At the receiving end of much fanfare back in 2014, the first John Wick heralded the arrival of a promising new hope for the action genre, in the form of stunt coordinator-turned-director Chad Stahelski. Whilst the film hardly went about reinventing the wheel, it took a very standard revenge-oriented premise, and spiced things up with some impressive gun-fu choreography and more-than efficient direction.
It was certainly a solid film on its own terms, but as far as I was concerned, its primary effect was simply to hype me up for Stahelski’s future projects. As a result, when its inevitable sequel was eventually announced, I’ll confess that I wasn’t too thrilled about it. John Wick was an entertaining action flick because of its impressive execution, but in terms of story, character and even general concept, there was very little potential for expansion or development. The whole point of the first film was that it took a very straight-forward narrative, populated it with some stock characters, and then used those basic elements as a framework to build some inventive set-pieces around.
All of which was completely fine for a standalone film of course, but it meant that a sequel wouldn’t have too much to work with. It felt like it was more-or-less destined to become a derivative copy-and-paste job, effectively rehashing the original, only with a bigger budget. Truth be told, it made me apprehensive that we had another generic action franchise on our hands, one that would soon become stale and quickly outstay its welcome.
Well based on the evidence of John Wick: Chapter 2, I can happily report that I was dead wrong. This second instalment makes the smart decision to take the intriguing mythology that was vaguely hinted at in the first film, and then build upon it further, to the point where it becomes the cornerstone of the entire plot. In doing this, the film is able to give the world of John Wick its own distinct identity, which in turn helps to separate it from the crowd. In short, whilst the original managed to stand out in spite of its mediocre premise, this excellent sequel takes significant measures to elevate the quality of both the storytelling and the world-building, creating something rather special in the process.
This time around, Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself in the inconvenient position of having to honour a promise that he made years ago in exchange for a favour. As you can expect, said promise necessitates that he will, at some point, have to take a life. More specifically, the client (an Italian gangster named Santino D’Antonio) wants his own sister taken care of, so that he then can usurp her position in the criminal underworld. Given that he has a vague (some might say half-hearted) commitment to retiring, John graciously refuses this job. Unfortunately Santino won’t take no for an answer, and destroys Wick’s home in order to spur him into action.
Being the vengeful sort, John makes it his mission to seek retribution for this attack. However, it transpires that The Continental (the weird assassin society from the first film) has a strict policy about honouring deals. You see, if John fails to uphold his bargain with Santino, then it turns out that The Continental will not recognise his grounds for revenge. In fact, the society (and by extension, all of the world’s top assassins) would be expressly against him. Wick therefore has no choice but to travel to Rome and complete Santino’s job. Of course, there is nothing stopping him from killing Santino, AFTER the deal has been honoured.
Right from the bat, it’s a much stronger narrative than the first film’s, one that gives us a welcome look into the inner workings of The Continental. From the society’s seemingly arbitrary rules, to its internal hierarchy, and even its admin, everything is fully fleshed out. Along with this, the stronger focus on The Continental also means that several new and memorable personalities are introduced, all of whom help to give proceedings much more vibrancy and colour. From Lawrence Fishburne’s verbose crime lord, to a smattering of gimicky assassins, there’s a lot more… well…character, to the characters here. In particular, Peter Serafinowicz has a fantastic scene as a Sommelier, who sells firearms with an unparalleled sense of etiquette and class.
As a by-product of these new additions, there’s also a stronger emphasis on black comedy. It’s important to stress however, that there aren’t too many ‘jokes’ here. Instead, the majority of the humour comes from knowingly outlandish character motivations (which is apt, considering that Wick previously killed 80+ people over a dog) and comically restrained interactions between enemies. In other words, the comedy actually derives from narrative events, instead of interrupting them to make way for an avalanche of one-liners. John Wick: Chapter 2 never makes the transition into full on action-comedy, but the few instances of levity that are here do help to inject some colour into the film, especially when they work their way into the set-pieces.
And speaking of those set-pieces, it goes without saying that they are masterfully done. Wisely forgoing the use of disorienting shaky cam and obnoxious edits, Stahelski allows us to fully absorb the film’s gorgeously balletic choreography and marvel at the frankly staggering violence on display. If there’s any film that truly substantiates the link between staging a dance and staging a fight, then it’s this one.
Accompanying the stellar stunt-work, is a perceptible jump in terms of production value. With an increased budget, Stahelski is able to play around with much more dynamic locations (There are some really impressive exterior sequences in Rome) and also gets to indulge in some larger scale brawls. Thankfully, this increase in scope is mirrored by a proportional increase in quality as well. That’s right, these fights are even better than in the original!
To be perfectly honest, the only negatives here are fairly minor. Some might even call them nitpicks. For example, Tyler Bate’s score is a little on the bland side, and a sequence set in the catacombs is far too dimly lit, impeding your enjoyment of what is presumably a very cool gunfight. Still, as aforementioned, these are just small kinks in what is otherwise a very satisfying package.
Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 builds upon all of its predecessor’s strengths and goes quite some way towards remedying its flaws. As far as action sequels go, this can confidently stand alongside the likes of The Raid 2 and (dare I say it?) T2 as an exemplar of the genre.
Oh, and to top it all off, it also manages to set up a tantalising sequel hook, in a way that feels earned and like a natural progression of the story. In fact- and I can’t believe I’m saying this- I seriously can’t wait for this franchise to continue.