Back in 2014, I walked into a theater that was half full with reasonable expectations for Keanu Reeves long awaited return to action films. Me and everyone else in that half-capacity theater had a blast. I walked out of that theater having seen one of the most pleasurable action films perhaps this century. John Wick became a litmus test for whether or not I could trust somebody. If they don’t like John Wick, I don’t trust them. I dressed as John Wick for Halloween that year. One time a friend finally watched it and I got two texts from him in response that read “DUDE JOHN WICK” and “HOLY SHIT.” The list of what that film meant to me goes on and on. With that said, Chapter 2 is not only one of the best action sequels I’ve ever seen, it’s possibly one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen, period.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Chapter 2, which any great sequel should do, is that it completely validates its existence despite the first film not really asking for a sequel. When you finish John Wick, you don’t sit there during the credits going “Can’t wait for the sequel! So many questions!” yet still when you finish Chapter 2you nod your head approvingly, acknowledging that yes, we actually did need this. It keeps the core tenet of the original, which is that you should not fuck with this guy. It’s as the tagline on one of the poster says, “Never stab the devil in the back.” Chapter 2 finds most of its narrative thrust by expanding on a cautionary line from Winston to Wick in the first film: “If you dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out and drags you back into its depths.” Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a member of the most powerful family in Italy comes to Wick to demand a return on a favor he is owed. By the rules of their trade, Wick must honor this request or die. Thrust back into the world he wanted to leave behind, Wick has a target on his back. Chapter 2 manages to to expand on what happened in the original for new material without undermining anything that happened previously.
Not many films attain the level of action opera. The only other one this decade was The Raid 2. I haven’t quite written down the rules of entry for the classification of action opera, but if you’ve seen The Raid 2 or John Wick: Chapter 2 hopefully you understand what I’m getting at. It’s just another level of action filmmaking, where you’re watching it at its grandest and most theatrical. Take John Woo for example, if you’ve seen The Killer or Hard Boiled, that guy knows how to make an action opera. The action in Chapter 2 is bigger, more expansive and theatrical, yet doesn’t lose the key pleasure of the first, which is watching Reeves demolish scores of baddies unassisted. The operatic nature of the film is immediately felt. The opening sequence is created by answering one question left unanswered from the first: where did his car go? He never got it back in the first film. In a giddily coked up turn from Peter Stormare, he plays the brother of Viggo Tarasov who’s in the unlucky position of having something of Wick’s. It doesn’t have much impact on the plot to follow, but it’s a wonderful, delirious sequence to reintroduce Wick to us. John Wick is a pure force of nature. We spent the first film getting to know this character and how badass he is, now we get an entire film that knows we already know that, and all it has to do is continue to display his ultimate levels of badassery.
It doesn’t tiredly rehash plot points of the original, instead taking the opportunity to flesh out the underworld that Wick has reentered and can’t escape from. It’s terrific world building, there’s a good amount of expository construction about how this world functions that happens visually, or in how characters insinuate things in dialogue. There’s so many bizarre little oddities to absorb about this world. The sommelier at the Rome Continental doesn’t recommend wines, but guns, in a great stunt performance from Peter Serafinowicz. To put out a hit, you contact a building full of women in pink blouses, all with the same tattoo sleeve on their right arms, and they connect calls using old-timey phone line connectors, then enter the hit info on a computer that is older than me. The introduction of an amulet known as a marker is integral to the plot. It’s a blood oath of sorts that must be honored at all costs.
Keanu Reeves is 52 years old and is out here with the dexterity and athleticism of an NBA power forward, doing physically grueling stunt work while making it look like ballet. Meanwhile, I am 24 years old, and this morning I woke up with my back really sore because I guess I slept on it wrong. Keanu Reeves is one of the last movie stars, along with Tom Cruise, who can do the most insane stunts themselves. They don’t need a double. There’s a trustworthiness to their presence, you can trust everything you’re seeing. The second shot of the film nods to one of the greatest stunt artists of all time, Buster Keaton, subtly relating that the filmmakers understand that stunts work at their best when their star is actually performing them. Keanu Reeves was already in my mind one of the great action stars, but Chapter 2 puts him in the Hall of Fame discussion.
Scamarcio turns in a wonderful villain as Santino, a sniveling sleazy presence. Common plays another assassin hunting John Wick and rises to the challenge of the stunt work and fight choreography. They have an epic extended couple of fight scenes, and they really beat the shit out of each other, it’s incredible to watch the sheer athleticism on display. Here’s hoping he comes back for Chapter 3. Ruby Rose also delivers a terrific character, a mute assassin also hunting Wick, and she too pulls off the physicality required extremely well. Side characters from the first make welcome appearances (I greatly appreciated another exchange with Jimmy), while other characters like Winston (Ian McShane) get a larger role. The legends Laurence Fishburne and Franco Nero contribute great turns that further flesh out this world, with Fishburne getting the juicy line “SOMEBODY GET THIS MAN A GUN.”
It’s just Chad Stahelski directing this time around, but the spirit of collaboration between himself and David Leitch is still felt. Stahelski’s past as a stunt coordinator and double is essential once again to why the film succeeds. The action is as good as it gets, filming them in long and extended takes, avoiding the noise and fuzz of hand-held action in clean camera movements. Stahelski knows how to make this look good, and with an actor like Reeves, he doesn’t have to hide anything in cuts. How Wick weaves his way through battle is like watching the greatest ballet act, he pulls off the feat of making heavily rehearsed action sequences look and feel in the moment, like they’re a product of this character’s expertise and skill. Chapter 2’s action had me sweating. Each sequence and showdown continually gets more impressive. Every single action scene feels like a highlight, you could put nearly every scene in this film down for the best action scene of the year. This film never runs out of tricks and showmanship to wow you with. There’s a sequence late in the film that takes place in an extended maze of mirrors that should have been impossible to film. It just should have been impossible to orchestrate so much mayhem while trying to hide the camera from reflection. You’ll need a cigarette after watching it.
The aesthetic of this world is always striking, a heightened reality made from shadows and neon lights. It would be enough if the fight scenes were just as good as they are, but the fact that the whole filmmaking process is as driven and ambitious really goes the distance. I didn’t realize until Chapter 2 just how great and understated the score from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard is. They use the same score from the original, only a few new compositions are added. It’s a pulse-pounding work that relies on muffled guitar riffs and electronic machinations, yet there’s a 4-note synth melody that finds its way through each time, like Wick’s own dwindling humanity.
Even though I would watch another 10 chapters, there’s comfort in knowing that they plan to only make 3, and the final chapter is set up terrifically. Chapter 2 ends on an incredible note, with the most dangerous character in these films running for his life with no sanctuary. John Wick joins the annals of the greatest action heroes on screen, up there with the John McClanes, the Rambos, the Bullitts. We get many films with great action heroes, but so rarely do we get great action films driven by character. John Wick and Keanu Reeves are two of the greatest gifts to action films, and to cinema in general. I’m just so happy to be alive while these films exist. At the end of each year, I like to do an action hero power rankings, and Reeves is far and away the top seed right now for 2017.