What do you want from an action movie sequel? Well, more of the same, but different. That’s kind of what you want from a Keanu Reeves performance as well, something that’s comfortably within his idiom but still in some ways managing to surprise.
Much has been gushed about the first John Wick film, some of which is actually justified. It’s a fine work, distilling Western movie tropes into a gangster idiom, making the sense of justified revenge-worthy of rampage (dead woman, dead dog, dead car). There’s also the refuge where criminals must obey certain sets of rules. Carnage works, chaos becomes mere cacophony.
John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t dance around its proclivities, feeling episodic from its opening sequence. In many ways the opening action moments are a rehash of the first film, not quite as explicit as they are in the Mad Max flashbacks to Road Warrior but very much of a kind. We once again see our titular hero beat up people (most effectively with his automobile), leading to a series of splattery headshots as he makes his way to form a truce with the baddie from the last outing.
Hypothetically free from all obligations, Wick is soon visited by a man holding a talisman, an object literally sealed in blood. Quoth the Godfather, “I try to get out and they pull me back in”, and so to does Wick find himself burned at both ends, incapable of escaping a life that he desperately wishes to leave behind.
One doesn’t need more in the way of motivation than that for a series of assassinations, rampages, explosions and other gifts of the genre. Along the way Wick runs afoul of the norms guiding his criminal peer, leaving him even more a lone warrior than he began. Again it’s the stuff of dusty cowboy films as much as it’s the impetus for everything from Bourne to Bond, here done with a hard-R flair and a more gothic look.
There’s even a reunion of a different kind, with Keanu and his Matrix maven Laurence Fishburne waxing philosophic once again. It may lack the frisson expected, but at least as a narrative hook it’s not a terrible thing to echo. Director Chad Stahelski used to be Keanu’s stunt double (yeah, he was the Neo doing all the fun stuff), so that adds further to the sense of metatextual nostalgia for late-90s action fun.
Meanwhile, the TV guys once again steals every scene they’re in, with The Wire’s Lance Reddick and Deadwood’s Ian McShane being as delicious as always. Throw in Oscar Winner (!) Common for some convincing nemesis and you’ve got more than enough interesting characters to give Reeves something to work against. Riccardo Scamarcio has perhaps the most two dimensional of any of the combatants, and at least Claudia Gerini does her best to inject appropriate levels of operatic malice.
The fight scenes are slick, the battles brutal ,and dialogue pithy and raw. Like the hitman at the core of the narrative the film manages to execute very well, ticking off box after box and keeping the momentum going without devolving into farce.
What set the original Wick apart was that while it felt of a larger world it had the brashness and confidence of a one-off, like they were going to give it their all and not save their breath for what’s to come. A sequel inevitably lacks that kind of verve and freshness, yet to its credit John Wick 2 does remember to pay attention to what’s happening now rather than just worldbuild for what’s to come. Still, there’s quite a bit more of that sense that what you’re seeing is but a puzzle piece in a well drafted franchise plan set about in some board room rather than an organic culmination of what’s come before.
John Wick 2 may not be as wickedly fun as the first iteration, but what it lacks in freshness is made up for in an increase in scope, all without losing its moxie. Unabashedly violent without being dour, silly without being sarcastic, John Wick is proving to be quite a fun little tale that gives the action genre a welcome kick in the genitalia. Using Reeves’ strengths to their utmost, this slick piece of fun is miles ahead of much of the February cinema blahs, providing a welcome bit of sunshine in these cold winter nights at the theatre.