Sometimes these things write themselves.
It’s another John Wick movie. What else do you really need to know? The frowning has intensified, the body count has doubled, and Wick, Keanu Reeves’ reticent ex-hitman, has taken his puppy-inspired killing spree international. The first of these movies, an instant cult-classic from 2014, saw Wick turn Lower Manhattan into Tiananmen Square. This new instalment also starts and ends in New York, but it finds plenty of time for scenic detours through the galleries, bathhouses and catacombs of Rome. It’s the best Hong Kong martial arts movie set in Europe, and the best 90s action movie released in the 2010s.
John Wick wasn’t a “good” movie in any traditional sense of the term. Neither is the sequel. It didn’t have nuanced characters, stellar plotting or crackling dialogue. Neither does the sequel. It was 100 minutes of a lethal assassin’s psychotic breakdown; a mass-murder spree in the heart of America’s biggest city. So is the sequel. But both movies are a gloriously good time because they understand their own appeal. And a big part of that appeal is the very specific pop-cultural presence of Keanu Reeves, which John Wick essentially weaponizes. It does the same thing for other stars; Willem Defoe in the first one, Laurence Fishburne in the second, Ian McShane in both. The cast are playing their own archetypes, with all the metatextual significance that implies. Reeves shares a few scenes with Fishburne, who here is playing a bird-whispering hobo crime lord, but it’s fun because what you’re really seeing is the reunion of Morpheus and Neo.
It mostly goes without saying, but casting Reeves as a rampaging uber-assassin lends itself remarkably well to balletic action sequences, and they’re as elaborately-choreographed, slick and stylized in Chapter 2 as they were in the original. Reeves might have the dramatic range of a paper bag with a sad face drawn on it, but he’s a remarkable physical performer. And you need that in an action movie. It’s not just about looking convincing in the shootouts and fisticuffs, although that’s certainly a part of it, but when the fun of those shootouts and fisticuffs is reliant on the hero being vastly superior to everyone he comes into contact with, you need to somehow raise the stakes and build drama without undermining him. Reeves seems to implicitly understand that, and you can imagine that Chad Stahelski, the director, who spent most of his career as Reeves’ stunt double, understands it too. So, while Wick can never be stopped, only slowed down, you can feel him shouldering the physical toll of the near-constant shooting, stabbing and slapping. By the end of the movie he looks knackered.
And so he should, really. John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t all action by any means, but there’s a lot of it, and even the slower, quieter scenes feel exhausting. Without the need for caninecide to kick-start the plot, this one is free to jump straight into the wacky internal politics of the surprisingly well-organised assassin community. In order to retire in the previous movie, Wick had to complete an “impossible task”, and for help he turned to the smarmy Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Ricardo Scamarcio). When you are part of a secret fraternity of hitmen, doing someone a solid is pretty complicated. It involves a blood oath and ancient tradition, and if you refuse to offer your services in return your creditor is apparently well within his rights to burn your house down. John Wick is understandably upset about this, but with the rules and regulations of professional murder being what they are, he ends up doing the job anyway. He needs to take out D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), to free up her seat on the “High Council”, which as far as I can tell is the nebulous body in charge of worldwide organised crime. It comes as a surprise to precisely nobody that, once the deed is done, D’Antonio opens a contract on Wick himself in order to cover his tracks.
That’s your premise, then, and in all honesty, it never gets much more complicated than that. There’s a lot of fun stuff in and around the Continental hotel where all the assassins hang out; it feels more fantastical than before, but it retains the same low-key, naturalistic worldbuilding that was one of the first movie’s secret weapons. You get to find out why everyone is so reluctant to give old Johnny a pencil, and there are parts in all this tomfoolery for Franco Nero, as McShane’s Italian equivalent, and the great Peter Serafinowicz as the bloke who measures all the assassins for bulletproof suits. The rest of the supporting cast acquit themselves most admirably in the action sequences, especially Ruby Rose, as a mute assassin, and Common, as the bodyguard of Wick’s mark, who takes his failure to keep her alive rather personally. There’s a spectacularly audacious sequence in which Wick and Common discreetly pursue each other through a packed gallery while taking potshots with silenced pistols, and it was around that point that the movie’s swaggering self-confidence really won me over. It occurs to me that there’s no better version of this kind of movie available anywhere else right now.
Is it better than the first one? Yes, it is. I mean, in a way it is the first one, just more of it, but in all the ways that count it’s bigger, bolder and… yeah, better. The only thing it lacks is the same sense of welcome surprise, but that’s a hardly a criticism. I’m not about to start complaining that a movie turned out to be as good as everyone thought it would. Besides, John Wick: Chapter 2 takes its duties as a sequel very seriously, which is rare for this kind of movie. It retains everything that was great about its predecessor and expands outwards in exciting, interesting ways, sure; but it even takes the time to tie up loose ends. It opens just a few hours after the end of the first film, with Wick splattering leftover Slavs right to the doorstep of Peter Stormare as the desk-bound brother of part one’s villain. Just in case you felt like a sequel wasn’t warranted, Chapter 2 does the necessary paperwork. It’s that kind of devotion that makes the already-in-production Chapter 3 feel less like a threat and more like a promise.
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