Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Common & Ian McShane
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release Date: February 2017
Running Time: 122 mins
Synopsis: Legendary hitman John Wick is forced back out of retirement by a former associate plotting to seize control of a shadowy international assassins’ guild. Bound by a blood oath to help him, John travels to Rome where he squares off against some of the world’s deadliest killers.
As evidenced by its title, John Wick: Chapter 2 is less of a sequel to 2014’s smash-hit John Wick and is more of a continuation, taking place mere days after the events of the first movie. The opening act feels like an epilogue to Wick’s original crusade as he retrieves his stolen vehicle and reburies his past (quite literally) in an attempt to return back to retirement. Unfortunately for Wick, his return to the underworld – albeit for noble reasons – has caused a ripple and he finds himself forced to honour a blood debt against his will. Pivoting away from revenge, this chapter in Wick’s story lacks the same emotional core as its predecessor, but it is fun to see Wick in his element as he plans his hit and gets outfitted with weapons, clothes and information.
After merely scraping the surface in the first movie, screenwriter Derek Kolstad delves slightly deeper into this curious underworld of international assassins and the rules and regulations that they abide by, further focusing on the mythology of the Continental hotels as neutral sanctuaries and the mysterious ‘high table’ council of mob-bosses. The world-building is fantastic and gives the series an otherworldly feel that is slightly out-of-sync of the real world – this is typified by the way that Wick is targeted in the open by various assassins and the general public seem oblivious or nonchalant about the violence. Wick’s criminal world lies just beneath the veneer of normality – be it lavish hotels, impromptu raves in Roman ruins or the underground sewers of the city’s homeless. This is most noticeable when a contract on Wick goes public and seemingly ordinary people become activated like sleeper agents. I love this hyper-stylized approach to reality and how the assassin’s operate in plain sight without consequences; one key scene is when Wick and Cassian are firing silenced pistols at each other in a packed metro station with the general public seemingly unaware of the chaos happening in whispered tones.
Keanu Reeves reprises the role perfectly, adding a slight reluctance and hesitation to the character as he is forced to perform a contract against his will. It’s interesting to see the juxtaposition between the force of nature persona of John Wick (“Baba Yaga”) that others perceive him as versus the actual man himself – who is flawed and at times, vulnerable. Reeves strikes that balance perfectly, giving us a three-dimensional action hero protagonist who isn’t invincible – despite the many urban legends to the contrary. Throughout the film, he undergoes plenty of injuries and damage, becoming out-gunned and out-manned plenty of times over – he seems to be playing defence for the majority of this film, as opposed to his offense position in the previous film. He also makes some terrible judgments at times, and is not quite the calculating assassin that he is portrayed as. The film’s climax leads into a strong cliff-hanger that sees Wick even more isolated than before, and promises an action-packed third instalment to the franchise.
The film sees the return of some familiar supporting characters – Lance Reddick as Charon, and Ian McShane as Winston – both of whom are tied to the rules of the Continental, but offer Wick as much under the table help as they can. The film introduces a new ally in the form of the Bowery King, played by Lawrence Fishburne, and it is great to see him reunited with Reeves after their iconic work together as Neo & Morpheus in The Matrix trilogy. Fishburne brings a totally different type of energy to the role of the Bowery King compared to Morpheus, and it’s interesting to see the two interact together in these new roles. In terms of antagonists, Riccardo Scamarcio exudes nastiness from the moment he appears on-screen, reminding me of Cillian Murphy at times with his intense eyes. Acting as mini-bosses, Ruby Rose is the mysterious mute Ares and the decision to make her silent and communicate only though sign language is inspired and adds a whole different dimension to the character. Similarly, rapper-turned-actor Common shines as Cassian, an acquaintance of John’s who takes personal umbrage with his latest contract. The whole cast is impeccable and each one contributes to making it feel like a living, breathing world.
Director Chad Stahelski returns to create some truly dynamic action set-pieces – whether it is the aforementioned clash between Wick and Cassian amidst a subway commute, or the frankly amazing riff on Enter the Dragon’s hall of mirrors finale. The action is so fluid and fast-moving that there were times where I felt the need to rewind and rewatch bits that I missed due to the rapid momentum of the sequence. I really enjoyed the efficient manner in which Wick dispatches his enemies – headshots galore – and how he would sometimes leave someone alive, only to finish them off moments later with a brutal takedown. It truly feels like a videogame at times, and Reeves manages to sell the realism of the violence without it becoming too cartoonish. Wick gets injured in the chaos, he gets overpowered by ‘minions’ at times, and he carries these injuries with him throughout the movie. This isn’t a film where he shrugs off the damage with a scene change, and the film feels all the more realistic for it. I’ve seen other reviews describe the action as a “ballet of bullets” and I think that is a brilliant description – this is extremely well co-ordinated action and quite possibly, some of the best scenes in the business.
Like most sequels, John Wick: Chapter 2 builds upon what was established before, but does so on a grander scale. Transporting the character to Rome adds a whole new dimension to the film, imbuing it with a sense of tradition and history that fits well alongside the strict rules and principles of Wick’s assassin’s guild. While the film lacks the same emotional core as its predecessor, it instead focuses on the ripple effect of Wick’s actions in that film and how his “un-retirement” has had a knock-on effect on the ‘house of cards’ hierarchy of the criminal underworld. Expanding the world beyond John Wick allows for the introduction of colourful antagonists to compete against Wick, such as Ruby Rose’s Ares or Common’s Cassian, and the eclectic mix of impromptu assassin’s that come out of hiding to cash in on Wick’s open contract.
A victim of his own desire for righteous justice, Wick makes rash decisions that impact the wider circle around him, and the film’s cliff-hanger ending promises a more vulnerable and defensive Wick in the next film. Before I watched John Wick, I questioned whether they could really milk five films out of this franchise, and now I’ve watched two of them, I can’t help but wonder why they are stopping at five. Cannot wait to watch John Wick: Chapter 3!
Score –★★★★ ½
John Wick: Chapter 2 is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Amazon UK, as well as available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.