John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t a rehash, but an escalation. It does pretty much everything you liked from the original, but more of it. Director Chad Stahelski is confident he has a formula that works, and that formula is expanding the John Wick universe of secret assassins living opulent lifestyles plus lots and lots of headshots. If you walked out the first John Wick saying, “More of that please,” then Stahleski made the movie for you. Chapter 2 doesn’t really do anything unexpected, but it follows the successful template of its predecessor.
After an action scene where he retrieves his car from some bad guys, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has once again put away his guns and gold coins and resolved to live out his retirement in peace. Unfortunately, an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), calls in a blood marker, asking Wick to assassinate D’Antonio’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can take her seat at the High Table (a worldwide criminal consortium). Wick initially refuses, at which point Santino blows up Wick’s house, and Wick reluctantly decides to honor the blood marker, heads to Rome, and goes to carry out his mission. Lots of killing ensues.
After watching both John Wick movies back-to-back, I’ve come to the conclusion that I care more about the world Wick inhabits than the intricately designed action scenes Stahleski has devised. Don’t get me wrong: those action scenes are incredibly well done, and other action directors could stand to learn a thing or two from Stahleski’s cinematography and choreography. That being said, they all seem to run on a little long, and especially in scenes where Wick is laying waste to hordes of henchmen, the movie basically becomes a video game where you expect a combo meter to pop up in the right hand corner.
Interestingly, this adoration of John Wick’s violence puts the character at odds with his own movie. John Wick is not a hero. He’s not out to protect anyone or save the world. He’s a killer, and he hates doing it. And yet the film never operates on the wavelength of someone who doesn’t like killing. The movie presents lots of death with none of the ugliness. Yes, some of the kills are brutal, but never in a way to make the audience uncomfortable. Bad guys don’t scream, “Nooo!” or cry or plead for their lives. They just go squish.
Thus, the film is forced to assume that deep down, Wick secretly likes what he does, which removes an interesting inner conflict from the character. If not for Reeves, Wick would be a robotic character, expertly murdering waves of bad guys. The entire character of Wick rests on Reeves’ shoulders, and he provides a quiet, soulful performance that lets you know there’s a beating heart beneath the stylish violence. In the hands of a lesser actor, Wick would just be a violence delivery system, but because we care about Reeves, we care about Wick.
But more than Wick, we care about the world he inhabits. While action junkies will relish the set pieces, the franchise’s secret weapon is the cool underground that surrounds the protagonist. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad continues to build on the foundation he introduced in the first movie, bringing in new elements like the High Table, blood markers, other Continental hotels, neat supporting characters like the Ares (Ruby Rose) and the Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz), and basically fleshing out the world so that you feel transported when you see a John Wick movie rather than just “Here’s a story about a guy who kills lots of people.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t a game-changer for the series as much as it’s the next step forward. There may come a point where Kolstad runs out of interesting places or rules for Wick or Stahleski stalls out on trying to devise a new way to deliver a headshot. But until that time, Chapter 2 shows there’s a lot of life left for the character who deals out nothing but death.