A Worthy Follow-Up to a Modern Action Classic
When the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick hit theaters in 2014, audiences and critics alike were blown away by the stellar craft behind this small yet explosive action film. With the first John Wick quickly gaining status as a modern action masterpiece, writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have a great deal of hype to live up to in John Wick: Chapter 2.
With a bigger budget, wilder action set pieces, and a deep dive into the weird and wild world hinted at in the first film, Kolstad, Stahelski, and Reeves have crafted a strong, exciting second installment in this sudden franchise, even if their massive action film can’t quite capture the magic of experiencing John Wick for the first time.
Picking up only a few days after the end of the original film, John Wick: Chapter 2 quickly sets out to tie up several loose ends of the first installment before rocketing off on a new mission of mayhem and destruction for its deadly ex-hitman. But with John’s main motivation for revenge that so expertly propelled the first film now ended, Chapter 2 has to work hard at creating a reason for its hero to get back into action once again. This time, it’s a powerful crime lord played by Riccardo Scamarcio who comes back into John’s life to force him into one more job. Surprise, surprise, things quickly get complicated and John finds himself targeted by all manner of goons and deadly hitmen. But it’s those complications that somewhat bog down the narrative, with several twists and turns needed to get the central character fully invested in a new mission. When combined with the world building at hand, Chapter 2 is hit with a few unfortunate moments of slowdown that the first film’s lean and aggressive storytelling never encountered.
Where the first John Wick largely focused on a small-scale story of revenge and mayhem, its sequel works to blow out its world and explore the many ideas of assassin guilds and criminal empires only hinted at in the first as a piece of intriguing world building. All the trademarks of the first film remain, including blazing shootouts and a wicked sense of humor underpinning its many moments of insane action, but this is something far crazier and much more heightened than the first film.
Taking the structure of the first film in a series and simply doing it bigger and better is a well-worn hallmark of sequels, with many classic movies proving that the formula works. However, it’s a wise move on the parts of all involved with John Wick: Chapter 2 to not do the same thing twice, as creating a sequel that simply aped the revenge tale of the first film would have likely seemed hackneyed and cheap. Part of the thrill of Chapter 2 is seeing the tantalizing ideas glimpsed in the first film fleshed out and used to inform much of the action. Should the hints of a complex assassin world have intrigued you in part one, you’ll likely find yourself satisfied here, as the answers to many of the mysteries feel satisfying and worth the investment thanks to the great storytelling beats they inform.
But while the world building of Chapter 2 is a pleasure to experience, it doesn’t quite match up to the emotions and catharsis that propelled the original. What the first entry did was akin to a highwire act, basing much of the movie’s emotional investment on a tragic moment that could have felt cheap and shallow if not done right. Instead, it gave cause to root for Keanu Reeves’ character amidst the copious amounts of bloodshed. Here, the reasons behind it all feel far more forced and the stakes feel more like a typical blockbuster than the more human reasons of the first. But there’s still plenty of thrills to be had and Reeves once again makes John into a sympathetic yet scarily dangerous protagonist with just enough humanity to counterbalance his near superhuman combat skills. As a largely silent and restrained protagonist, Reeves helps to balance the film’s increasingly wild ideas while also acting as a thoroughly believable assassin with unmatched skill. He’s charismatic in all the right ways and the Wick character fits him like a glove.
But really, it’s the action that brings people to a John Wick movie. And it doesn’t disappoint.
What stood out about the action in the original was its fast-paced, efficient yet flashy, incredibly well-choreographed nature. As Wick, Reeves moved with no wasted motion, laying waste to dozens of enemies with fast headshots and ruthless attacks that were all captured with smooth, focused camerawork that let the spectacular stunts be seen in full by audiences. No shaky cams, no John Woo-like excessive gunplay, just lots of deadly encounters that left a trail of death behind the film’s brutal hero.
That style of action returns here thanks to the continued presence of Stahelski behind the camera, who has decades of experience as a stuntman. Combined with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, John Wick: Chapter 2 looks even better than the first, with bright, bold colors infusing its many moments of mayhem. Importantly, the filmmakers know how to ramp up the action and take audiences for a wild ride while also understanding the need to vary its styles of combat in order to prevent monotony from setting in. Stahelski knows how to make action scenes that both amaze and hurt at the same time, with fantastic sound design and gorgeous cinematography highlighting the brutality on display here.
With numerous assassins who match Wick in terms and skill and tenacity, Chapter 2 features far more intricate fight sequences than its predecessor, with two killers played by Common and Ruby Rose being just as deadly and almost as interesting as the film’s main character. Their showdowns are just a few of the action highlights, along with a massive shootout inside a series of catacombs that echoes the first film’s now iconic club sequence.
There are few film modern film series that can rival what Stahelski and Kolstad are doing in the John Wick franchise in terms of both action and the sheer vibrancy of the world seen on screen. With the ideas introduced here, it’s clear that there are more Wick films on the way. If they can match up to the thrills of Chapter 2, the John Wick franchise may quickly become one of great action film series.