John Wick Chapter 2 (review)

In 2014 a small action flick called John Wick came out to the pleasant surprise of many including myself. It was a fun action packed film that saw the return of Keanu Reeves in top form with a story that was simple but effective: A retired assassin seeks revenge when his dog is killed.  

The movie ended up being one of my favorites to come out that year, and is now one of my all time favorite action flicks. So I had high hopes when I heard the same team was returning for a sequel. John Wick Chapter 2 was definitely one of my most anticipated films coming into this year, and I have to say it lived up to my high expectations.

John Wick Chapter 2 sees the titular character return to deal with the consequences of his actions in the first film, as the hidden world of assassins attempts to draw him back in.

This movie had a tall order, one not so easily fulfilled. Action films are hard to make sequels for because of the expectations that come with them. For an action sequel it has to first give you more of what was good about the first film. But it can’t be too similar, it has to be different enough to feel fresh. Then it must up the stakes by make things a little bigger than before, but it has to remain true to the spirit of the original movie. It’s a precarious balance that must be found.

Yet somehow director Chad Stahelski found that balance and delivered not only a great action movie, but one of the greatest action sequels ever made. It’s obvious that the director gave special care and attention to the technical aspects of filming as it ended up looking great, flowing well, and had a cool visual style that big budget blockbusters wish they could conjure up (seriously the visual aesthetics are very pleasing to the eye).

One of the strengths of John Wick Chapter 2 is how clean and clear the action sequences are. The fight scenes and shootouts are uninhibited as Stahelski decided to forgo shaky cam techniques and rapid fire editing that run rampant through American action cinema today. Instead he lingers on his shots, providing wide angles for the audience to witness the majesty of John Wick’s technique (something also partially Keanu’s doing). This makes the action that much more engaging, and entertaining to watch.

The story dives deeper into the world of assassins that was introduced in the first film. By immersing us more into that world the movie is able to both give us something that feels fresh, and still familiar. The world takes place in a heightened reality where assassins are bound by ancient codes, with a unified currency they use to buy services from places that cater specifically to them. And yet the film also manages to keep one foot on the ground, by still making Wick a human who suffers many wounds throughout the film, as well as having to reload every couple of seconds. It may not seem like much, but those things allow the film to hover just above reality while basking in it’s more eccentric elements without feeling like it’s gone over board into something completely cheesey.

The pacing of the movie is wicked fast. From the opening scene to the end, there is action taking place. There isn’t a wasted moment in the film, as it judiciously uses it’s time to build the world and continue building the mythos surrounding John Wick.

Aside from the direction I believe that one of the most crucial lynch pins that makes this movie work is Keanu Reeves performance. I know that may sound weird, after all Keanu is infamous for wooden acting right? Personally I think it’s not fair to say that he’s a bad actor. There are definitely roles he fits well, like both Bill and Ted’s Excellent & Bogus Journeys, The Matrix, Constantine, Point Break, and now both John Wicks. He’s not a chameleon type of actor, he isn’t going to slip in and out of radically different characters almost at will. He’s more in line with actors like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even famed thespian Sean Connery. These were actors who were more suited to a particular character type, and when they were in those roles they did extremely well. In the wrong role, their performances stood out like sore thumbs. Fortunately John Wick is a role that’s perfectly suited for Keanu Reeves talent.

Keanu always seems to do well in high concept action films. His infamous stoicism is ideal for the well dressed assassin. He gives Wick a very detached feeling, almost as if he wasn’t human at all as many of the rumors about the character seem to illustrate. And yet he manages to ground Wick as we see his anguish in not being able to be left alone, and we see him actually suffer physical pain throughout. He may come across as this unstoppable force of death as he kills waves of henchmen, but at the same time we see he is not invincible. Keanu displays the character’s vulnerability with every shot, every punch, and every fall he takes.

Then there’s the fact that Keanu heavily trained for this movie. For 3-4 months he trained 8 hours a day on hand to hand combat and gun skills. Much of what you see his character do is Keanu himself executing those moves. Of course there are exceptions, and Keanu will gladly tell you that he in no way does his own stunts, as he had a stuntman stand in for some of the more demanding and dangerous scenes. But when it comes to close combat and gun shooting Keanu himself has said that it’s 95% all him in those scenes. This helps the final product, because it allows for the director to film the action scenes in the way he did. Longer shots without having to cut for lack of true skill, or for stand-ins. This also lends credibility to the character of John Wick, as we are supposed to believe that he is the world’s best assassin, so actually seeing Keanu execute those moves sells us on the fact that Wick is indeed as good as the movie makes him out to be.

There were of course other actors in this that really added a lot of flavor and seasoning to this story. Ian McShane, playing Winston the regal owner of the Continental hotel. Lance Reddick playing the mysterious and cordial concierge of the Continental. Laurence Fishburne as the Bowler King was tons of fun chewing up the scenery in his on screen reunion with Keanu. Common as the assassin Cassian, really comes into his own and become a believable rival for John Wick. Ruby Rose did well as the deaf assassin Ares. And then there was Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio playing the stylish antagonist Santino D’Antonio, a nice foil to John Wick. All added immensely to the film in their own ways, adding a very colorful array of characters to fill in the world of assassins.

Now the movie isn’t perfect, and it does have some minor faults that keep it from being better than the previous film. The first is that John Wick’s motivation was much more raw in the first movie. In this movie there is a good and reasonable attempt to give John a credible motivation for returning to the underworld of assassins, but it just lacks the emotional resonance that the first movie had. Though to be fair, it’s hard to get more raw motivation than revenge for killing your dog. Second there is some poor acting by more minor characters that unfortunately stick out and takes you out of the movie a bit. And my last fault with the film is super nitpicky but the music in this film, while befitting, didn’t pack quite the punch the first one did. In the first film a good portion of the score was based on Marilyn Manson’s song Killing Strangers, which added to the atmosphere of the film greatly. But in this one, while the score was decent, I did feel the absence of any song similar to Manson’s (never thought I’d miss a Manson song to be honest) to tie it all together. It’s like a well made dish that just lacks a pinch of salt that would take it over the edge.

Overall John Wick Chapter 2 is an absolute blast. It’s a stylish, exciting, action flick that hits all the boxes necessary for a successful sequel. Keanu once again delivers an interesting and entertaining action hero for the ages. In a time where theaters are filled with adaptations, remakes, reboots and comic book movies, John Wick Chapter 2’s originality is a fresh breath of air reminding audiences that creativity and originality in Hollywood isn’t dead. It just takes a crew of people willing to put the time, care and effort into making a quality film. I’d recommend John Wick Chapter 2 highly to anyone who might have the slightest appreciation for action.

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