It was Douglas MacArthur who famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” In Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, however, assassins cannot even fade away. Here is John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who cannot catch a break in his attempts to leave behind his former life as a hitman and retire to a peaceful life. At almost every turn though, his rivals find out they should have just let him be.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is, of course, the sequel to 2014’s John Wick, one of the more exciting action movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years. That movie, if you may recall, found Wick in retirement and mourning over his late wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), only to be violently interrupted by three thugs who stole his car and killed his beloved dog. That set him off on a torrent of rage that actually get puts to rest in this sequel’s opening action number, which reminds us what sets these movies apart from the cookie-cutter action fodder.
That opening, which impressively combines car-chase action and hand-to-hand combat, begins with a Buster Keaton film being projected on to a street building, a bold standard the film sets for itself. Like those Keaton films, one of the film’s pleasures is that the action relies on physical stunts and choreography captured by longer, fluid takes. This sequel amps up the stunts and the choreography (and the brutality) to a new creatively insane level. It is a relief that there are directors like Chad Stahelski (famously a stunt double for Reeves in the Matrix movies) who offer a strong rebuke to the quickly cut, frenetic action plaguing modern day cinema.
After that opening sequence, Wick believes he can finally enjoy retirement with his new dog (who is never named, which may make him The Dog with No Name). That is, until an old associate named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has a a very loyal deaf-mute henchwoman, Ares (Ruby Rose), comes knocking holding a marker that binds him to a past oath of debt that Wick must pay back. Wick initially refuses but one blown-up house later, he finds that he must fulfill this oath to really come out of retirement.
Like past accomplished action sequels such as Aliens, Terminator 2, and more recently The Raid 2, the screenplay written by Derek Kolstad aims to deliver a more complicated story along with the improved action. The film expands on the rules established by the Continental run by Winston (Ian McShane), with his front desk assistant, Charon (Lance Reddick). Not only do they manage a hotel for assassins as a no-killing zone, as in the first film, but they have also set the rules on the binding of a marker and the setup of contracts. I hesitate to get too much into the story so that you may enjoy the twists and turns that unfold.
Under the story, the backbone that lends the film some gravity is the sense of woefulness to John Wick who just cannot retire into peace. When he kills, he does so with impeccable aim (mostly with head shots) and without looking back. As Reeves plays him, however, there is no catharsis and every kill is one rung down the ladder back into the quagmire of the underworld.
While that happens at the story and character levels, the fight sequences are so innovatively crazy this time that at one sequence, I almost turned to a friend sitting next to me to say, “This movie is insane!” You will understand its context when you see the film, but that sequence is a montage that has Wick facing a gallery of assassins disguised as a sumo wrestler, a violinist, and others in New York City. One scene, which shows Wick and another assassin, Cassian (played by rapper Common) firing their silenced guns as quietly as possible in a crowded NYC art museum, had me giggling in stunned disbelief. That later builds to a faceoff on a NYC subway train when they board it from opposite sides, which, as any city subway rider would know, is implausible because train doors usually do not open on both sides simultaneously. No matter, the ensuing impressive knife fight is worth it.
In both choreography and cinematography, the film also adopts a more confident cinematic language. The action is supported by a greater variety of colors and camera distance and angles, thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen. The colors range from the darkness in the catacombs of Rome and the prettiest fuchsia lights I’ve seen in a NYC subway to a kaleidoscope of blue, red, yellow, and pink in a gallery of mirrors in the climax (an homage to The Lady from Shanghai and Enter the Dragon).
Reeves deserves serious credit for physically pushing himself more than he has before to be game for these action sequences. While there must be many stuntmen who also warrant props for doing the more dangerous stunts, Reeves reportedly does most of them himself in his 50s, like Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies. As he performs it in the choreography, we understand how Wick, while capable of getting injured, is proficient in all distances of combat and how one person can actually face a multitude of thugs in a fight. The first film showed Wick tackling one guy, mowing a few others, and then finally dispatching the first one. This one shows more clearly how he is able to use one guy as a shield to fend off others.
So will this movie win over new people who did not enjoy the first John Wick? Probably not. However, action fans will be in bliss with this sequel. There is already a third part planned for this series, which may suggest that assassins don’t retire, they just reload. That will likely be bad news for Wick’s enemies but good news for fans who will have their action movie appetite satisfied and whetted even more.
USA. 2017. Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, and Bridget Moynahan. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.