In America, circa 2017, guns and gun violence permeate so many of our conversations, and never in a good way. Unlike the heyday of the action film 30 years prior, to enjoy endless gunplay now often feels far less satisfying and out of place when weighed against current events, so the fact that a film like John Wick: Chapter 2, just as its 2014 predecessor, can make gunfights appealing, or dare I say artistic, again is certainly an achievement unto itself.
Picking right up where the first film ended, John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a slickly photographed, pulse-pounding sequence where the titular semi-retired assassin extraordinaire (Keanu Reeves) is still in hot pursuit of his stolen Mustang, one of the few remaining reminders of his late wife (Bridget Moynahan). Each frame roars with a sense of immediacy and intensity that, by its conclusion, we realize we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet.
Massive credit is due to former stuntman turned director Chad Stahelski, who knows the value and realism of solid stunt work, and while he films it with a porcelain veneer that makes each scene a pleasure to watch, just underneath that surface, every hit, every crunch of bone and bullet hole feels far more tactile and menacing than the usual CGI buffet audiences are routinely served up today.
Even with the extended runtime and gorgeous locales, John Wick: Chapter 2 feels very tight, very Spartan in nature. There are no ostentatious one-liners, no corny dialogue, nothing to get in the way of what is a pure symphony of violence delivered with razor sharp precision, while at the same time never taking itself too seriously as to feel morose and unenjoyable. This is a fun film and a joy to watch.
The plot itself, an amalgamation of wanting to leave a life behind mixed with blood oaths only exists to move the proceedings from point A to point B, and in a lesser, more self-involved film, this would be a big problem, but here, the audience absolutely knows what its signed up for, and so in this, the film is more of an amusement park than something to truly ponder. You don’t need to think to enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2, but you will absolutely appreciate the amount of thought put into its production and overall story, and there is much to appreciate.
One of the larger appreciations to be had is just how developed this world of assassins actually is. Without spending time on needless exposition, the world of John Wick opens itself like a flower, with layers of implied backstory, and a reality that is much different than ours. Here, assassins are everywhere, and they all lead double lives, whether it’s a network of homeless assassins, led by former Matrix cast-mate Laurence Fishburne, who communicate via carrier pigeon, or violinists who moonlight as contract killers, or is it the other way around?
While the focus is solely on Wick, the script gives enough air to give life to Wick’s surroundings. While by definition many of the characters, such as Continental Hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane), should be one-note characters, there is a substance that supersedes the mystery, and he serves as a doorway for audiences into the larger world that Wick no longer wants to be a part of.
For his part, Reeves has the role of a lifetime, because the key to his performance is part of the very thing his earlier career was mostly derided for. While John Wick is certainly no Ted “Theodore” Logan, the calm he exhibits throughout the film, save for one scene, is absolutely surfer Zen. To be sure, Wick is portrayed as a shark who must always keep moving to stay alive, and does so with a silent ferocity that has the feeling of “whoa”, without any of the baggage of the Keanu of years past.
But for all the action and the inherent coolness of the characters, what really solidifies John Wick: Chapter 2 as a sumptuous classic of action cinema is the cinematography. This is a beautiful film that exploits practically every color on the spectrum. Mood is set by color and color gives us a pastiche by which a lot of blood is spilled. There is a theme of contemporary art deco throughout the film, so its no surprise that the climax of the film takes place in an art gallery which doubles as the villain’s lair.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen ups the ante on visuals throughout the film, and coupled with the endless gun-fu and car chases (and crashes), with the final product surpassing the first film in just about every way, while at the same time feeling like a growth, an extension from the original.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is an action masterpiece in every way imaginable, with the only real problem being the fact that we have to wait another three years for the next chapter in this amazing series. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the stakes being any higher, and the chance that audiences may fatigue from this brand of ultraviolence is a distinct possibility, but if we get a film at least as good as what we have here, John Wick will be running from and towards his enemies for a long time to come.
So much for retirement.