A sequel I didn’t think would happen. A review that I couldn’t wait to write.
It’s no secret that I love the first John Wick film. Not only was it impressive on its own merits, but the sheer surprise and low-key nature of its release gave it that much more power. In two years, I find it has aged well, a testament to simple, but solid, storytelling, fantastic stunt work and choreography, an immersive setting with great humor, and a refreshingly clean and efficient job of directing and editing. Not to mention, Keanu Reeves in a role that frankly I don’t think anyone else could pull off so well.
When I first found out that a sequel was being made, I was super excited. “Finally,” I thought, “some justice in the film world. A worthy, original film gets to have a sequel.” If Sharknado can rack up four sequels, then John Wick damn well better get at least one.
I’m going to keep this particular review as spoiler free as I can, but there will be a few points where I might give something away in my analysis. If you want a completely unspoiled viewing of the movie I do suggest you watch it first then come back.
So with that out of the way, here we go, John Wick: Chapter 2. The first movie so expertly nailed the motivation and emotions of our protagonist that admittedly, it’s hard to recapture that same raw motivation in a second story, especially when the first one left few loose ends. Those loose ends get wrapped up quite spectacularly in the opening act, where John goes on a rampage against what remains of the Russian gang he decimated in the first film. There’s a great bit of humor here as Vigo’s brother (Vigo: first film’s antagonist) recants some of Wick’s infamous exploits and reminds his lieutenant (and the audience) why John Wick is to be feared. Nice way to reintroduce us to the character while providing some slick action right out of the gate.
John reclaims his stolen car, which seems fruitless seeing as it gets decimated, but then we find out he really wanted it back to get a birthday card from the glove box, the last birthday card his late wife gave him. This brings us back to the emotional arc driving John’s character. This is a man who still has not really had a chance to grieve for his wife, whose hard-won retirement and peace were destroyed. He clearly wants to hang onto his life outside of the crime world, but we see it slip away from him bit by bit, until another figure from his past comes back to haunt him. Remember that Ian McShane’s character, Winston, warned John about stepping back into the hitman world in the first movie, and effectively told him in so many words that he got out once, but would not be able to again.
So one Santino D’Antonio comes knocking on John’s door. John owes him a blood debt, and now that Wick has explosively come out of retirement, Santino wants him to make good on it. Wick refuses, and ends up having his house burned down. The guy can’t seem to catch a break or be left alone. Apparently none of these assassins and hitmen don’t know not to piss John Wick off.
This is what sets up the new plot, one which doesn’t have quite the same visceral punch as the first story, but then again it’s hard to realistically expect it to. What Chapter 2 decides to do, wisely, is build upon the interesting, deadpan morbidly-funny underworld of crime that we were introduced to by its prequel. The highlight of the film for me was getting to see the mythos and backstory of this underworld expanded on and explained, with more of its rules beyond simply “no business on Continental grounds.” We get to travel beyond New York, to Rome, delivering some of the film’s most stunning scenery.
Chapter 2 takes its time getting to its major action setpieces. John is called into action to kill a target for Santino, and this task I thought was accomplished too easily considering how impossible John himself made it out to be. But this does set up a great scene wherein John is asked if he fears damnation, to which he can only reply, “yes.” This man is tortured. Everyone at nearly every turn goes out of their way to try to convince him that he is nothing but a killer, that it’s all he is meant for and all he will ever be. Brutally efficient as he may be at killing, John has seen life and love outside the underworld. The story here, in and around the action, is John trying to break free of his fate even as his world spirals out of control.
Some have already, and will likely continue to deride, the Wick movies as tasteless, brainless films that glorify violence and serve as little more than “gun pornography.” I don’t hold to that. To be fair, this is no Citizen Kane we’re talking about here, but John Wick and its sequel are hardly brainless. I also don’t see this movie as glorifying violence any more than Breaking Bad glorified meth. Like that example, if anything, seeing this kind of brutality and efficient killing, what it does to a man like John, shows me that this is not pleasant, and not the kind of life to be glorified or emulated. The typical American Western is more gun porn than John Wick, and if there is a problem with the worship of violence and guns in general, it has more to do with overall American culture than a tongue-in-cheek action movie.
The action in John Wick is deftly executed, slickly produced, and I admit, performed with a sort of beauty and style that I appreciated. I can abhor the actions performed, even if in some instances they’re justified, while still being able to admire the way it is depicted, the visceral manner in which John’s story is told. Keanu Reeves delivers on all levels, certainly physically, as he throws his body into the role and does many of the stunts himself, but also emotionally, as he is the one who has to sell the audience on the notion that underneath the cold, stoic exterior of John Wick, there is a soul that is capable of and wants more out of life than killing. I don’t see anyone else but Reeves making this character work so well.
I had a great time with John Wick: Chapter 2. I don’t think it is as good of a movie as its predecessor, mainly because there are moments in this film that strain credibility and immersion (the criminal underground eventually gets to the point of seeming unbelievable and cartoony), and the nearly superhuman invulnerability of Wick himself rubbed me the wrong way. Compare this to the first movie, where we see a John Wick who is, yes, an incredibly deadly, tenacious and efficient killer, but who was vulnerable, who could be wounded and had to deal with the consequences. John walks away from some shit in Chapter 2 that left me wondering how the hell he didn’t at least have some broken bones.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and will be seeing it again, not to mention buying it on Blu-ray. It is infectiously slick, stylish, funny, and is easily better than any other action movie I’ve watched in recent times. The soundtrack is once again awesome, and Keanu Reeves delivers one of the best action performances of his career.
John Wick: Chapter 2 gets the stamp of approval from me.