John Wick: Chapter 2 **** / *****
Directed by: Chad Stahelski.
Written by: Derek Kolstad.
Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D'Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D'Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), Tobias Segal (Earl), John Leguizamo (Aurelio).
I re-watched 2014’s original John Wick on the same day I knew I was going to see the sequel in theaters – and found I liked it even more than the first time through. It is a model of narrative efficiency – pretty much because it doesn’t really bother to have one. Russian gangster show up at new widower John Wick’s house – kills the dog his late wife left him, and steals his beloved Mustang – not knowing that John Wick is the world’s deadliest assassin, and that by angering him, they were bringing him out of retirement to kill them all. All that happens in about 15 minutes, and the next minutes is John Wick doing just that. The sequel has even less plot. After a brilliant opening sequences – which dispenses of the usual standard issue sequel plot to an action movie that didn’t need one, which is to introduced a previously unheard of relative (brother, father, son, cousin, etc.) – who wants vengeance on our hero. The opening scene – about 10 minutes – has John Wick going up against the brother of his arch nemesis from the first film to try and get his car back – it’s an exciting sequence, combining gun fights and car chases, and leaves more people dead than just about any other action movie in total will this year. After that, the actual plot kicks off – an Italian gangster, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes to Wick’s house to call in his marker – something Wick cannot refuse. Santino wants Wick to murder his sister – so Santino can take his place on the grand counsel of crime syndicates – and when Wick refuses, he blows up his house. Wick agrees – and while is, as always, great at his job – there are double crosses and triple crosses, and globetrotting fight sequences, and Wick literally shots hundreds of people in the face, or stabs them, or some other sort of extreme violence. The film essentially straight ahead action for two hours – and I loved every second of it.
Keanu Reeves is perfect as John Wick – he is not an actor with a tremendous amount of range, and is better used in stuff like this and The Matrix, where his natural blankness can be used as an asset. If in the first film, his anger fueled him, here there is less of that righteous anger – at least at first. He is just trying to survive. It helps that there are colorful characters all around him – some for a scene or two, and some for longer than that. This movie brings back Ian McShane, as the head of The Continental – a hotel for killers with very strict rules, and McShane smirks throughout, and relishes every line of dialogue – knowing both how ridiculous it is, and how fun it is to say. Lance Reddick, as the clerk at the hotel, has almost as much fun having to pretend that everything is normal. Laurence Fishburne probably has too much fun as the king of the homeless people (he goes too big, even for this film). Common goes the other way – perhaps taking things a little too seriously as one of the men out for vengeance against Wick. Scamarcio is fine as the main antagonist – but he is clearly outshone by Ruby Rose, as his silent sidekick.
Still, plot, characters, performances aren’t really why you see John Wick – it is the action. The original’s director Chad Stahelski – a stuntman before he started directing – is back, and further proves he is one of the best directors of action around. He doesn’t (overly) rely on shaky camera work or rapid fire editing to create false adrenaline in his films. He prefers to let the action play out at length in front of his camera – tracking Wick down long, dark corridors and catacombs in one brilliant sequence, and one after another, people jump out and he has to kill them. The fight with Common on the subway goes on an absurd length of time, with multiple starts and stops, but he expertly builds the tension even when it does stop. Staheski isn’t quite at John Woo level of action mastery – Woo camera work is more fluid, and he prefers even longer shots, with more geography in them than Staheski.
There is no denying that John Wick Chapter 2 – even more than its predecessor – is all style, and little substance. This is a straight ahead action movie, and as that, it’s probably the best since Mad Max: Fury Road. It does lack that movie additional depth, and isn’t as stylistically bold either. But, as a straight ahead action movie, John Wick Chapter 2 is tough to beat. I cannot wait for Chapter 3.