It’s no understatement to say that 2014’s John Wick turned out to be one of the best cinematic surprises of that year. A bracing, unflinching revenge flick, it took a well-trodden trope — the retired hitman who gets dragged back in — and flipped it on its head, creating a stylish, breathtakingly well-shot and well-choreographed action flick. It was almost inevitable that it would get a sequel someday, and today, with the release of John Wick Chapter 2, is that day.
This is, overall, a very good thing. For the most part, many of the original pieces are back into the puzzle — once again, director Chad Stahelski is working off a script by Derek Kolstad. Reeves is back, as are the staff of the eclectic Continental Hotel, a safe haven for killers and criminals — owner/operator Winston (Ian McShane) and Concierge Charon (Lance Reddick). A couple of other minor players return, instantly giving the film a warm familiarity among all the cold-blooded mayhem. This time around, Wick is drawn back in by a mafioso named Santino D’Antonio (wickedly played by Ricardo Scamarcio), who calls in an old marker to press Wick out of retirement and back into service. Of course, doublecrosses occur and tables are turned, and in a wicked twist of fate, a price is put on Wick’s head, making him the hunted instead of the hunter.
Predictably, chaos ensues.
John Wick Chapter 2 does what so many sequels do — it takes the foundation built in its original and makes it bigger and louder and crazier. And at times, that seems a little overwhelming — the body count in this entry is staggering and the pace is almost hard to keep up with. But it’s done with such damn panache that after the first 15 minutes or so, you just strap in and enjoy the blood-soaked ride. It’s a hurricane of escapist violence, two hours of virtually nonstop gun battles and fistfights, all impeccably orchestrated by veteran fight choreographer Jonathan Eusebio. The brutality and slaughter are poetry in motion, an organic, naturalistic dance that takes advantage of every element of the surrounding environments in addition to the whirlwind of kicks, punches, and firearms.
Reeves was born to play this part, a stoic, quiet man with deeply-held but closely guarded emotional roots. Reeves is not the strongest actor, but he does have a peculiar charisma to him and as long as he’s not asked to do too much, he can easily carry a film. That’s what happens here — the film plays to his strengths and is better for it. The supporting cast, however, is a completely different story. The supporters chew the shit out of their scenes, and it’s delightful to watch. Scamarcio is a wonder as the venal, scheming baddie, supported by a dark-eyed Ruby Rose as Ares, his diminutive but menacing as hell mute bodyguard/assassin. Laurence Fishburne takes a turn this time in, as another strange member of the film’s underworld, a calculating player who helps turn the tides. McShane is wonderful as always, as is Reddick, both of whom have slightly expanded parts that give them more to do. The other cast members, be they big or small, all do their part gamely, though particular kudos should be given to a genius performance by Peter Serafinowicz as an elegant gunsmith (imagine if the luggage salesman from Joe Vs. The Volcano sold weapons to hired killers).
There’s something gloriously comic booky about the John Wick universe. And make no mistake — this is another universe. One of the most remarkable elements of Kolstad’s scripts is that he’s created a new world, one that looks and feels like our world, but most definitely is not. Instead, it’s a cracked, deadly mirror, where hotels are safe havens for assassins, where every homeless person is a secret agent of a dangerous underbelly of society. Where seemingly every third person on the street or subway has a gun, and where police are almost nonexistent (yet bystanders are almost never hurt), and where everyone is dangerous. Everyone is immaculately dressed and elaborately tattooed, with lively eyes and shark-like smiles. Each element of this universe is created to further the story, and it makes for a fascinating watch. It’s an alternate timeline, and that’s part of what makes Wick’s struggle so intriguing — how can you possibly escape this life when the very universe you live in is seemingly designed to the contrary? Every element of this world — the color-saturated scenery, the oddly stilted dialogue that could easily be balloon text in a comic book, the stylized, fluid violence — is perfect for this world — but likely wouldn’t work in a more realistic setting. The chaotic stories of John Wick are downright otherworldly.
It’s another enjoyably psychotic romp, although the film’s greatest sin is that it’s somewhat overstuffed. The first one was a tight, frenetic 101 minutes — the sequel adds another 20 minutes to that and at times it begins to show some bloat. It’s forgivable though, because it’s so damn fun. The action is insane, the gallows humor darkly effective, the performances enjoyable. There’s much to love with John Wick Chapter 2. It’s such a uniquely immersive experience, a strangely comforting bloodbath of chaos that will, I promise you, be the highlight of your week.