by Philip Price
It is amazing how well “John Wick: Chapter 2” actually works. There is no reason this unexpected sequel works as well as it does as the original was designed to be a contained story, a simple and straightforward revenge tale, but the biggest obstacle “John Wick: Chapter 2” was going to face is seemingly overcome within the first 15 minutes-‘Chapter 2’ gracefully jumping over the hurdle to move on rather swiftly to establish a bigger picture for which to further justify the existence of this film while simultaneously setting up what is clearly meant to be a trilogy capper. Never would I have imagined sitting in the theater nearly two and a half years ago that this stylish, but seemingly unexceptional action flick would not only reignite the fire for Keanu Reeves, but prove itself one of the better action flicks of the last decade. Having re-watched the first “John Wick” this past week before venturing out to see ‘Chapter 2,’ I easily enjoyed it more than I had initially-the world in which it established suddenly becoming all the more appealing, the empathy in which it developed for its titular character becoming all the more palpable. This isn't traditionally a reaction I have to films when re-visiting them. If anything, most movies lose a little bit of their charm on repeat viewings-the cracks becoming clearer than they were upon first glance, but it was very much evident by the time the credits rolled that “John Wick” was meant to be appreciated for more than just the surface pleasures despite being a movie all about the surface pleasures. For as much as the movie served as a platform for Reeves and his stuntmen to go through set piece after breathtaking action set piece it really allowed Reeves the opportunity to play a character who doesn't emote much in a forward fashion, but who bottles it up and exudes it through these actions. This isn't to say the two ‘John Wick’ films have a giant amount of substance to them, but that they are the rare type of action blockbuster that executes their necessary beats accordingly while at the center featuring an individual we can really get behind, someone we really feel invested in, sorry for, and connected with-so much so that despite the fact they murder countless people at point blank range, some of which probably had no desire to face Wick, he is still the one we root for come the end of the day. John Wick is the one we want to see walk away from the explosion unharmed; the one we want to see fire the last bullet; the one who we want to be still standing when the smoke clears muttering, "I told you so." This sounds simple, but it is not for nothing that this affection comes to exist. It is on this affection for our titular character that these films separate themselves from the pack.
Picking up some five minutes or so after the first film ends we meet John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as he crashes Abram's (Peter Stormare, who was destined to show up in one of these eventually), brother of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the baddie from the original, party. Abram obviously runs in similar circles as his brother, but more importantly it is the fact Abram's is the one who ended up with Wick's car, his '69 Mustang Cobra, and if he can't get his dog back, Wick is at least going to get his ride back. This lends Chad Stahelski, riding solo in the director's chair this time after co-directing with David Leitch on the original, the opportunity to craft a type of action scene we didn't see in the first film-a car chase. Displaying Wick can be just as effective with a car as he is with a gun Stahelski keeps the framing wide and the in-camera stunts as bountiful as possible. To see Wick navigate an open warehouse parking lot with the speed offered by his vehicle and the intensity with which Reeves drives every moment of his characters mission is to see all the elements that made the original “John Wick” an exception among his peers, but on an even a grander scale than before-which is part of the fun of sequels. As the film then wraps up any unfinished business from the first movie within the opening 15 minutes or so it became almost nerve-wracking that the curse of the unjustified sequel might fall upon “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Were they going to kill the pit bull and repeat the onslaught of faceless murders that took place in order for Wick to reach the culprit? Fortunately, no. Rather, once Wick and his new canine companion return home and turn his beat-up Mustang over to Aurelio (John Leguizamo) for repairs it isn't long before he receives a visit from someone from his past. This unknown and mysterious figure turns out to be Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the heir to a notorious Italian crime family who just so happened to assist Wick in his retiring from the assassin world. After hearing Wick was more or less back in the game, D'Antonio comes a calling as Wick owes him what is referred to as a "marker" which is essentially a blood oath Wick took that he must now reluctantly honor.
