Back in the fall of 2014, a little movie called John Wick entered and left theaters without much fanfare. Hell, even this movie nerd didn’t see the movie ever launch into theaters. (I actually didn’t discover this until it aired on HBO – and I was pissed I even waited that long.) The film was heralded for its high-octane fight scenes and a return to form for star Keanu Reeves, who had been languishing in sub-par direct-to-video fare for years. Made for a mere $20 million, John Wick raked in $86 million worldwide in theaters and managed to accrue another $23.3 million on home video in the States alone. The film wasn’t bogged down by cookiecutter characters but served as an introduction to this cold killer looking to just enjoy his retirement. Hell, no one even thought a sequel would come to light, as the film was an open-and-closed narrative. While rumblings of a sequel ran rampant for months and more people discovered the little action movie that could, Lionsgate finally committed to a sequel. Though only under two and a half years have passed since the first installment released, John Wick: Chapter 2 is finally upon us. Propelled by a relentless marketing campaign and hitting on Valentine’s Day weekend (opposite some stiff competition too), the big question arose in my head – could the little movie that no one expected to captivate their thirst for action avoid Sequel-itis and even a better thrill ride?
At the current momentum of this envisioned trilogy, I think I could honestly say that John Wick could eventually satisfy audiences with a more memorable trilogy than another Keanu Reeves franchise – The Matrix. That’s a bold prediction to make, I’m aware, and I’m sure some fanboys out there will cry foul of that notion. After having recently sat down to all three films however, I can actually make that prediction without any regrets. (Seriously, has anyone binged the Matrix films lately? They really aren’t aging well at all.) It isn’t often that a sequel actually succeeds on building upon its predecessor and not retreading into familiar waters. Many middle films get drawn out but bring nothing new and fascinating to the table. John Wick: Chapter 2 may suffer from dreaded mid-trilogy symptoms on occasion but is made whole by revealing a deeper mythology and more dire consequences to sins committed. By the roll of the credits, Chapter 2 is only highlighted more with a whirlwind race for survival that bolsters action sequences that manage to outdo its predecessor and lay the groundwork for a finale that should do more than just tie up loose ends.
Picking up not long after subduing former employer Viggo Tarasov, Wick has one loose end to tie up – retrieving his prized 1969 Ford Mustang from imprisonment, the last to-do from his checklist of revenge most people probably forgot all about. Finally returning home and thinking he can finally bury his previous life deep in his basement and attempt retirement again, Wick is soon visited at his home by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). The gangster, who Wick entertains over a cup of coffee (and still nameless dog by his side), summons a marker and slides it across Wick’s dinner table, looking to make good on a blood debt Wick promised years prior to fulfill. Facing no other choice but to accept his duty, Wick accepts the job and completes his task overseas in Rome after considerable planning. Upon his return to New York, Wick discovers a $7 million bounty has been cast on his head and the city’s most ravenous trigger men are hot on his trail. Cornered and with nowhere to turn for aid, Wick begins to carve a bloody path of retribution throughout the Big Apple, with no one to trust but himself and his unmatched set of bone-breaking battle tactics.
John Wick: Chapter 1 (for easier frame of reference going forward) was a very lean and well-polished machine. Wick traversed from point A to point B with little effort, being torn asunder by the loss of his wife and her one last gift to his breaking heart, a comely puppy taken by a cretin who merely wanted a bright classic Ford Mustang for his trophy case. However, the original wasn’t meant to explore anything but the elementary necessities. Audiences got a basic understanding of the man that Wick had formerly been and was beginning to outwardly channel all over again. Theatergoers were introduced to a secondary cast of characters, played by screen vets like John Leguizamo and Ian McShane, who had interacted with Wick prior to shedding his violent tendencies, teasing us with glimpses at a sophisticated other world populated by a congregation of assassins and freelancers. That may be the only gripe I had with Chapter 1 – sure, the set pieces were beautifully woven together with such a forceful kinetic synergy, but the film was all style and lacked much of the substance needed to embrace this new world. In most hands, this would be a cheap straight-to-DVD affair with a smaller budget most people would have never watched unless on Netflix. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad, who created the franchise with the aim of a slow-burning trilogy, takes the time for audiences to see what truly lies behind the curtain in Chapter 2 – the world of the Continental and far more of the nuances we’ve been waiting to drink in like an decades-aged bottle of Merlot.
