Many people don’t remember that there ever was a “Chapter 1” in the “John Wick” franchise, unfortunate as that may be. If you find yourself in that group, please do yourself a favor and make immediate arrangements to alter that situation. Chad Stahelski’s 2014 original largely flew under the radar of the general public, thanks to a very brief and shallow pre-release marketing campaign and a lack of status as either a comic book adaptation or Oscar-bait. But the film gained a cult following and even drew acclaim from snobby critics (much like yours truly) for its artistic approach to violence and action and its complex fight choreography, rendered with perfect execution and coldhearted tenacity by leading man Keanu Reeves. That film was a vengeful love letter to the action genre that put Reeves back on the map and showed many that straightforward shoot-‘em-up movies could still be cool.
But one of the most intriguing and enduring things about “John Wick” was the admittedly absurd but totally conceivable world the film crafted around its namesake main character: a complex criminal syndicate of well-dressed hitmen and hitwomen, all operating through and using the services of a single organization. The central hub for all of these contract killers was a high-class hotel called “The Continental.” Of course, this umbrella organization and its headquarters came with a series of rules about when and where its customers could conduct their “business,” and the film outlined these specifications as a backdrop for he beautiful violence and action.
Yet Chapter 1 gave us only a taste of this secret society of assassins, opting smartly to focus on Wick’s personal quest for revenge. This, one can only assume, must have been the studio’s basis for blessing us with another chapter. After all, Wick’s own journey was tied up fairly neatly by the end of the first film, and he seemingly had no more stories to tell us. But the sexy, slimy underworld in which he operated clearly had more to give.
And such is the crux of this sequel: “John Wick: Chapter 2” exists––much more obviously than the first—simply to explore the world of these suave murderers. Where do they get their suits tailored between ruining them in nightclub shootouts? Who manages the “business” contracts that pay these well-groomed gunmen so well? And while world-building is a welcome addition to any growing series, it can sometimes cheapen the experience when story and character motivation have to play second fiddle. Wick’s very clear and personal reason for stylishly wasting dozens of baddies in the first film felt incredibly real, necessary and full of conviction, and when the movie was over, it really felt like Wick was done with it too. “Chapter 2,” for obvious reasons, feels about as forced into our laps as Wick feels forced back into the world he closed the door on at the end of the first movie. The in-story reasoning behind Wick’s continued adventures feels immediately flimsy, which lessens the drama and emotional involvement of the rest of the movie. Additionally, many of the expositional and conversational scenes lack enough genuine interest in their own right to justify how slow the movie can feel at times. The dialogue doesn’t help. Even Reeves, in all his years of coolly delivering lines of tough-guy camp, struggles to suspend our disbelief when Wick states the obvious, and then repeats it for emphasis.
For all of its failings, however, “Chapter 2” excels when the guns are drawn. From the opening minutes, we are reminded why Wick has made a name for himself alongside Jason Bourne, James Bond and other big-screen action all-stars. Reeves’ dedication to his craft and Stahelski’s knack for stunt composition make high art of brutal violence. The action upholds and even occasionally exceeds the standard set by the first film for high-quality, high-speed action, interspersed with cheeky sight gags and wit. Few movies outside of hard martial arts films achieve the level of kinetic human art that the “Wick” films do, and only “Wick” does it with such a shameless embrace of slick American materialism and gun fetishism.
While “Chapter 2” sometimes drags, and repeatedly misses the mark in justifying its existence as a full-length theatrical addition to the “Wick” universe, it’s worth noting that this admittedly shoehorned follow-up manages to outdo the countless dozens of other unnecessary action sequels that have plagued the industry for decades—mostly a credit to its gorgeous production design, taut action directing, and Reeves’ intense resolve as a stone-faced marauder. If action is your thing, then John Wick is your man, and both the original and the sequel are well-worth a watch. If old-fashioned revenge is your idea of a good story, start with the first, and you’ll be able to tell whether you need a second dose. “John Wick: Chapter 2” will be a welcome addition for big fans of the original, and an example of strong execution for action diehards.
If you liked “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” then you’ll like this.