New recruit Richard Herring grabs a pair of twin pistols to rejoin Keanu Reeves in this hyper-caffeinated action sequel.
Perhaps the hardest fate of a feature film is to be released into obscurity, or even suffer the wrath of an unappreciative studio executive. I suspect, instead, it is worse to be the follow-up to a piece of filmmaking generally regarded as the newest addition to its genre’s greatest hits. John Wick was neither a grand emotional odyssey nor some landmark in the development of film; rather it was the best damn action movie nobody expected but everybody wanted more of. Thus, it was little surprise when director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad and the never-been-better Keanu Reeves were quickly signed for a sequel. However, due the nature of being the sequel to Gun-Fu lightning-in-a-bottle, the question isn’t if John Wick: Chapter 2 is any good. The question is if it is anywhere near as good as its predecessor. Thankfully, it is to my great and much-relieved pleasure to report that, while Chapter 2 might not be lightning-in-a-bottle, there’s still plenty of juice running through its veins.
Picking up in the immediate aftermath of the first film, we see Wick retrieving what’s left of his beloved ’69 Mustang and get a small taste of his struggle to readjust to normal life with his unnamed canine companion, who he acquired at the end of Chapter 1. If the film has one major failing, it is the lack of patience. It would be nice to spend some time with John when he isn’t knee-deep in bullet casings. John Wick is a fascinating character which utilises Reeves’ understated acting style to its best since The Matrix. This is a man we want to spend time with and understand, mainly since Reeves gives us only glimmers of vulnerability to glean anything from behind the character’s almost unbreakable focus. Not giving us that time was likely more to do with runtime than anything else, but it still feels like a loss in a movie which otherwise goes out of its way to give us greater access and understanding of the world at play.
World-building was the unexpected cornerstone of Chapter 1, elevating a beautifully-choreographed 90s style bullet fest into the upper echelon of high-concept action films. This world-building now moves from a background support to the film’s main attraction. After what feels like mere minutes after returning home, John is once again drawn back into the abyss with the arrival of Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a villain so Italian that he appears to be modelling tailor-made high fashion even when using a grenade launcher. Forced to honour a “marker,” John must travel to Rome to complete a new and seemingly impossible task. Here again is an issue of pacing; by removing John from the already established underground of New York, the filmmakers introduce a broader mythology by sacrificing a deepening of the one we already had.
The one area in which Chapter 2 shines is when it lets us watch John Wick be John Wick. Simply watching him plan, prepare and execute a mission felt like the piece of the puzzle we all wanted to be shown. From getting his bespoke bullet-proof suit and new armaments, to carefully placing his weapons in tactical locations, this is the meticulous assassin we saw hinted at in Chapter 1. The icing on top is that Stahelski has lost absolutely none of his flair when it comes to shooting an action sequence. Sure, at times it feels like it’s never going to end, but I’d be lying if I said I ever actually wanted it to. Slick, beautifully-lit and ballet-like in its choreography, it was the action which put John Wick on everyone’s radar in 2014. For any complaints I may have in terms of where the series missteps, it thankfully hasn’t lost the fury that made it so special in the first place.
This is perhaps the role that Reeves was born to play. He is shockingly convincing as an action star despite, and possibly because of, being in his early 50s. While certainly stylish, this is combat in line with the character. It is quick, calculated and brutal. Interestingly, this is also an apt description of Wick’s personality; he doesn’t waste words and, more importantly, he doesn’t express. Every emotion we see has to clearly fight its way to the surface through an ocean of self-control. While that style of performance seems pretentious here, it works perfectly as we can instead read Wick by his actions.
Upon the death of D’Antonio, fulfilling the marker, we can almost see the change in Wick as the last leash of control is removed from him. At last, he can begin the hunt for the man who would dare drag him back into this world. He never needs to say it, but we can feel the new depth of anger fuelling the hunt. Rather than play the traditional sociopath, instead Reeves gives us something much more in line with Leon from The Professional. This is a real human with genuine feelings equipped with a savant-like skill in the use of firearms, and with an almost inhuman level of driving will. This above all else is the hallmark of the John Wick series – the protagonist’s forward momentum. While the first film certainly made us aware of it, it is Chapter 2 which allows us to see how little control John actually has over his power. John Wick isn’t scary because you can’t stop him, John Wick is scary because there’s a very real possibility that even he can’t stop him.
Sadly, such development comes at the expense of the supporting cast, which is therefore more of a mixed bag. This has less to do with performance caliber which, at least for those characters allotted more character detail than Assassin #12 or Henchmen #127, is actually quite high. The film, however, seems in such a rush to get all its plot points and action scenes into 122 minutes that few seem to receive the screentime they deserve. The notable exceptions are, of course, D’Antonio and his second in command, Ares, where five-foot-six Ruby Rose somehow manages to be intimidating without ever saying a word. Laurence Fishburne, despite major trailer time, only shows up in the film’s last thirty minutes and feels like he could have been given a much better character considering the man’s prodigious talent. Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and Franco Nero are all great to see but, with the exception of one brilliant joke, don’t have much to do. The fly in the ointment I have to say is Common who, whilst holding his own in the fight scenes, simply seemed to lack the gravitas to play John Wick’s similarly-skilled nemesis.
Chapter 1’s great parlour trick was in its casting, which took established actors from the world of the crime and thriller genres and cast them very much to type. However, it trusted in that casting enough to never feel the need to explain these characters, instead using the audiences’ preconception and the actors’ talents to do that work for them. While Chapter 2 tries again, it fails to enjoy the same level of success and, as such, we are left wanting more of the personalities we can’t have and are left with more scowling from Common.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is fun without a shadow of a doubt. I enjoyed it immensely and will definitely watch it again at some point. There is also no chance there will not be a third installment. However, I must say in terms of where the story ends in Chapter 2, I have no idea what Stahelski and Koldstad’s plan is going forward. All in all, while the series has completed its second entry with its soul still intact, I fear it may have lost focus. The relentlessly driving plot and pace of the first film, while still present, now plays second-fiddle to the ever-expanding and increasingly surreal society of assassins which hide in the shadows of John Wick’s world. It’s bigger, it’s badder, it’s cooler, it’s flashier, and it’s showier… but I’m afraid to say it isn’t better.