Adding these new layers does bog down the pacing like Randy’s winter jumper in A Christmas Story, but the intrigue does enable viewers to grasp the resources that John Wick has at his behest. We discover that The Continental in New York City isn’t the only lone safe haven, but part of an expansive network of nerve centers planted in major metropolitan centers throughout the globe. Each expanse is laden with the brightest individuals to bolster one’s particular job. A tailor who assembles handwoven suits that offer more than just a sense of modern fashion. A librarian who knows all the cracks and crevices of what to anticipate around each lurking corner. A gun connoisseur who has the right tools for every dinner course to serve to waves of henchmen. We’re also introduced more to the rules of the Continental and the High Table, a society of twelve of the most powerful bosses entrenched around the planet. We’re reminded that blood cannot be spilled on Continental grounds (lest we forget poor Ms. Perkins in Chapter 1). There’s also so much more that’s sprinkled in across the 122-minute run time as well, never feeling we’re weighted down with trivial facts. These smallest of nuances were sorely missed the first time around but give us a glimpse of the rules and laws that Wick, as well as his counterparts in the field, must continue to abide by or face excommunication in the fullest.
Naturally, Keanu Reeves continues to shine as the torn but diabolically ruthless John Wick. Many a movie aficionado would be quick to point out that Reeves doesn’t exactly have a wide range of acting chops. (Remember, he is an football player turned FBI agent and played one of the most-loved stoners in history – though Ted Logan was at least lovable and part of the Wild Stallions.) Sure, he’s gotten lucky in his career with the right casting, shining in films like Speed and even The Replacements , but Reeves has always done what he’s wanted to do on his own terms. His nuanced approach to the cold emotionless Wick does the right trick, a man who’s been broken into tiny slivers more than anyone should ever need to endure, sullen eyes overlooking the denizens of a crowd and assessing the threats looming at each turn. If Wick was a train wreck in Chapter 1, dealing with the loss of wife Helen and then her chance at emotional redemption with the cute puppy, then he’s more a brooding angry sack of silent rage hellbent on killing anyone trying to slow his path of vengeance. Wick doesn’t need to be a poet to get the point across. A bullet can do as much talking as a Shakespearean soliloquy. Reeves continues to not just keep us entertained with Wick’s ability to take down a roomful of brainless halfwit henchmen without breaking a sweat, but also his earthy approach to Wick. Wick converses in doublespeak to his friends (if you can even call those he’s associated with and yet trying to kill him that anyway). Then again, Wick has but has no problem in communicating with his fighting abilities as well. I don’t think any other actor in the genre could portray the angst-ridden Wick with such a glimmering gloss. As D’Antonio quips during one scene, “Not a man of many words.’ Indeed.
Moreover, the secondary cast of characters is a step above Chapter 1 as well. (I understand that we were supposed to loathe Tarasov’s son Iosef but God, sneering at the camera only works for a short amount of time.) Scamario’s Italian Mafioso is a genuine villain, not just a mustache-twirling scoundrel but a callous and calculating cutthroat always keeping one step ahead and playing his dealt hand when necessary. As much as I appreciated Michael Nyquist’s human but ruthless Viggo Tarasov, he didn’t quite have the cojones D’Antonio possesses. John Leguizamo returns as chop-shop owner Aurelio, given just a few minutes to demonstrate the camaraderie he and Wick have with each other. Ian McShane’s Winston, the manager of the New York Continental, also returns with an expanded role, serving to actually further the plot along and fill in the gaps when viewers don’t quite understand the new rules of being a member of the Continental entails. There’s also a wide bevy of newcomers added into the mix to cause a few wrinkles. Common, who previously sparred with Keanu Reeves in David Ayer’s Street Kings, joins the crew of protagonists as Cassian. Like Wick had been previously, Cassian serves as a ward and personal guardian who finds himself seeking vengeance with a thirst to spill blood, weaving a series of spectacular fisticuffs with Wick as he hunts the former hit man from Rome to New York, methodical in tactic but light in conversation. Same goes for Ruby Rose as Ares. She too serves as a ward, though to D’Antonio, and communicates via sign language. That’s right, she’s mute but she can kick more ass and handle herself better than most thankless female assassins we’ve seen. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ruby Rose (yes, she’s eautfil, but acting isn’t exactly her strength) but she has to rely on facial expressions to succeed in Chapter 2 and does so quite admirably. Oh, and yes, we finally get our reunion – Laurence Fishburne excels as the Bowery King who, as his luck runs, ran into Wick years prior and has risen to underworld prominence thanks to Wick’s fight-or-flight offer.
