Sequels are often bad mistakes: cynical cash-grabs capitalizing on the original film’s success, or earnest attempts that fall short of audiences’ expectations. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and “John Wick: Chapter 2” is certainly one of them. The sequel to 2014’s “John Wick” – a Keanu Reeves action flick that reignited the actor’s career and proved to be an unexpected hit – “Chapter 2” improves upon the original’s formula, a nearly impossible feat. “John Wick” is really, really good. “John Wick: Chapter 2” is truly great.
The first film’s plot has become well-known for its simplicity: retired hit man John Wick (Reeves) embarks on a vengeful killing spree when members of New York’s Russian mob kill his dog and steal his prized car, a 1969 Mach 1 Mustang. The story would’ve read as flimsy in someone else’s hands, but Reeves and the movie’s director made the bare bones plot work. The plot of “Chapter 2” is also straightforward, as an action movie’s script often should be. Complex narratives often undermine the action of similar films, as audiences focus on needlessly convoluted plot points and nonsensical twists. Viewers of “Chapter 2” are given just enough story to keep them invested in John Wick’s adventures, allowing them to focus on the near-constant barrage of violence set against gorgeous, almost otherworldly sets.
Picking up directly after the events of the first film, “Chapter 2” opens with a bang, as Wick barges into the New York chop shop housing his stolen car. After a fantastically shot fight sequence, the formerly retired assassin drives off into the night, only to discover his troubles are far from over: an old colleague, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), is waiting for him. D’Antonio wants a seat at the High Table, the shadowy ruling body of an international criminal enterprise. Only one life obstructs D’Antonio’s path to power: that of his sister, who currently holds the position desired by the slippery mobster. He asks Wick to kill her for him, reminding Wick of a blood oath the hit man made long ago. Wick initially refuses, but after D’Antonio makes it clear he has no choice, flies to Italy in order to carry out the assassination – a move that sets in motion a series of exceedingly violent events.
Reeves is excellent as Wick. He only registers basic, primal emotions, as that’s all he needs to do: his character is a machine constantly under threat of collapse, driven onward by instinct and desperation. He fights with extreme precision, seamlessly alternating between his hands and a variety of weapons as he battles his way through Italy and New York City. There’s something almost beautiful in the economy of his movement: the efficiency of his actions, combined with their graphic brutality, create an unsettling juxtaposition.
Wick’s surroundings are as visually interesting as the assassin himself. The movie’s set design and supporting cast are just shy of cartoonish, somehow managing to sustain the film’s comic book aesthetic without falling into caricature. Lavish hotels, a rock concert hidden amid the ruins of an Italian villa, the eerie sterility of a New York mall and an underground notary’s office staffed by tattooed women in ‘50s-era skirts and heels combine surreally yet smoothly. Everything fits; the spectacle is never questioned.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a masterpiece of violence, and will likely remain this year’s best action film. Those looking for an adrenaline rush at the movie theater should make “Chapter 2” a priority – viewers will leave hoping a third “John Wick” is in the works.