A few years ago, Keanu Reeves returned to screens in a big way with the action-thriller John Wick, an otherwise formulaic hitman film with inventive gunplay and fight choreography. The writers opted for a revenge storyline that almost laughs at itself — they didn’t kill his wife, they didn’t take his daughter… but they did kill his dog. Now there was an entire new motive for an insane body count thriller, mostly designed to showcase a series of action sequences that upended the tragic shaky-cam and editing of the Bourne series into something audiences could… you know… see.
John Wick was largely successful in creating a mythology out of this world of assassins, and bringing about its title character as a rogue-like and brutal antihero. Reeves, no stranger to martial arts and fight choreography, managed to become the perfect star to play such a dreary, cold and wooden assassin-killer. John Wick 2 is the kind of sequel that doesn’t really up the ante (maybe the body count), but simply continues on with what worked the first time. However you felt about the first film, you will feel about the sequel.
Chad Stahelski (co-director of John Wick) is the sole helmer of Chapter Two, and the film opens immediately following the events of the original, as Wick seeks to finish his revenge quest to retrieve his stolen car and avenge his dog. He fends off a fair helping of goons, taking some hard hits in the process. And just when Wick thinks he’s out of the game (once again), an old colleague, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), places a ‘marker’ at John’s fingertips, requesting the assassination of his sister. When John initially refuses and his home is attacked, he decides to pay the debt one last time in the hopes of walking away forever. But of course, these things never work out and Wick is on the run from a slew of assassins after his task is complete.
The choreography and the mythology (which reaches absurd levels) of John Wick’s world are again the highlights of this exceptionally-crafted action film. Whatever one thinks of the silliness of these films, it is hard to deny how deftly fine-tuned the makers have constructed the physical components. Every fisticuff leaves Wick in a power struggle that seemingly tests his skills and strength. There’s a reality to it that somehow combats the cheese factor.
Of the added cast members, Common joins the ranks this time, and becomes one of John’s main antagonist killers throughout the film. The duo has been evenly matched and their vicious attacks on each other reach a humorous level of intensity. If there’s one thing John Wick 2 gets right — it’s finding the humor in the cartoonish carnage. There’s a brilliant ‘quiet’ shootout between the two of them in a subway station — one of the highlights of many. Laurence Fishburne also has a brief but playful reunion with Reeves, and the two don’t miss a beat — as if they just stepped off the set of The Matrix. There’s a comrade-chemistry between the two that I hope is explored in future installments.
While Chapter Two excels as physical exercise in excellent framing and stunt work, its storytelling shortcomings keep it from absolute greatness. This is a niche action franchise that does what it does very well, but it’s not designed for emotional investment. Reeves convincingly chops his way into your memory, but he won’t make you care about Wick or his plight. Instead, John Wick Chapter Two is intended as a macho action movie, whose hero is as layered a single sheet of paper. That’s okay, because like its predecessor, it’s still a lightweight blast.
Image: Thunder Road Pictures