2014’s sleeper hit John Wick ended with Keanu Reeves’s titular Wick walking off into the night, his mission of vengeance over. A satisfying film from start to finish, John Wick focused on the essentials for a great action film: a clear purpose, a strong lead, and outstanding action sequences. It’s no surprise that audiences left theaters craving more and more is exactly what audiences get in John Wick Chapter 2. The familiar team of director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves, blow open the world first explored in John Wick to introduce new rules and new players, without leaving familiar faces behind.
Finished with his war on the Tarasov clan, John Wick (Reeves) is ready to return to retirement for good until Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives on his doorstep to call in a marker. The rules of their world prevent Wick from refusing without dire consequences, but Wick’s trust in the rules may be the very thing that gets him killed.
By their nature, sequels increase the size of the previous film by raising stakes, changing environments, or removing choice. Somehow, Chapter Two manages to do all three of these things in a fairly successful way and to still move the mythos of John Wick forward. The addition of D’Antonio fleshes out more of Wick’s backstory, introduces the mysterious High Table, and cements the previously hinted at notion that the underworld in which Wick lives is global. Simultaneously, the story also manages to advance the legend of John Wick as the Baba Yaga, the killer of killers, as the body count of the original is surpassed within the first hour of Chapter 2.
Adding to the excitement and newness of Chapter Two is an Italian branch of the Continental first introduced in John Wick. Though the New York branch run by Winston (the ever delightful Ian McShane) is still present in the story, audiences get to meet Julius (Franco Nero), another longtime associate of Wick and purveyor of both hospitality and deadly goods. Put aside is Wick’s personal collection of weaponry from the first film, as Wick meets with the Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz having a ball) to discuss his upcoming several-course “meal” and the semi-auto, full-auto, and bladed weapons that will complement each “course”. This scene, in particular, highlights Reeves’s extreme ease in handling firearms, making the fight scenes to come extra impressive to behold. The weaponry isn’t the only upgrade as Wick swaps his torso body armor for a full, hand-tailored suit lined with top of the line bulletproof material. This change in attire isn’t about establishing a new look for Wick. Like anything else in his world, it’s all about utility and Wick puts that suit to work.
New toys in sequels lead to bigger and badder fights resulting in action sequences that somehow get more intense as the film progresses. The new characters of Ares (a mute Ruby Rose) and Cassian (the fully unleashed hip hop artist Common) give rise to some of these spectacular action sequences as they challenge the Baba Yaga’s reign. Cassian, an old acquaintance turned enemy through circumstance, is likely the greatest threat for Wick. Common pulls this off without a hitch in a battle that begins at a party, travels through the streets of Italy, and culminates in a dagger fight on a train reminiscent of two samurai dueling to the death. Rose is, unfortunately, underutilized as Ares as she only has a few moments and none are particularly impressive or as memorable. However, this may be a result of some unintentional mirroring between Chapter Two and its predecessor as Ares and Cassian feel like echoes of the recently departed Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) and Marcus (Willem Dafoe).
This is not to say, however, that everything within Chapter Two works. Though an enjoyable and fun flick, the glut of new doesn’t always improve upon the original. While necessary to provide exposition to ensure the audience can follow the story, as well as provide ample breathers between action sequences, the world-expansion portions more often feel like a deviation from the main story that’s more focused on setting up future stories than telling this one. The initial chapter worked so well because it was focused solely on the story. Chapter Two splinters focus by trying to expand narratively without expanding thematically, and the end result comes across a bit clunky. Instead of a straight-forward “good guy vs bad guy”, audiences are introduced to rules, regulations, predictable intrigue, and killers everywhere (although deference to this final aspect should be given as this aspect slowly became exceedingly cool and succeeds in proving why Wick is known as the Baba Yaga). Though there is much new and interesting to learn about this world, the presentation of the information disturbs the natural flow that permeated the initial film and made it so fascinating to watch. Most importantly, although John Wick’s premise centered around unbridled vengeance, it actually carried an intriguing undercurrent narrative about the violent interruption of grief. While this works to high marks in John Wick, Chapter Two can’t carry the theme forward, and its attempts to do so weigh the narrative down, instead of serving as propulsion. Between the weakened emotional core and the clear attempts to set-up for the eventual but unannounced third outing, Chapter Two loses the deeply personal aspect that made John Wick impressive beyond the inspired fight sequences.
The core of the film may feel a bit diminished at its core, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Fans of the original story will leave John Wick: Chapter Two entertained and delighted. While not as emotionally centered, narratively focused, or consistently engaging as the original, there’s still plenty to love about the continued story of the maligned John Wick as Keanu Reeves decimates each of his opponents in new, seemingly inventive ways for two-hours. Clearly a third chapter is being thought up now and I fear for whomever dares challenge John Wick next, and you better believe I’ll be in the theater when they do.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.