JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2
When making an action sequel, Hollywood tends to take the ‘more is more’ route without necessarily understanding what exactly is it that audiences need more of. So the default approach is to go for bigger, busier, noisier set pieces in an effort to one-up the original. Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise is a textbook example. ‘More is more’ is already the man’s mantra to begin with, but the way he’s gone from excess to excess with every subsequent instalment has rendered all but the first one unwatchable.
The problem is that these filmmakers obsess over amplification, when they really should focus on expansion. What’s the difference? Well, ever notice how the best sequels don’t just dish out more of the same, magnified two-fold? There is a genuine effort to take the best parts of the original and develop it from there. So you get to discover more about the world and characters that you loved in the first place. That’s expansion.
That’s what “John Wick: Chapter 2” offers up in spades, and that’s what makes it one of the best action sequels out there.
It certainly wasn’t shy about its ambitions either. The original dropped in out of nowhere and surprised the hell out of everyone. The second time out, there was an actual expectation. And it wasn’t enough to just have bigger, more elaborate action. Not that a movie made by a bunch of former stuntmen was ever going to drop the ball in that regard. So it comes as no surprise that director Chad Stahelski (minus his co-helmer David Leitch this round) has over-delivered. With seemingly effortless aplomb too. The man knew what the stakes were, how high the bar was that he’d set for himself, and he more than met the challenge.
“Chapter 2” is stuffed to the brim with brilliant action, with every set piece designed, choreographed, and executed to a level of polish akin to Hollywood’s best musicals. There’s a fluidity of movement to the fights and gunplay that makes them enthralling to watch. Copious brain-splattering headshots notwithstanding, I wouldn’t hesitate to call the action elegant, even balletic. This is as close as anyone’s ever come to making extreme violence seem classy. I love how much care they’ve put into crafting the look of the film, with night scenes often bathed in colour-coded mood lighting, and visually stunning sets like a trippy hall of mirrors for the climatic showdown. All these elevate the action to something approaching art-film territory.
Stahelski eschews in-fashion techniques like shaky-cam and rapid-fire cutting, rightfully denouncing them as a crutch to hide weak choreography, unprepared actors, or a general lack of know-how and invention. His style might appear fresh to Western eyes, though he’s simply observing what Hong Kong Cinema has been doing for decades, where the camera gives viewers the space and time to really let the performers shine.
Of course, a lot of hard work goes into planning and training in order for the performers to shine. So Stahelski’s greatest asset is actually Keanu Reeves. All the planning in the world by the best stunt choreographers isn’t going to translate if your star is unable or unwilling to pull it off. Say what you will about his acting abilities, Reeves is severely underrated as a physical performer. Acting is often as much about body language, and here the guy truly embodies an expert killer.
He committed to months of intensive weapons and martial arts training — with every fibre of his being, according to Stahelski — and it has paid off handsomely on screen. Reeves is slightly less convincing in the more sedate, dialogue-driven moments, but even then he manages to convey the world-weariness of a man trapped by his deadly past.
If this sequel were to be judged solely on the action alone, it’d already rank pretty high on the list of must-sees. But Stahelski is proving that his skills aren’t just limited to the technical department. He understands the true potential of “John Wick” as a franchise, and it lies far beyond the car chases, gunfights, or hand-to-hand combat. It’s in the richness of the universe Wick and his ilk inhabit, and for a storyteller it’s a veritable goldmine.
The first film offered a tantalising glimpse of this universe, with its impossibly cool fashions, quaint honour systems, and timeless safe havens for assassins like the Continental Hotel. Everyone who came out of that movie was left wishing for a sequel, if only to see more of this stuff.
Stahelski and his writer Derek Kolstad happily oblige, widening the scope just enough to reveal new delights. And it feels special, like that well-connected friend sneaking you through the back door of a members-only club. The sequel lets us in on just how extensive and sophisticated this industry of professional killers really is, how they have their own unique culture, laws, and even currency.
This parallel world within the world of regular folk is all rather surreal and off-kilter, and that’s a large part of the appeal. This is a world where a guy called a Sommelier lovingly recommends not fine wines but the finest weaponry, “job orders” are processed by 1950s-style telephone operators, and crime families throw ridiculously lavish parties that could double as the Milan Fashion Week (except it’s in Rome. At the catacombs!). On the flip-side, there is also a secret network of homeless assassins, led by Laurence Fishburne. Because why wouldn’t there be? As kooky as it all sounds, it somehow feels consistent with the internal logic of this universe.
The supporting cast helps sell it, with the likes of returning actors Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and John Leguizamo bringing a nice sense of lived-in gravitas to their roles, while new additions Common, Ricardo Scamarcio, and Italian veteran Franco Nero (the original “Django”) make for effective antagonists/allies. It’s cool to see Reeves and Fishburne reunited post-“Matrix”, and Laurence just gets the tone of the material with a suitably operatic performance. Even Ruby Rose, who irritated the crap out of me in “XXX: The Return Of Xander Cage” comes off as a compelling character here.
Inevitably for a movie that strikes such a specific tone, there are some elements that don’t quite work or are flat-out silly — Wick apparently has the healing powers of Wolverine, as guns and knives inflict only temporary damage. And his motivations this time don’t have the emotional power of the first (nothing beats having your puppy murdered), so his choices sometimes seem a little foolhardy for such a seasoned pro.
In the face of such consistently kickass entertainment however, these are mere nitpicks. I’m happy for Reeves, whose career has now found a much-deserved 2nd wind. It’s the right use of his admittedly limited gifts as an actor. But make no mistake, this guy is a bona fide movie star, one with an enigmatic quality that’s difficult to pin down. A role like John Wick needs it, especially since every other character sees him as some mythic figure to be whispered about in hushed tones.
“Chapter 2” is obviously intended to be the springboard for more instalments, and I am totally game for it. They’ve proven that the universe is rich enough to support more stories, and as long as they keep their imaginations running the way it has thus far, this is one action franchise that won’t run out of ammo anytime soon.