When John Wick hit the screens back in 2014, it felt like a breath of fresh air for American action cinema. It utilised a simple, clean story – a retired assassin (a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves) goes out for revenge when a gangster’s son murders his dog – and told it with a knowing and ridiculous surfeit of gun and martial arts violence. For action fans – at least this particular fan – it seemed to be the best pure action flick since Gareth Evans’ The Raid.
Its wide critical and commercial success has naturally led to a sequel: John Wick: Chapter 2. It picks up Wick’s story pretty much exactly where the first film left off, with him on his way to retrieve his beloved car. From there an Italian crime lord calls in a favour that Wick is not permitted to refuse, and the retired hitman is very reluctantly dragged back into action.
One of the core strengths of the original John Wick was its purity. It was structured in such a manner as to render things like back story and background detail irrelevant. It threw in a pleasant hint of an entire international culture of assassins, but maintained a razor-sharp focus on immaculately staged action scenes and ridiculously blunt gun violence. The problem is that such a tight focus only really works once, and Chapter 2 is therefore left with the more difficult and, more importantly, momentum-dragging task of building a one-off feature into a continuing franchise. Now there are rival houses of underground players, secret wars taking place on the streets of the world’s major cities without the civilian population have a clue, and Highlander-style safe zones where the various mercenaries and assassins are forbidden to lay a finger on one another.
Highlander is an oddly appropriate comparison to make, to be honest. It too was a beautifully devised action film, with enough world-building and background to justify a series of nicely shot and dynamically edited sword-fights. Once that first film was extended into a franchise of movie sequels and television spin-offs, the world-building enveloped the original concept and the overall quality suffered terribly. I am not for a moment suggesting that John Wick: Chapter 2 is the next Highlander II – far from it – but I do think there is an inevitable loss of quality that comes from this sort of exercise. Chapter 2 boasts an impressive range of ultra-violent action sequences, but they do tend to get overshadowed and delayed by the portentious and arguably unnecessary plotting in between. What’s more, John Wick’s world turns out to be packed with overly reverent aristocrats whispering in hushed tones like a local troupe of Magic: The Gathering players.
Keanu Reeves remains a tremendous lead, and continues to underplay the role in a beautifully matter-of-fact fashion. Also returning is Ian McShane as the enigmatic and unflappable hotelier Winston. McShane boasts possibly the most beautiful speaking voice in English-language cinema. His mere presence alone can boost a film’s entertainment value by a measurable distance.
New additions to the cast provide a varying amount of value. Common is surprisingly great as a vengeful bodyguard named Cassian. On the other hand Riccardo Scamarcio overcooks his villainous gangster Santino and winds up being more of an irritant than an entertainment. His main bodyguard, a mute killer played by Ruby Rose, certainly looks the part, but the casting of an able-bodied actor in a role that could easily have been played by a genuine deaf or mute performer is slightly troublesome in this day and age. Laurence Fishburne makes a comparatively late appearance as New York’s so-called Bowery King, and adds a lot of humour to what is often a fairly humourless picture.
The action remains the overall highlight. Director Chad Stahelski, running solo after co-directing the original with David Leitch, knows his way around a camera and is famously a former stunt coordinator and artist himself. The stunts themselves are fast, crisp and brutal, and like a good musical director Stahelski knows when to move the camera and when to simply pull it back and let the dancers do their thing. If you are considering checking out the film because you are a fan of action cinema, I can promise there is more than enough top-notch action to keep you entertained.
There is no avoiding that Chapter 2 is, to an extent, the John Wick sequel that had to be made. It is the troublesome and slightly drawn-out expansion that enables Stahelski to go ahead with Chapter 3. Hopefully that sequel will pick up the pace again: the elements that made John Wick so entertaining are still there, but they have been buried just a little. Stahelski would be well advised to dig them out a little more for the next round of excessive gunplay.