Back in business.
There’s a pivotal scene in the original John Wick where Keanu Reeves as the title character tells Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo Tarasov, a Russian crime leader against whose son Wick desires vengeance, that he’s “back.” Wick had retired, but due to no fault of his own has been dragged back into the criminal underworld.
He didn’t really mean it though. At the end he gets a new dog and walks off into the night, and if there were no John Wick: Chapter 2 that would have been the last we ever saw of John Wick.
But there is, and in John Wick: Chapter 2 there’s yet another pivotal scene in which John Wick, once again, states with vehemence and conviction that he’s back. This time he means it.
But once again it’s not by choice. John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with the assassin wrapping up the one loose end left over from the original: Getting his car back, as yet another Russian mob leader, Peter Stormare playing Viggo’s brother, recounts the legend of John Wick the Babayka (Boogeyman) in case someone didn’t get the point from the first film. John Wick is dangerous. You don’t mess with him. If he wants his car back, he’s going to take his car back, and when he offers you peace over a shot of vodka, you accept.
It’s easy to forget that even at this point, not much time has passed since his wife Helen passed away. It’s been long enough for him to recover his strength and train his dog pretty well, but Wick still hasn’t had time to mourn. And he won’t, thanks to a visit from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). It’s at this point that John Wick: Chapter 2 begins to expand on the shadowy but surprisingly organized underworld glimpsed in the original.
John Wick: Chapter 2 takes joy in expanding on the original’s lore. Wick zips between Rome and New York, demonstrating that thanks to his good standing with The Continental (the hotels where assassins are forbidden from spilling blood) he has access to help and resources anywhere he goes. Comedian Peter Serafinowicz’s brief appearance as a “sommelière” of high-powered armaments — Wick requests something “robust” and “precise” — is a particular high point for the film’s pervasive dark comedy.
Part of the original’s charm, though, was how self-contained its organized underworld appeared, existing alongside but invisible from normal society. John Wick: Chapter 2 loses a little of that magic by demonstrating just how far its tendrils spread. Director Chad Stahelski, one half of the team that directed the original, perfectly recaptures the stylish aesthetic and visceral brutality that made the first movie so inimitable. It feels slightly too familiar when the same musical cues pop up over and over, but then again there’s no reason to fix what’s not broken.
And in other ways John Wick 2 ratchets the action up considerably. The first film was cut nicely into a few acts with their own climaxes: The club scene, Iosef’s death, and Wick’s fight with Viggo. The sequel isn’t so neatly divided, its violence spreading further and further into moments that might have otherwise been lulls. Chapter 2 sees Wick more and more out of his element, hounded on all sides by an endless barrage of attackers who alone wouldn’t stand a chance but in succession threaten to wear the Boogeyman down by pure attrition.
There’s another club scene, this one spilling over into Rome’ ancient catacombs. There’s a modern art mirrored funhouse fight that’s straight out of The Man With the Golden Gun, if Scaramanga had had a lot more henchmen. Even as Wick seeks safe harbor with Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, he’s beset on all sides, including by Common’s character Cassian and Ruby Rose’s Ares. Both new characters perform incredibly alongside Reeves. Cassian is very much Wick’s equal, though he prefers gin to bourbon, while Ares is a menacing, mute bodyguard who speaks in sign language. They feel like real threats to Wick, both in the fact that they might kill him and that they kind of steal the scene when they’re onscreen — particularly Rose’s Ares. ASL has rarely before been so electrically charged with violence and dangerous sexuality.
John Wick: Chapter 2’s violence is often difficult to watch. It’s the kind of movie violence that feels so real it makes your mouth go dry. Audiences will gasp and cover their faces as Wick jams a pencil into a man’s brain through his ear or disembowels an attacker from the groin upward. This is a world where leaving a knife wedged in an opponent’s aorta so they don’t die right away — as long as they don’t pull it out — is considered a “professional courtesy.”
Reeves truly sells the idea that the character doesn’t actually want to be doing any of this, but he sends dozens of brains flying through the backs of their owners’ heads nonetheless. The action choreography, cinematography and scripting are as tight and impeccably precise as they were the first time around. It’s a terrible joy to watch this brutal ballet, even as you try not to think about the collateral body count that must be stacking up as gunfights erupt on crowded streets, assassins firing blindly at one another through the spray of plaza fountains. Wick made visible efforts to not harm bystanders in the first film, which has seemingly gone out the window here, though it makes sense that his own code would fray as his survival instincts take over.
Wick is a man of few words, though Reeves manages to say a lot with very little (there are multiple conversations where Wick says little more than “yeah” or “sure”). For the first time though he finds himself at odds with The Continental’s management in John Wick 2. Without giving anything away he and Winston (Ian McShane) don’t see eye to eye throughout the film, and it’s nerve-wracking to watch Wick’s impervious persona begin to crack as the pressures around him intensify. You want to see him as invulnerable, but by the end you really feel his desperation.
John Wick was about a master assassin pulled back into his shadowy past through a really unfortunate coincidence. John Wick: Chapter 2 is about Wick getting dragged back, kicking and screaming, because he’s simply too good at his job to be left alone. There’s a big difference there; the sequel puts the underworld itself at the forefront instead of using it as background for Wick’s more personal conflict with Iosef and Viggo. But it still works extremely well, combining all the aesthetic, stylistic and tonal strengths of the first and expanding on Wick’s world in ways that fans will find satisfying without answering too many questions.
It’s not surprising that John Wick 3 is already in the works, especially given the way this one ends, with the throttle fully engaged as the credits start rolling. There’s no falling action. That’s probably the film’s biggest flaw, but you can’t really fault it for that as long as it means more John Wick in the future.