The original John Wick holds a special place in our hearts here at FRC. Not only is it the first that we awarded a full five stars, the review also happens to be our very first article. We love its commitment to a simple narrative hook. We love it for director Chad Stahelski distilling an entire career’s worth of stunt expertise into one feature-length package. But most of all, we love John Wick for showing us that some people are still dedicated to making ‘em like they used to.
Which brings us to John Wick: Chapter 2.
Stahelski and his crew have upped the ante here, delivering a film that builds upon the mythology of John Wick while still giving him something worth fighting for. Every stylistic choice feels right here, from sustained shots that clearly depict the carnage on display to blocking choices that keep the action flowing to clever nods to action cinema’s storied past. Stahelski lets you know right up front that you are in the hands of dedicated professionals who love what they do. In short, John Wick: Chapter 2 fucking rules.
Picking up shortly after the first film left off, we catch up with retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) still on the hunt for his stolen car. He retrieves it in short order, and returns home to a meeting with comrade Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Santino cashes in a blood oath Wick made long ago, and tasks Wick with killing Santino’s sister Claudia (Claudia Gerini), who is about to become one of the twelve leaders of the mob underworld. Traveling to Rome, Wick carries out the task, which naturally brings a whole host of assassins raining down upon him, including Claudia’s right hand man (Common) and a mute killer named Ares (Ruby Rose, going for the hat trick).
The hook this time around isn’t quite as elegant as that in the original. Wick’s rampage through the underworld over a dead puppy and a stolen car took the “retired hitman returns to the game” chestnut and boiled it down to its most elemental components. Strip a damaged character of his fragile emotional security and watch him lash out. You actively root for Wick to destroy the kind of scum that would kill a defenseless puppy. The only problem with that is: Where on earth do you take a sequel?
Chapter 2’s answer is to strip Wick of everything else, from his home to his most cherished memories. With all of that gone, he has no other choice but to fight back out of pure survival instinct. The film leans hard into action movie logic to justify the ensuing bloodshed. Even though Santino was the one who tasked Wick with killing his sister, Wick still killed Santino’s sister, which is not something he intends to take lightly. The setup is willfully absurd, but then when you’re dealing in an economy of assassins, absurdity comes with the territory.
The film steeps itself in the language of action cinema.
It opens on the side of a building, upon which is projected a Buster Keaton film. The camera pans down in time to catch a motorcyclist crashing into frame, with Wick hot on his heels. A run-and-gun shootout in the catacombs of Rome spills out into the streets and morphs into a bareknuckle brawl that rivals the infamous fistfight in John Carpenter’s They Live. The strings of a spaghetti western ring out as Wick stares down his latest mark. (Not coincidentally, the film features Italian icon Franco Nero as the manager of the Roman Continental.) The finale takes the mirror sequence from Enter the Dragon and turns it into a balletic funhouse of death. This is a hagiography of cinematic carnage, and the film is fully aware of its pedigree.
While running through a litany of action reel highlights, Stahelski paints his portrait against a backdrop of fine art. Santino’s family apparently owns the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which leads to scenes wherein Santino and Wick air their grievances in front of Civil War paintings and statues of Hercules. (And the film specifically counts twelve mob bosses. Chapter 3 practically writes itself.) Much later, Wick encounters the Bowery Boss (Laurence Fishburne), who sits at a desk in front of a giant painting of a gun. Few films can manage this balancing act of artistic winking without making audiences roll their eyes in unison while making jerk-off motions.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is that rare action film that has done its homework, and the dividends pay off spectacularly. The gunfights are gut-wrenching, the action is relentless, and the world of John Wick continues to expand in fascinating ways. If nothing else, this film is an object lesson in how much more fun it is to show rather than tell. The Continental is an endlessly fascinating place, for example, and the more we see of its inner workings—such as its 1950s-style call center—the more we want to know. The film teeters on the edge of sensory overload, but when the sensation is this potent, you can’t help but hope for more. The groundwork is laid for a third installment, and this critic could not be more excited.
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