Keanu Reeves returns as the unstoppable assassin John Wick in the sequel to his only other successful action franchise since “The Matrix.” Will this second chapter betray everything that made the first one unique or will it join the exclusive club of sequels that surpassed their predecessors?
Among the many things that made the original film unique was Keanu’s choice in directors. There were two, not just one director, and both of them had a history heavy in stunt work. Over the years, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch moved beyond just performing stunts and into stunt coordination and finally assistant directing. Having met them while working on “The Matrix”, Keanu employed them because he felt they could bring a different perspective to the American Action Genre. It ended up being a rematch made in heaven. Gone were there multiple cuts on every move and excessive shaky cam, replaced with choreographed long takes and weapon dances; a glossy new beast was born.
Stahelski has sole directing credit this time as Leitch, who is currently working on “Deadpool 2” did not return for Chapter 2. While his absence is noticeable in some action choreography the overall film still shines as Stahelski incorporates new elements while exaggerating the humor and mythos from the original.
The movie opens quite soon after the events in John Wick. He extracted his vengeance, wiped out most of the local Russian crime syndicate, and even got a new dog. But he still needs his car back! This pre-title sequence reintroduces us to the John we love. Exaggerated Subtitles, aggressive driving, joint dislocations and broken bodies abound. This opening, which could have been the climax of many lesser action films, feels a bit restrained. It’s good, but the takes aren’t as long, the camera is shakier than we remember, and Wick’s moves seem oddly repetitious. There even appear to be a few continuity errors involving broken glass. Coupled with what seems to be a direct continuation of the previous storyline, fear that this could turn into a no-effort money grab begin to seep in.
These concerns are quickly squashed as the film wastes no time in throwing another impossible task that he cannot refuse at our emotional anti-hero. Like most action films, the journey is far more important than the goal. The first act is almost entirely setup with John traveling to Rome and visiting another “Company Hotel” complete with a very specialized tailor and a Sommelier who is far more versed in weaponry than wine. Some viewers may become impatient with this portion of the film, but Stahelski clearly has fun with the characters who are just shy of being self-aware as he fleshes out this shadowy underworld. All this setup and world-building pays off in the final two acts as the action (and subsequent consequences) increase in violence, beauty, and insanity at an almost exponential rate with Wick pausing only occasionally for us to catch our breath.
Perhaps even more impressive than the fight scenes are the eye-gouging visuals. The Rome backdrop in the first half of the movie provides a gorgeous contrast between old and new. Ancient tunnels and passageways are lit by LED strips and automatic fire. Techno Rock bands play to a crowd within historic ruins. Beautiful exotic cars line the brick roads. It’s a breathtaking combination. A fascinating, although occasionally heavy-handed Catholic overtone permeates the film as Wick and others contemplate the damnation of their souls. An “Enter the Dragon”-esque cat and mouse game through an interactive art exhibit called “Reflection of your Soul” is particularly fascinating. As Michael Bay’s overuse of the Orange&Teal action pallet has become so dated, Stahelski continues to paint Wick’s world in neon Blue&Red in an oversaturated motiff that would make Nicolas Winding Refn proud.
If there are any complaints to be made, it’s against a rather surprising element. Another Matrix alumni makes an appearance in this film, but it’s likely not what you’d expect. When Laurence Fishburne faces Keanu atop a city skyscraper we instinctively prepare ourselves for something epic. Neo and Morpheus together again! Wick even throws a line about “choice” at him! But Fishburne’s role ends up being nothing more than a padded cameo of an almost unnecessary character. The problem isn’t with the writing, or the character itself, but with the grandiose persona Fishburne crams into this odd duck. It’s a minor gripe in what could be considered a master-class on American Action films. If you are simply a fan of the first film or a full blown action connoisseur, “John Wick Chapter 2” is a must see!