even more pantomime uniqueness as D’Antonio’s deaf-mute henchwoman Ares. Original Django star Franco Nero even shows up as the manager of the Continental Hotel in Rome. The always entertaining Peter Serafinowicz cameos as flamboyant armorer “The Sommelier”, showing off his ballistic wares like they were vintage wines. It’s all deliciously silly, but still played ramrod straight, and it somehow works gangbusters despite that juxtapositioning. And returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s script doesn’t care too much about dissecting it all, and I absolutely love that.
The scope may have broadened in this sequel, but Stahelski and Kolstad know that verbose investigations into all these oddly systemic elements will not only dispel all mystifying charm, but also just bog down affairs. So too they take care to not overwork characters: Reeves’ gets to play a bit more here, but his haggard hitman pastiche never overstays, as the half-centenarian actor’s taciturn swagger fits the role like a glove.
So despite there being much more – more characters, more locations, more mysteries – it never ever feels like too much. There are no genre delusions here. While Koldstad’s script boasts its fair share witty repartee and heavy philosophizing, the filmmakers are astute enough to know that nothing should be allowed to detract from the movie’s headlining action beats. And holy hell, what action it is!
The film boasts a gasp-inducing car chase turned hand to hand fight that your average action films would do unspeakable things in order to have it as their climax. Here, it’s just the opening act, and everything just ramps up from there, including a running tooth and nail (and knife and gun and whatever instrument comes to hand) fight in the streets of Rome that has to be seen in all its brutal glory to be believed.
Like in the first film, stuntman-turned-director Stahelski choreographs this action like a sadistic savant, as Reeves shoots, slashes, punches and kicks his way through an armada of baddies, with a supremely grounded martial arts flare that’s all business. While the fisticuffs themselves may boast a spartan efficacy, the way Stahelski frames it all is anything but. Brilliantly engineered long takes underpin a clarity of camerawork that puts the ADHD editing of most other modern action movies to shame, while gorgeous neon tinged lighting abounds as the filmmaker plays with vibrant colours and inky shadow at every opportunity. Every frame just oozes style.
Stahelski also stages his ferocious action in visually appealing locations, with standouts being Roman ruins turned EDM concert, an almost silent mano y hitmano shoot out in and through a nouveau train station, and a hall of mirrors nod back to Enter the Dragon. The result is an action movie that fights like a backroom brawler but can claim supermodel looks. It’s all moody painterly visuals and Jackson Pollock paintings – the latter mostly as a gory result of John Wick having just dropped in. And with its masterly ability to expand the world without losing an inch of mystique, John Wick: Chapter 2 is that rare sequel that doesn’t just offer more of the same, but offers the same even better than before. Wicked.[PS: No dogs were harmed in this movie]