Of course, even with a great cast at hand, Chapter 2 isn’t perfect by any means. (There are other cast additions but worth uncovering for yourself instead of spoiling it like a child for all of you.) While Chapter 2 is a more finely polished flick than the 2014 franchise debut, I can’t help think this all just feels like a two-hour teaser to the inevitable third and final chapter. Listen, the right pieces are in play in this sequel. We’re introduced to the notion there is a bigger world out there inhabited by a global network of professionals for hire. Wick continues to veer further away from a normal suburban life and begins to realize his lust is for the feel of the action. The series of events that unfolds adds more to Wick’s inevitable restoration of his Boogeyman, nudging Wick towards his realization that he excels more as a gun-totting dynamo. The main issue at hand is that, dazzlingly choreographed action sequences aside, Chapter 2 feels more of a bridge between two other movies. Wick is pushed further away from the mundane life he envisioned with Helen. Connections he no longer desired association nor alliance with are brought back into the picture. Those he attempts to ward off aren’t left for dead but left with more of a to-be-continued status. Bigger plot points aren’t resolved and too retain a question mark as well. I applaud Kolstad for sticking to his goal of a fully-realized beginning, middle, and end but there should some conclusions closed in the middle chapter of a trilogy. Other trilogies seem to understand that chapters need to close in the second film, otherwise the more easily-answered questions dangle for another go-around but become lost in the shuffle. Also, lines like “consider this a warning” and “be seeing you” are just worthy of a facepalm. I get it, we’ll see this or that next time, but don’t make these things so damn obvious. I expect such things out of direct-to-video franchises. John Wick thus far has not been this type of series. There were times I almost was looking for one of the characters to hold up a sign saying “remember this” with a sly wink.
Still, what makes the franchise stand apart from its action genre brethren is the action. My God, what an adagio of glorified and jaw-dropping blunt force. Unlike the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix films, which were visionary in splendor but showcased stiff and stilted action sequences that haven’t aged well, both Wick films thus far have been a total 180. Maybe it’s the real-life training Reeves underwent with ex-special forces members. (The clip of Reeves shooting live ammo makes me feel totally useless when I’ve ever gone to a gun range.) Sure, the movie is a slow build riffled with a slew of set-up for the debt Wick needs to settle but, with the very first shot of his Glock, the action kicks in and doesn’t relent until the very end, a 90 minute race for the finish line with dangers nipping on his heels. I was worried that director Chad Stahelski (a veteran stuntman turned big-budget helmer) wouldn’t be able to surprise audiences. Though the various trailers teased what to expect, the final product is a delight to admire. Hell, I’m pretty sure that Chapter 2 manages to overshadow Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Vill: Volume 1 in the bloodbath department. I’m not evening wishing that sentence were true – it is true. The gun battles are even crazier to witness, the hand-to-hand brawls more jarring and bone-breaking, and the bullet wounds are messy. And by messy, I mean blood is spilled in buckets, more so than the House Of Blue Leaves showdown in Kill Bill. The sold-out showing I attended amazed me, as the crowd gasped and cheered the more Wick cut through the cannon fodder relentlessly chasing him down. As for the set pieces, even they too one-up anything done in Chapter 1. Ever seen a hero take on a gang using his car as an accessory – literally? Plus, the grand finale is a mesmerizing sight to behold, a dizzying standoff that unfolds like modern art that manages to play with your mind as Wick dodges baddies like a ballet dancer equipped with nothing but his know-how.
While I’m a tad disappointed that Chapter 2 feels more like your typical middle film affair on occasion, let’s face it – we’re not watching this movie for the drama. The action manages to outshine the craziness of Chapter 1 and is at least more than enough to keep my gripes on hold. Well, for now anyway. We’ll get John Wick: Chapter 3 in due time, there’s no doubt about that. The ending pretty much solidifies that inevitability. Stahelski and Kolstad finally go into deeper detail of the world that John Wick operates in, while managing to showcase why Wick was the most feared gun-wielding assassin in the world. In another set of hands, the tale of John Wick would be destined to the shelves of Walmart and left to rot. Thankfully, with a gifted cast and backed by the best team of stunt performers, we’ve been able to witness the fable of the Boogeyman light up the big screen. If you discovered John Wick on home video and were enthralled with the no-nonsense escapism of the theatrics, you’ll be surprised how far Chapter 2 elevates the franchise to new refreshing territory. I’m anxious to see how the franchise wraps up. As long as it’s less The Matrix Revolutions and more like Iron Man 3 in terms of wrapping matters up, I think we’ll all be overly grateful one trilogy dared other films in the genre to step up to the plate and elevate the game to a new standard.
Reber’s Rating – 88/100 (and bring on the grand finale already!)