“You wanted me back… I’m back!”
The first John Wick was an awesome surprise when it arrived in cinemas in 2014 (or 2015, if you were in the unlucky UK like me). It was shotgun blast to the face of action cinema, showing franchises like the shaky cam laden Taken series how action is meant to be done. In the 14 cuts it took Bryan Mills to clamber over a fence, John Wick had already wiped out an entire nightclub of bad guys. And before we witnessed any promotional material for John Wick I’m sure a lot of people thought they knew what sort of movie it would be. A new action movie directed by first time directors starring 50 year old Keanu Reeves? Well it was going to be yet another crappily directed action vehicle to reinvigorate the career of an ageing actor surely. But no, to many people’s surprise John Wick was a fantastic and dizzyingly kinetic action neo-noir film with fantastic direction and the best action sequences this side of John Woo’s 1990’s heyday. And to everyone’s surprise once again, John Wick Chapter 2 is somehow even better.
Set not long after the events of the first film, John has barely enough time to return to his sleek modernist house and wallow in depression before the past comes calling once again. In Chapter 2 it’s in the form of Riccardo Scamarcio as the sinister Santino D’Antonio, a man John has an unfortunate bond to. One so unfortunately strong that John is forced to return to the wacky world of assassination. The best thing about the first film was that, in preparing for the role, Keanu Reeves pretty much just became John Wick. You never got the sense that Liam Neeson could do the things Bryan Mills does in Taken, but watching Reeves fly about the screen, gun-fu-ing everyone to death you certainly get the sense he could have a successful side business as a dog loving hit-man. This level of commitment is increased even further for Chapter 2 as the much circulated video of Reeves in training shows. The action in Chapter 2 is, without any hyperbole, the best action seen in American cinema since Reeves’ own The Matrix 18 years ago (I’m calling Mad Max: Fury Road a purely Australian film for this analogy to work). Reeves crunches bones and blows extra holes in heads of an endless supply of foolish goons, frequently in one long unbroken take. The film makers dedication to in-camera stunt work is still phenomenal and the action flows like one long intensely brutal ballet. A particularly awesome scene sees John fleeing the scene of a hit through the labyrinthine catacombs of Rome. Not only does the setting instantly fit right into the John Wick series and its mythological world of underground assassins, it also allows for some spectacular action as Reeves barrels through the catacombs and through any poor henchmen in his way. Director and former Reeves stuntman, Chad Stahelski, mounts the action through clear long shots and long takes, making sure the audience follows every blood splattered impact.
The films direction outside of the exquisite action sequences is great too, as Stahelski brings the world to life as a beautifully over the top neo-noir. Neon lights frequently frame the screen and even the fight scenes are almost all bathed in a beautiful pastel coloured light. It’s stylish as hell, but there’s enough substance to back it all up. The world of assassins briefly explored in the first film is expanded in Chapter 2 as we see even more of the mythical assassin fraternity. John frequents the Continental hotel once again and we even learn there’s a chain of them across the globe, as John stays in the Rome hotel (run by the legendary Franco Nero). And we see a lot more of the other assassins this time too. The first film had bad-ass William Dafoe and a couple of others but that was pretty much it. Chapter 2 turns this 11 and has assassins hiding everywhere. A particularly cool montage scene sees John fighting his way across New York and encountering different colourful hit-men at every turn. We get hints at the higher ups of this secret world too, specifically the “High Table,” a council of high-level crime lords. We only get hints at them this time though, with seeds now being sown presumably for the sequel.
The cast of the sequel is pretty tremendous too. The John Wick film series attracts a certain type of actor; character actors and those who eschew a mainstream following for a more cult one. The first one had Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, and all but Dafoe (for obvious reasons) make an appearance again in the sequel. But once again Chapter 2 takes what made the first so great and dials everything up. So as well as those cult favourites Chapter 2 also adds a ton more faces. First up is Ruby Rose as the awesome mute bodyguard to Scamarcio’s Santino D’Antonio. The series wasn’t suffering from a lack of bad ass female characters (we had Adrianne Palicki’s Ms. Perkins in the first instalment) but having another great female foil for John isn’t a bad thing. Next we have Common as the kick ass Cassian, protector of Gianna D’Antonio and perhaps one of John’s only equals. A stellar fight scene between the both of them along the historic streets of Rome is a highlight, as is the silent gun fight they share through a group of oblivious New Yorkers later in the film. The deliciously hammy Peter Stormare also makes an appearance, as does Peter Serafinowicz as a sommelier dealing in something a little more heavy than wine. And rounding it all off is a magnificent Matrix reunion as the one and only Laurence Fishburne makes a late entry into the film and eats all of the scenery. The way the next sequel could top this would be cast the worlds greatest cult star and scenery chewing connoisseur; Nicolas Cage (dear god, please make this happen).
The bottom line: John Wick Chapter 2 is a success on every single level. It trumps its already brilliant predecessor and propels John into the big leagues. The direction by Stahelski is frequently outstanding and the action direction and choreography is amazing; it’s leagues above what anyone else in US cinema is doing. The blood soaked heart of the film though is the one and only Keanu Reeves. His characteristic nice guy earnestness works wonderfully against the anger and rage of the John Wick character. His commitment to the action scenes is second to none and his particular brand of gun-fu will no doubt go down as some of the best in action movie history. Combine Reeves with the other elements such as the fantastic cast and a funny and original screenplay and you have a pretty much perfect movie. It’ll be difficult for the sequel to top it to be honest, although I have one idea how they could…