A few years ago the world was stunned when a low budget Keanu Reeves action movie turned out to be friggin’ awesome. John Wick seemingly came out of nowhere, but thanks to a delightfully tongue-in-cheek script and some of the finest fight scenes to come out of Hollywood in years, the flick instantly developed a cult. Co-directed by longtime stunt veterans Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, John Wick mixed the minimalist cool of a classic Walter Hill romp with the neon macho perfectionism of vintage Michael Mann, and the gun-fu ballet of old-timey John Woo in a movie almost too bad-ass for words. Even better, the flick made money while pleasing all the vintage action nuts, so now we’ve all been treated to John Wick: Chapter 2, and thank god it doesn’t disappoint.
The movie kicks off with a little silent movie comedy to remind everyone about origins of the action stunt work we love so dearly, and also as a cheeky checkpoint to ensure none of what follows is taken seriously. From there director Chad Stahelski (David Leitch didn’t join in the fun this time as he had another action movie to direct, plus Deadpool 2 to prepare) stages a goddamn delightfully ridonkulous action scene in which John Wick (Reeves) uses vehicles like weapons to complement his guns, knives, along with his deadly fists and feet. From there the plot kicks in. No dead dogs this time. Instead, an old frenemy from Wick’s past (Riccardo Scamarcio) pops up to demand Wick to a job to pay off a debt. When John politely refuses, a rocket launcher is used to enforce the arrangement. Then Wick returns to Ian McShane’s Continental Hotel to make arrangement for a trip to Rome to fulfil his debt with a murder that obviously leads to dozens of more murders and an endless stream of stylised shootouts. Did you expect anything less?
For a film by a pair of first-time directors, it was unbelievable how much confidence and style went into the original John Wick. Stahelski n’ Leitch might have been building their own oddball action universe, but they did it on the back of a mountain of influences that combined into something fresh yet familiar. John Wick: Chapter 2 dives right back into that world and ramps things up, but not too much. Much of the humour from John Wick comes from all of the unspoken rules and bonds of this strange secret world of international assassins where everyone seems aware of a mythology the filmmakers never bother to explain. That’s continued here as the assassin network grows international with a Rome chapter and suggestions of similar places all over the world. Thankfully the script never explains while expanding the lore. We see more but never have to suffer through exposition. That would delay all the punch-punch, bang-bang.
Instead the movie rockets from one set piece to the next. If there aren’t fists or bullets flying, then Reeves is chatting up some sort of cult character actor in terse one-liners in an increasingly lavish setting. The whole movie whizzes by with a certain deadpan comedy. It’s all treated seriously, despite being ridiculous and the actors are clearly winking along having fun. The cast is crazy this time with everyone from Ruby Rose and Common to Warriors’ legend David Patrick Kelly, straight-faced comedian Peter Serafinowicz, and even Reeves’ old Matrix sparring partner Laurence Fishbourne popping up to steal scenes. The casting all feels self-conscious, often serving as a punchline. When Reeves arrives in Rome to set up his grand assassination, the movie starts to take on the feel of an old Italian Eurotrash action thriller, and then the legendary Franco Nero (aka the original Django) pops up as the Italian equivalent of Ian McShane’s malevolent crimelord to hammer home the reference. Sometimes you laugh just from seeing an actor’s face, then the one-liners and slapstick violence pile on to get the real laughs.
And good lord is the action ever fantastic. Emboldened by the success of the first flick and gifted with a larger budget, Chad Stahelski arguably tops the finale of John Wick in the first scene and then goes about topping himself every 10 minutes or so. Sure, there are some clunkers (a machine gun shootout in the catacombs of Rome goes on a little too long), but for the most part, the action scenes just keep getting bigger and better. It’s always physical, it’s always brutal, and there’s always a certain level or irony and slapstick employed to make it fun. By the climax, Stahelski starts cutting together several fight scenes at once and going public with his ludicrous fisticuffs amongst a sea of extras. It’s all a big glorious bloody ballet guaranteed to put a smile on any action movie lover’s swollen face. Keanu Reeves once again holds it all together with an impressive physical commitment, and a less-is-more approach to acting that confirms his star power and ass-kickery.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is thankfully one of those rare sequels that is undeniably an equal. It takes everything that worked about the first movie, serves up more, amps up what you love, and never slows down long enough for you to consider how absurd it all is. The only thing that prevents Chapter 2 from topping Chapter 1 is a little bit of over-ambition. There was a tight elegance to the last round of dumb-dumb John Wick fun that this sequel can’t match due to sprawling ambition and an embracement of the absurd. It’s not quite as satisfying, especially when it wraps up with a cliffhanger setting up Chapter 3. On the plus side, dumb action movies don’t need to be tightly plotted, and it’s hard not to walk out of the theatre excited for the potential of a bigger, stupider, funnier, and even more insane threequel. Somehow Keanu Reeves has found himself a third franchise worth following. God bless you, sir. That’s an achievement that I must stand back and admire with a stunned, “Whoa.”