With its long takes, wide shots of intensely choreographed action sequences, and proliferation of headshots, 2014's John Wick was hailed as an action movie classic the moment it was released. It was going to take a considerable effort from director Chad Stahelski to top it with a follow-up, but thankfully, John Wick: Chapter 2 is the best sequel fans could have possibly hoped for. It builds on everything that happened in the first movie, expands the franchise's fascinating mythology, and, of course, ups the ante with visceral, jaw-dropping action scenes. This movie rules.
Derek Kolstad, who wrote the first film, also wrote the screenplay here, and with the tragic backstory of John Wick (Keanu Reeves) already established, he's free to dive straight into the action this time. The film opens with Wick retrieving his sports car from the Russian mafia, enduring more damage before the opening credits than many action heroes do during an entire movie. After calling a truce with the mafia and putting an end to the cycle of violence that began in the first film, Wick returns home to his new dog and retires, burying his guns under the cement in his basement floor. But his retirement is short-lived, because he's quickly called on to honor a blood oath he made with an Italian gangster named Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio): Wick must murder Santino's sister so the gangster can take her seat at the table of a shadowy guild of international assassins. The rules of assassins are non-negotiable, so Wick accepts and jets off to Rome to do the job. But he finds himself on the receiving end of trouble from the sister's deadly bodyguard (Common) and Santino's mute head of security (Ruby Rose). Criss-crossing the globe, Wick has to figure out how to stay one step ahead of them and quench his thirst for revenge.
Stahelski co-directed the original with David Leitch but flies solo behind the camera this time and employs the same techniques that made the original stand out from its action film contemporaries — only he amplifies the action. Whereas there were a few cool scenes in the first movie, this one feels like it's practically non-stop action the whole time. There are some absolutely brutal fights on display here, including one that will dethrone The Dark Knight to become your new reference point for pencil-related badassery. Stahelski's choices for camera placement make a huge difference, allowing us to stay in the moment by seeing Reeves, Common, and company performing many of the stunts themselves.
I've always been impressed by Reeves' physicality as an actor, but I'll admit that his performance was one of my least favorite aspects about the first film. I remember thinking he seemed a little flat, and his delivery was...off, somehow. But watching him here, his character finally clicked with me. I realized that flat delivery is essentially his version of wearing a mask: it's the emotionless affectation of a legend, an assassin feared by even the most hardened criminals. It's also the voice of a man who has had his entire life ripped away from him. (In other words, I don't think he would have sounded nearly as flat when he was with his wife.) With this newfound interpretation of Reeves' acting decision, I was able to key into his character and appreciate his performance much more this time around.
One of the best things about this franchise is its mythology and the rules associated with all of the various establishments in the assassin network. John Wick: Chapter 2 takes us back to New York City's version of The Continental, the assassin hotel run by Winston (Ian McShane) which only accepts gold coins and where no "business" can be conducted, and we also visit the hotel's Rome branch (managed by none other than the legendary Italian actor Franco Nero). But the sequel also includes a trip to a personalized tailor who makes Wick a bulletproof suit, a sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz) who offers our hero a "tasting" of various weapons in a secret room, and introduces us to an underground network of spies dressed as NYC's homeless population and led by The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, making a fun Matrix reunion with Reeves). This is a far more vast world than we'd previously known, and when a contract goes out on Wick's life, it looks like half of New York City's residents are assassins waiting to collect.
Wick himself is pushed to his limits here, especially against Common's bodyguard character, who is quickly revealed to be Wick's equal when it comes to fighting and gunplay. In an effective piece of screenplay structuring, Wick only seems to encounter Common when Common is at full strength and Wick has just been shot or beaten to a pulp. It's a wonderful way to make the audience feel as if the hero is in real peril, and the movie truly pops when those two are squaring off against each other. The gunplay can get a bit tiresome in certain scenes (eventually, even headshots can become wearying), but for the most part, the increased pace and the relentless action works extremely well for this story.
The script is functional, first and foremost, but it also manages to work on a deeper level as well. The film is full of mythological references, with lip service being paid to Wick "descending into hell" before he enters a climactic set piece in a labyrinthine museum exhibit. Engulfed in a beautifully colorful house of mirrors, Wick is forced to confront reflections of himself at every turn; each time he sees himself in pursuit of his prey, he must make an active decision about what kind of man he wants to be. Earlier in the film, he bursts out on stage during an outdoor rave in Rome, shooting a faceless baddie in the head and earning a loud cheer from the crowd. It seems pretty clear to me that the crowd is supposed to represent us, the audience watching this film, and the fact that they cheer and keep dancing instead of ducking for cover or running for their lives may be a critique from Kolstad and Stahelski about sating our bloodlust.
But that's the only moment that feels as if the filmmakers are even remotely conflicted about the movie they're making, because the rest of it is full of bullets and blood and exactly the kind of things John Wick fans were hoping to see in a sequel. The ending perfectly sets up a third film (which is already in the works) while still telling a largely complete story on its own. There are a few loose ends left dangling, but if John Wick: Chapter 3 is as enjoyable as this entry, we'll be having conversations in a few years about whether this franchise is one of the best action series ever made.