Chad Stahelski, the director of John Wick: Chapter 2, made his Hollywood debut as Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in Point Break. The star/double relationship continued through The Matrix trilogy and Constantine, then they worked again on Man of Tai Chi, Reeves’ directorial debut. Now Stahelski must have a strong sense of Reeves’ body language, and how his breadth of movement translates toward an excellent shoot-out, or fight scene. John Wick: Chapter 2 represents the apotheosis of their relationship: now in perfect sync, their sequel to 2014’s John Wick raises the scope and stakes of the violence, while deepening the mythology behind a principled guild of assassins. Unsurprisingly, the major departure in Chapter 2 is its lack of restraint. Stahelski, Reeves, and screenwriter Derek Kolstad dive headlong into the action, sacrificing any character resonance along the way.
When we catch up with John Wick, he is reclaiming his muscle car from the Russian gangster Abram (Peter Stormare). For Wick, a formerly retired assassin who returned to killing with ease, reclaiming the car is a matter of honor – it is a wreck when he finally returns home. Wick thinks he’s finally cut all ties to his past life, but then Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) drops in with a demand. It seems D’Antonio has a marker, or a kind of debt, that only Wick can fulfill. The assignment is grim: D’Antonio wants Wick to murder his sister. This takes convincing, of course, but soon Wick is in Italy, infiltrating a high-end dance party in the Roman catacombs. The mission is a success, but D’Antonio is a double-crosser: he announces a worldwide contract for Wick’s head, so John Wick: Chapter 2 becomes a deadly chase where any stranger could be another potential assassin.
Before I continue with the review, there’s a strange plot point I want to discuss. The second and third act hinge upon D’Antonio double-crossing Wick, a development that strikes me as strange and unfair. Ian McShane reprises his role as Winston, the maître d’ of the Manhattan hotel where assassins stay, and he calmly explains that markers – along with the hotel being neutral territory – are sacrosanct in their business. If the contract implicit in the marker carries such weight, there should be some guarantee that absolves the parties involved from any further business. D’Antonio avenging his sister is some twisted, unfair form of double jeopardy, and yet no one in John Wick: Chapter 2 bats an eye. When Stahelski and Reeves get to the next sequel, I would like to see the governing body that adjudicates assassin disputes.
Plot points notwithstanding, Stahelski’s command of action is astounding. The original John Wick had a fluidity, even grace, to its depiction of death: the camera glided through one fight after another, giving us full opportunity to see the depth of Wick’s violent will. In Chapter 2, the action has more urgency, as if to mirror Wick’s heightened sense of desperation. The cumulative effect is not a shaky cam, exactly, but the feeling that the camera is more of a participant than an observer. There are some sequences that recall the original film, including Wick fighting his way through a dance floor. My favorite sequences involve a protracted shoot-out through the catacombs – filmed with moody, smoky blue cinematography – followed by a physically taxing fight between him and Cassian, a bodyguard portrayed by Common. It seems like Wick shoots hundreds of people, mostly in the head, so it’s a nice change of pace when the struggle involves two men in a sumptuous, cosmopolitan environment.
Another appeal behind these films is their approach to world-building. Kolstad’s script mixes the business of killing with high-end commerce, which gives Reeves and character actors an opportunity to chew the scenery in a knowing, delicate way. Peter Serafinowicz has a terrific comic scene as a “sommelier,” the hotel’s resident gun merchant. There are other nice touches, like an assassin phone network that’s operated exclusively by tattooed women wearing glasses. There is not much attempt to explain the details of the world, except when it’s relevant to Wick’s journey, so the little details laterally justify what would otherwise be extraordinary human behavior. The only misstep is Laurence Fishburne, who overacts as a cross between a crime lord and a hobo. While everyone else downplays their deadly natures, Fishburne stands out in an ostentatious way – even if he is clearly having fun.
In terms of sating cinematic bloodlust, John Wick: Chapter 2 is immensely satisfying. The action is relentless, with enough dark visual wit to distance us from the carnage. Some of Wick’s more creative kills will certainly have audiences howling with shock, and not just because there are macabre callbacks to the original film. Still, for all its strength and thrilling power, Chapter 2 never reaches the heights of the original, arguably perfect film. You’ll recall that John Wick spends about half an hour before we see our hero’s talents. For that half hour, John Wick is a character study, focusing on a man consumed by grief who lacks the resources to cope with it. Chapter 2 abandons all that, so Reeves’ only modes are either professional deference, or rage. Absent any truly righteous cause – namely, the death of a puppy – Wick’s globe-trotting rampage is ultimately for our benefit. That’s true of the first film, too, but at least that film took its time so it felt like Wick’s reasons were more important than ours. John Wick: Chapter 2 is like an exploding bullet: thrilling in its service, and also hollow.