It’s honestly a little hard to believe that it’s been more than two years since the release of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s action masterpiece John Wick, but here we are. Released at the end of October with barely any hype at all in the months leading up to its release, the film rode the wave of a spectacular trailer and glowing reviews from festival screenings all the way to its release, where it quadrupled its $20 million budget at the box office and gained a cult following almost immediately. A sequel was greenlit shortly afterwards, and now that it’s finally here, it’s safe to say that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a worthy successor to the first film, an exhilarating theatrical experience that manages to expand the fascinating underworld of assassins that the original set up while not losing sight of the emotional through line of its title character.
Set two weeks after the first film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gotten his car back, adopted an adorable (but nameless) pit bull puppy, and is ready to settle back into retirement. But before John can even go to sleep that night, Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes knocking on his door, ready to cash in a favor. With some coercion, Wick gets back in the game. But after he lands his target, D’Antonio betrays him and puts a bounty on his head, meaning that John has to headshot his way through all of New York City’s best assassins in order to get his revenge.
Those poor bastards.
Chapter Two sees director Chad Stahelski flying solo for this outing, with the first film’s co-director, David Leitch, going off to direct this summer’s Cold War spy thriller The Coldest City. However, it’s clear that Stahelski is as strong of a director on his own as he was with Leitch, because the direction is still top-notch. The budget has been doubled, and it clearly shows, because while the action fundamentally remains the same – clear, concise camera movements, practical stuntwork, bathing it all in neon lighting to give it a sense of other-worldliness not normally seen in this type of action movie – the scale of it is expanded. More of the action takes place in exterior locations, and even the action that takes place in interior settings gets a boost, resulting in memorable setpieces like an extended sequence in a subway station and the memorable climax at an art exhibit that leads to memorable images like the header photo for this review.
The split also doesn’t seem to have effected Stahelski’s work with actors that much, because the entire cast is great. The returning supporting players are all excellent in their brief amounts of screentime, with Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Thomas Sadoski, and Lance Reddick all shinging. But the newer members of the ensemble are fantastic as well. Peter Stormare Stormares up the place as the late Viggo Tarasov’s brother, Peter Serafinowicz kills it as a weapons dealer who uses wine terms to sell his wares, and Franco Nero himself shows up as the manager of the Rome branch of the Continental Hotel, and he easily has the best line in the whole film. But of the new additions, the real scene stealers are two mooks: Cassian and Ares, played by Common and Ruby Rose. Common’s turn as an ex-security guard out to kill Wick is outstanding, playing a more serious take on his character in Jaume Collet-Serra’s underseen Run All Night with absolute aplomb, and his fights with Wick are some of the best action beats in the whole film. And Ruby Rose is absolutely mesmerizing as Ares, a deaf assassin who rules the screen through sheer presence and sign language. This is the third franchise action film featuring Rose within the span of a month, and hopefully this leads to her profile being raised, because she absolutely deserves it.
And yes, Laurence Fishburne is in there as well, playing the leader of a group of homeless assassins called The Bowery King. Fishburne is clearly having a ball in the role, but outside of a number of spectacular one-liners, he doesn’t really get that much to do. Hopefully he gets to make an appearance in Chapter 3, and that if he’s there, he’ll get to kick some ass.
But overall, this really is Keanu’s film. John Wick is a character that I’d say was tailor-made for his strengths if I didn’t know that it was originally written as a potential vehicle for Liam Neeson. The character exudes Keanu’s trademark brand of cool while also exploiting his natural aloofness to sell the character’s world-weary exterior and deep sadness. In fifty years, John Wick is probably going to be considered Keanu’s defining character. That’s how much he works in the role.
Despite suffering from pacing issues that weren’t a problem in the previous film, which can probably be pegged on Chapter 2 being about twenty minutes longer than it, the movie is everything a John Wick fan would want a sequel to be. The action is sleek and well-choreographed, the cinematography, courtesy of Crimson Peak‘s Dan Laustsen, is gorgeous, the cast is full of character actors doing their character actor stuff turned up to eleven, and the humor is subtle, but effective. See it.