FILM REVIEW: “John Wick: Chapter 2” doubles down on gorgeous action, grotesque violence, glorious thrills
Like a silencer pointed at your head in your sleep, the first chapter of John Wick came out of nowhere. Marking the directorial debut of stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the Keanu Reeves-led the neo-noir action thriller took moviegoers by storm in 2014, garnering critical acclaim and grossing a total of 88.8 million dollars worldwide – more than quadrupling its production budget. The most notable feat of the film, though, was signalling the return of Reeves as the action movie star the world needed.
In hindsight, the success of the film was a no-brainer. Who better to direct a well-executed action movie than stunt coordinators? Having been the go-to stunt guys for various major blockbusters (both have worked with Reeves as stunt doubles in the Matrix movies), Stahelski and Leitch capitalise on their particular set of skills in John Wick, resulting in a movie that is light on plot but heavy on gleeful violence and skilfully coordinated action sequences. Combined with an intentionally hammy script by Derek Kolstad, and scenery-chewing guest stars in Ian Mcshane, Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palicki, Alfie Allen, and Willem Dafoe, Chapter 1 of the John Wick saga was the perfect B-movie action thriller we didn’t know we were craving.
For better or for worse, John Wick: Chapter 2 is more of the same.
This time solely directed by Stahelski (with Leitch off to greener pastures, like the upcoming Charlize Theron-starring Atomic Blonde and the Deadpool sequel), and Kolstad as returning scribe, the plot structure for Chapter 2 remains similarly bare-boned: Reeves’ titular retired assassin tries once again to retire from assassin life, only to be reeled back in by the same crime syndicate into full-on revenge mode.
It’s easy to accuse Chapter 2 of simply repurposing the formula that worked so well for its predecessor. And for the most part, it is guilty: the slick visuals, the kinetic fight choreography, and the wickedly wry humour from the first movie are back in full force. An example of the tongue-in-cheek nature of the movie’s screenplay: “You wanted me back... I'm back!” is an actual phrase that John Wick utters at one point. It’s cheesy, sure, but in a delicious, mozzarella-on-pizza sort of way.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see how this sequel is playing the long game. Where Chapter 1 used a simple narrative to introduce an intricate universe, Chapter 2 uses a similarly rudimentary storyline to expand on what it established. The mascot of said universe being Winston (McShane, doing what he does best), the manager of the Continental Hotel, a sort of neutral territory with its own rules and economy where assassins can go to prep for their next gig, or wind down after a successful kill. While presented as an intriguing backdrop in the first movie, the hotel, and in turn, Winston, plays a more prominent role in John Wick’s misadventure this time around, representing the increasingly devastating hold John’s dark past has on his present.
However, the film's "more of the same" approach to storytelling is not without its pitfalls. In Chapter 1, John Wick's rampage of vengeance was driven by his grief over his wife's death (anchored by the death of his wife's final gift, the dog, and actual catalyst in the first movie). Our protagonist was singularly motivated by a grief-fuelled fury that audiences can easily get on board with, resulting in a freight-train momentum that powered the whole narrative. Meanwhile, in Chapter 2, John takes a more passive role in the narrative, as he constantly reacts to things that happen to him. In fact, he spends much of his time here on a reluctantly assigned mission, like a high school kid forced to do his math homework before he gets his dessert. Without a clear motivation from John, the stakes ultimately feel much lower throughout the movie. Stahelski compensates for this by sprinkling the film with fun supporting characters, such as Common as steely bodyguard Cassian, the perfect O-Ren Ishii to John Wick's Beatrice Kiddo (and did I mention that Laurence Fishburne makes a delightful glorified cameo, marking his first collaboration with Reeves since The Matrix trilogy?), and inventively gorgeous action set pieces. But without the emotionally-driven energy from the first movie, the momentum of Chapter 2 suffers, and as a result, its action sequences, while dependably entertaining, lose their sense of urgency by the time the film reaches the end of its 2-hour runtime.
But who am I kidding here? Pointing out the flaws in the narrative structure of a John Wick movie is like complaining about how there's not enough fresh fruit on a birthday cake - it's not why we love birthday cakes in the first place. When it comes down to it, Stahelski and Kolstad manage to deliver an effective sequel to their particular brand of action movie: While Chapter 1 was preoccupied with building its world by inundating us with specific rules that its characters abide by, Chapter 2 threatens to blow it all up by showing us what happens when those rules get broken. What we get is a gratifying crescendo as the film reaches its thrilling cliffhanger of an ending; one that is less of a frustrating tease, and more of an exhilarating indication of what’s to come.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is what we really wanted the Fast and Furious franchise to be: a no-nonsense, wildly entertaining, well-executed birthday cake of an action movie, topped with a cherry of self-awareness.