When watching Keanu Reeves’s stoic, fearsome assassin John Wick conduct his business, one begins to realize that his character is, more than anything, a force of nature. There’s enough humanity in Wick for him to remain a sympathetic figure, and yet that’s countered by the sheer mayhem that he both causes and invites into his life, frequently unwillingly.
In John Wick: Chapter Two, director (and former stuntman for a number of Reeves’s films in the past) Chad Stahelski’s follow-up to his 2014 cult action hit, the chaos is doubled down on in a caper that involves the guild of hitmen Wick had originally swore his loyalty to. The body count is higher than ever, and said death and destruction is once again as artfully composed as the first film’s, with fight scenes and shootouts that combine elegant choreography and sheer brutality.
It’s an entertaining blend that’s an intentional throwback to 90’s rawness, and also the testosterone-fueled action films of the 1980s like Commando. But whereas the first film almost felt like a campfire story about the scariest guy that ever lived, this time the focus is on the world he inhabits and how it operates.
So it turns out said guild has influence that spans the globe. After extracting his revenge on the Russian mobsters who killed his first dog and stole his car, Wick is finally looking forward to some R&R with a new canine friend. But Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (performed by Riccardo Scamarcio with a mix of sophistication and gleeful evil) is aiming to take a seat among the elite criminals, and to achieve this goal he forces Wick back into his old life by reminding him of a blood oath he made in the past. Wick knows that D’Antonio considers him a threat regardless if he chooses to accept the proposed mission or not, and decides he has no choice but to fight for his life.
You know the term “the first rule is that there are no rules”? The fact that Wick’s dilemma does have strict rules involved makes the story a lot more interesting. D’Antonio is wise enough to seek sanctuary at the Continental, a ‘no bloodshed allowed” headquarters/hotel owned by Ian McShane’s Winston, who nevertheless reminds D’Antonio that by angering Wick, he has “destroyed the priest’s temple” in a line I absolutely loved.
McShane is among a variety of side characters who have fun chewing up the scenery, also including Laurence Fishburne as a New York underground boss, and Common as a bodyguard who becomes one of Wick’s fiercest rivals.
The universe of John Wick is rather tongue-in-cheek, and its sense of action almost feels like a video game. I mean that as a positive analogy, because like the main character in a game, Wick ventures through visually distinct labyrinths, and is surrounded by enemies lurking in shadow. It’s a dynamic that makes his adventures more compelling.
Even though he’s regarded in the canon as a legendary juggernaut, there’s a considerable amount of pressure and obstacles thrown his way to keep the action exciting and unpredictable. Dan Lausten’s cinematography adds excellent atmosphere to all of the chaos unfolding, with title hero fighting through airport terminals, the streets of Rome, underground tunnels, and even modern art exhibitions.
There is nothing subtle about John Wick: Chapter 2 in terms of characterization and plot, and this is a rare case in which that works to the film’s advantage. Much like the 2014 film, the details are in how the story is told. Its aesthetic is actually a major part of the narrative, and that translates into a mesmerizing experience.
There’s an unusually measured intelligence to the violence of John Wick- in contrast to the mindless mayhem you might see in a Michael Bay movie- and a willingness to make its fearsome protagonist vulnerable when necessary, keeping him interesting to watch. I loved Bill and Ted, but Wick has probably become my favorite character that Keanu Reeves has played. Strongly recommended.