The original John Wick seemed to come out of nowhere, a stylish throwback to the gun-fu films born of John Woo’s sensibilities that features gorgeous use of color and didn’t devolve into camp. And lucky for us, John Wick is back.
John Wick: Chapter 2 does something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another sequel. It opens with Wick (Keanu Reeves) retrieving his Mustang that was stolen in the original film in an extended action prologue. As it unfolds, it makes the audience feel like we are getting more of the same simple, yet effective film we saw the first time around. But after that point, the real story begins, and returning director Chad Stahelski (co-director David Leitch departed to direct the upcoming The Coldest City) swerves into a different kind of film. Not so different that it switches genres, but extending the world of these films into new territory.
Rather than taking the more obvious route of filling in his backstory via flashback, the film uses its large supporting cast, many of whom only appear in a single scene, to give the world a lived-in feel. The first film gave us glimpses into this underbelly of assassins and hitmen with their rules, bounties, and neutral territory, while Chapter 2 dives in with both feet. But rather than pulling from the superhero film playbook of dumping all the exposition into a couple scenes, it is peppered throughout, revealing just enough in order to advance the story.
The violence in the film dials slightly more toward the grindhouse in the way it portrays blood splatter and the visceral feeling of some of the action beats. But the rhythm and choreography, as well as inventive locations for shootouts (catacombs, art museums), remain intact. Thankfully there are only a few moments in the film that land in elbow nudging ‘wink-wink’ territory that the last two decades of mainstream action films seem to be stuck in. Much of this comes from Reeves’ restrained performance. A Nicholas Cage or other scenery chewer would completely upend the film’s sense of cool. Any exaggerated moments in the film strictly involve Cassian (Common), a head bodyguard for one of Wick’s targets, and The Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne). In the case of the latter, most of it is obscured by the joy of seeing Neo and Morpheus reunited on the screen. They aren’t bad moments, but they detract from the John Wick-ness of the film.
This sequel also has a different thematic focus than the first film. In the first film, Wick is a man working through grief, imbuing each bullet and punch with anger-fueled loss. When we meet him at the beginning of this film, he seems more stable, having accepted his wife’s passing but still not having moved on. But Wick’s descent back into the world he left behind in this film reveals him to be a broken husk, not unfeeling, but so unconcerned with life it is difficult to imagine why he fights so hard to continue to stay alive.
John Wick: Chapter 2 exceeds any expectations for a sequel by bringing the feel of the first film to all new scenarios and deeper thematic elements. Walking out of this film is an elating experience, and cathartic in times when there is so much to be angry about.
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.