The mission is simple: kill D'Antonio's sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who inherited their father's seat at the upper-most level of crime lords referred to as the "High Table" so that D'Antonio can take her place. I bring up the mission in its entirety to highlight what was my favorite part of the original film and how this sequel expands upon that facet. Whereas the first film introduced us not only to Wick, but gave glimpses of this entire underground society where assassins refer to one another on a first name basis and share hotels, namely "The Continental" run by Winston (Ian McShane), “John Wick: Chapter 2” expands upon such a world by again upping the scale of the operation. In order for Wick to accomplish his task he must travel to Rome and thus we meet more top of the line assassin's that Wick has some sort of history with as well as learning that each major city or country has a Continental of their own. Furthermore, Wick later utilizes a new character named Bowery King played by Laurence Fishburne, which in turn creates a nice little Matrix reunion, who assists him in reaching the elusive D'Antonio as the crime lord never intended to leave Wick alive no matter how successfully he completed his "marker." It is this universe in which the ‘John Wick’ movies exist from which much of the fun is born. Sure, the majority of the film is made up of precise and impeccably choreographed fight scenes with Wick remaining largely emotionless throughout, but that such actions are being completed through these ideas that have seemingly been passed down for a great many years and are still honored and not just that, but held in high regard is rather fascinating. It is easy to look at both the original film and the sequel as straight-up action films, which they are, but they also tend to offer more substance than we expect as the final, climactic moments highlight the strange kinship we have come to feel with the character (likely more out of a desire to possess such abilities rather than mimic wholly). This sympathy of sorts allows the viewer to understand and forgive a surprising amount. We are thrilled by the effortless ways in which Wick takes down countless hordes of D'Antonio's men and not only that, we're cheering for him. Pair this elevated awareness of the arc that the titular character is taking with the embellishments of the world established in the original and “John Wick: Chapter 2” not only ups the ante the way a sequel should, but it unpacks more layers to things we only thought we had fully come to understand the first time around.
What also works so well in favor of the ‘John Wick’ films is the lead performance in Reeves. Never has the actor been one for much range, but here he is more or less forced to play it straight with the small nuances of the character only coming through via the actions he takes. Never does Reeves put on a guise that seems to tell viewers he enjoys killing mountains of people, but rather we read between the lines and come to see that Wick, despite his great skill, is never that jazzed to have to use such skills. He doesn't want to be here, he doesn't want to exist in this world, but as his hand is forced he takes on this soulless scowl goes through the obligatory motions in order to have the means result in the necessary end. Reeves is a perfect choice for this kind of subdued machismo as it is Wick who draws us into the situations and only person the film really cares about. Reeves has enough charisma to maintain that care and interest whereas this time around he is at least challenged slightly for that attention. In the first film neither Tarasov nor his brat son were worthy opponents for Wick. In ‘Chapter 2,’ Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad give Wick two worthy opponents in Common's Cassian as well as D'Antonio's head of security, Ares (portrayed by "it" girl of the moment Ruby Rose). This gives what were mostly faceless antagonists in the first film a more endearing quality while at the same time forcing Wick to display deeper shades of the resentment and weight his actions will inevitably put on his conscience. Again, “John Wick: Chapter 2” doesn't exactly offer a subtle character study than its predecessor, but rather we understand the psychology of this killing machine a little better and that is honestly more than anyone expected from a movie such as this. And though it certainly doesn't hurt that other layers exist, one would be fooling themselves to think the most impressive thing about either of the ‘John Wick’ pictures isn't the action. Filmed again with a very digital, very sleek, very neon-hued aesthetic the hand to hand, gun to gun, and pencil to head combat is all shot in camera with little to no cuts so as to deliver the full effect of every bone crunching combination and every blunt shot of the gun. Stahelski moves his camera as swiftly through the action as Wick does his body-the combination of as much creating a thrilling sense of the most violent dance ever danced. If you want more of the same, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is up for that game, but if you want a little more, maybe higher stakes and bigger gun battles-well, ‘Chapter 2’ is up for that as well.