If anyone doubted that a “John Wick” sequel was warranted, Keanu Reeves arrives in the first 10 minutes of the film to punch scores of mobsters far into some neighboring, strange universe. Almost immediately, all qualms about the film are put to rest, and our reintroduction to John Wick is utterly visceral. It’s as if Reeves himself grabs us by the shoulders, shakes them enthusiastically and proclaims “Look upon my gun-fu and tremble! Behold this fight choreography and weep mightily!” Indeed, “John Wick: Chapter 2” doesn’t merely set the standard for action movies, but for sequels as well.
The film picks up right after the events of the original, and this time around, retired assassin John Wick is called upon to settle an old debt. With his life depending on his new mission, he grudgingly sets off to Rome to complete it. Soon enough though, Wick must fend off old friends and foes alike.
Most sequels assume that bigger is better, and “John Wick: Chapter 2” avoids such a pitfall like any sane person avoids Wick himself. The film nuances the original’s most intriguing ideas, rather than blindly upping the scale. Every addition to the lore of “John Wick” is delightfully well-conceived, especially regarding the shadowy assassin’s guild. Within 122 minutes, the film accomplishes a degree of world building that surpasses an entire trilogy of “The Hobbit” — there is much to explore in Wick’s universe that justifies and even necessitates this sequel.
A good sequel doesn’t just expand the universe of the original, but it also takes its characters to uncharted narrative territory. The title of this film implies that the “John Wick” series is a story of chapters, and the film’s title is particularly apt because this is an evolution of Wick as a character. By the film’s end, Wick is a profoundly changed man — darker and more determined than ever. The character has a definite arc, a seemingly simple distinction many films can’t claim. The story takes risks with Wick’s character, putting him in scenarios which truly test his mettle, much like “The Dark Knight” and “The Empire Strikes Back” did before it. In this film, the stakes are raised to dizzying heights, and the film is better off for it.
With heightened narrative stakes comes heightened action, and as expected from Reeves and director Chad Stahelski, “John Wick: Chapter 2” delivers it in glorious bulk, like toilet paper from Costco but better and more exciting. The film orchestrates consistently jaw-dropping action set pieces, and each fight crescendos to moments that are truly memorable, whether it’s an inventive, wince-inducing kill or an applause-worthy stunt. As with the original, this film’s action is squeaky clean and seamless, relying on the raw martial arts skills of Reeves and the stunt team, rather than shaky cam and quick cutting. In fact, one wonders if “cut” is a word Stahelski is familiar with, or if a team of assistants were specifically charged to momentarily distract him with a puppy or two, just so a scene could end.
Not only does “John Wick: Chapter 2” feature some of the best action in recent memory, but the action takes place in beautiful sets. Partially set in Rome, the film deftly avoids clichéd landmarks and utilizes the city’s landscape instead. Nobody fights in the Trevi Fountain, but rather on cobblestone stairs that are both more natural and conducive to a fight scene. Additionally, the film’s finale offers especially impressive visuals, reminiscent of the original’s club scene in its stylized use of color to enhance the onscreen action.
Everything about “John Wick: Chapter 2” works wonderfully, from its deadpan humor to its stellar cast. The reunion between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne (co-stars in “The Matrix”) is itself worth the price of admission, and it doesn’t hurt that Ruby Rose and Common make for assassins worthy to fight Wick himself. If anything, this film needs and deserves audience support so that films like it — genre flicks focused on quality and detail rather than making a quick buck — will continue to be made.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is currently playing at Shattuck Cinema.
Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected]lycal.org.