In 2014, former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch teamed up to direct John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitman who finds himself forced back into the business when a group of Russian mobsters attack him, steal his car, and kill his dog, the latter of which was a gift from his wife before she died to help him cope. The film was a solid commercial success upon release, grossing over four times its modest $20 million budget. It also did great with critics and fans of the action genre, who praised the film for its incredibly shot and choreographed action sequences in an age of rapid-edit, ‘PG-13-friendly’ action. And this year, the legendary ‘Baba Yaga’ is back for another round of vengeful, but also stylish, gunplay in John Wick: Chapter 2. Reeves, of course, returns in the title role as does director Chad Stahelski, though this time around, David Leitch is only serving as an executive producer. Then again, only Stahelski was credited as director for the first film by the Directors Guild of America, even though both directed it. Plus, Leitch went off to work on the upcoming spy thriller The Coldest City and is also being primed to helm the sequel to Deadpool, so I think it’s safe to say that he was just tied up with other projects. But, thankfully, this doesn’t affect John Wick: Chapter 2 too much because, oh boy, this film is one epic action sequel. And that’s because it does two great things at once. Not only does it maintain plenty of the same great elements of the first film, particularly in terms of its action sequences, but it also feels like a natural follow-up, upping the ante in all the right ways without losing the badass aura of the original.
At the end of John Wick, the titular ex-hitman (Keanu Reeves), known by many in the assassin community as ‘The Boogeyman’, successfully avenged the death of his dog Daisy at the hands of the Tarasov family. And after finally getting his vintage 1969 Mustang back as well, which he retrieves from the chop shop owned by Viggo Tarasov’s brother Abram (Peter Stormare) in this film’s opening sequence, John prepares to retire once again, having picked up a new dog (which isn’t given a name in the film) from an animal clinic at the end of the first film. However, he is soon approached by another old associate of his, Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has come for payment over a blood oath that he and John made years ago, in which the former helped the latter retire from the business. John initially declines the offer, saying that he is ‘retired for good’, but when Santino destroys his home as payback, he quickly finds that he has no other choice. To fulfill his side of the bargain, John is directed to Rome, where he is tasked with taking down a high-value target so that Santino can take their place on the council of crime lords known as ‘the High Table’. But even after John pulls off this job, Santino then betrays him and places a $7 million bounty on his head. News of the bounty attracts the attention of every major assassin in New York, putting ol’ ‘Baba Yaga’ on the run as he goes on his own path of vengeance against Santino.
Just like the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 features some incredible action sequences that highlight all the great camerawork, editing, and stunt choreography that went into making them. Heck, being that it’s basically set not too long after the events of the first film, this film comes right out the gate with an awesome sequence in which John fights through a bunch of goons to get his car back. There’s that, a big shootout within Roman catacombs, a fight in the New York City Subway, a fight within a hall of mirrors, etc. Bottom line, just like the first film, there’s plenty of standout fights in this film, so much so that it’s admittedly hard to pick just one as a favorite. And as for being a sequel, this basically does the best thing that any good sequel should do; it ups the ante of the story’s stakes without losing sight of what made the first film work so well. As I noted in my review of the first film, I really admired the simplicity of its plot execution. John’s motivations are clear throughout and the set-up of the assassin world is excellent without going into too much detail. From the ‘honor system’ that’s set up at the Continental Hotel, which caters to the criminal underworld but maintains the ground rule of not having one’s business occur on property, to the montage in which John meets with various people in Rome (e.g. a tailor, a ‘Sommelier’ (Peter Serafinowicz), etc.) to acquire his supplies before he goes on his latest mission, these films set up a cool world in which assassins go about their business in a graceful manner. All that, of course, was there in the first film and in this film, writer Derek Kolstad does just enough to further expand this universe without losing the narrative’s charming simplicity.
John Wick… is a badass; simple as that. And Keanu Reeves is badass in the role. From doing his own stunts (while in his 50’s, no less!) to just maintaining a calm and collected persona throughout, a perfect representation of Wick’s highly-effective and tactical approach to everything he does, this may arguably be Reeves’ greatest role to date when it comes to his forays into the action genre. In other words, he was just a perfect fit for this role. And of course, like the first film, he’s got a nice cast of highly memorable supporting characters to back him up. There are some of the returning characters from the first film, like Ian McShane as the diplomatic owner of the Continental Hotel in New York and John Leguizamo as Wick’s friend and chop shop owner Aurelio. And then there’s also some of the new additions to the cast, like Common as Cassian, the bodyguard of John’s high-value target who becomes more of a ‘rival’ to him once John takes out the target, and Ruby Rose as Santino’s mute henchwoman Ares, who John crosses paths with numerous times over the course of the film. Plus, fans of The Matrix will no doubt get a kick out of the scene where Reeves is reunited with Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne, who plays a New York crime boss known as the ‘Bowery King’. But, once again, I find that the main villain, Santino, is the weakest link of the film. Again, like Viggo and Iosef from the first film, he’s not a ‘bad’ villain’, per se; he’s got nice set-up in terms of his relationship with John and all. But, also like Viggo and Iosef, he tends to get overshadowed by all the supporting characters.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of the best action film sequels of all-time. Of course, that’s also benefitted from the fact that it’s a sequel to one of the best action films of the past decade, the original John Wick. Like its predecessor, Chapter 2 features excellent action sequences that are well-shot, finely-edited, and wonderfully choreographed. But then, of course, the film must deal with the fact that it’s a sequel, and overall, it handles that aspect brilliantly by feeling like a natural follow-up to the first film. The ways in which the story and action are built up from the first film are incredibly well-handled. In other words, the film still manages to maintain the simplistic charm of the first film while also upping the ante in terms of the action sequences as well as raising the stakes for John. On that note, without giving anything away, the way in which this film closes provides us with an awesome set-up for the third film. It ends on such a bold note that I think it’s safe to say that fans of this series will be eagerly awaiting John’s next adventure, whenever it comes out, to see how it all ends. But now, the big question is this; did this film also manage to outdo its predecessor? Well, while I do think that both films are great in terms of how they film their action and for the nice, simple execution of their stories, I think I do have to say that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a superior sequel to what was already a great action film.