In so many ways, John Wick was lightning in a bottle. A budget studio picture helmed by two stuntmen-turned-writer/directors and a 50 year old action star that turned out to be the sleeper hit of 2014 thanks to untouchable action sequences, a surprisingly fleshed out world, neon-noir tone, and just enough humor to tie it all together.
Chapter 2 takes that bottle, smashes it on the ground, uses a shard from it to stab a guy coming up from behind, steals that guy’s gun to shoot two more guys, and then proudly states that it’s back.
Chapter 2 seemingly picks up days after the credits of part one. Following a cold-open that mixes together a car-chase, car-fu, a couple of stealth kills, and martial arts together into one incredible sequence that should make whoever is working on the next 007 film tear up whatever they were working on and start over; John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retrieves what’s left of the car that was stolen from him in the last movie and plans to resume his retirement.
But just as he’s finished literally re-burying his past, he gets a visit from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime-lord who invokes a blood oath to pull Wick back in for one (more) last job. He hires Wick to kill his sister, so that he can take her place at “The High Table,” the ruling council of the underworld that ties together Wick, the Russian mafia, the Continental, and all the other great world-building elements from the previous movie.
To fulfil this contract, Wick goes to Rome, checks into the Roman Continental, gets a new suit, and more than a few new guns, and makes a plan to sneak into the sister’s coronation to The High Council, kill her, and somehow get out alive.
And that’s just the first hour. You’ll have to find out what happens in the second for yourself.
John Wick: Chapter 2 follows in the footsteps of most great sequels by greatly expanding the world while barely adding any new rules. And the few rules this movie does add, mainly regarding how blood oaths and contracts work, are so simple as to feel like universal constants across all action movies in general. What Chapter 2 excels at is continually finding new ways to play within the few rules it sets for its universe, almost doubling the kill count while maintaining a consistent tone and aesthetic across two cities and over 100 separate kills. There’s a point in this film where it switches gears to a more The Warriors flavor, and opens the floodgates on the variety of killers John Wick’s world is filled with; and it’s as though every other person in the world is a Bond villain henchman. It’s glorious.
But moreso than its world-building, the first John Wick was revered for showing every movie the other side of Mad Max how to capture action on film, and Chapter 2 continues to elevate the action genre. Returning are the long single-takes of gun-fights and martial arts that clearly show off every bullet fired, punch thrown, and body judo’d. With some help from a bulletproof suit, John does feel more invincible than he was in the previous movie, but because of the sheer numbers he’s up against, and every single movement being traceable from one second to the next, it never feels like he’s cheating.
There’s a sequence in the first half where we see John carefully place weapon and ammo stashes around an area, so that when he goes back through it – followed by dozens of soon-to-be-corpses – it’s as though we’re watching him speed-run a level of DOOM. There’s even a legit boss-fight at the end! And like a speedrun, it feels like a pure show of technical skill; on the in-universe level of John Wick living up to his reputation, and also on the skills of Stahelski, Kolstad, Reeves, and everyone else involved in the making of the movie.
And even outside of the action sequences, of which there are many, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a gorgeous movie. When I say its neon-noir, I really, really mean it. The palette of the film is dominated by the high-contrast of neon pinks, greens, and blues against dramatic black shadows. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who previously worked with Del Toro on Crimson Peak, seems to take inspiration from the movie’s trip to Italy to infuse the settings with an Argento like use of color and architecture, especially during a very late-movie shootout.
There are times where John Wick: Chapter 2 can start to feel a little self-indulgent, a little too pleased with its own stylistic success, and maybe even a little too silly. But almost as soon as that thought crosses your mind, it reminds you that – like with its title character – every bit of that proudness is well-earned.
Very few sequels – in any medium – manage to pull off what Chapter 2 does, especially considering part one’s relatively humble origins. It manages to reveal a huge chunk of its world and mythos without ruining any of its mystique; and delivers on exactly the action that fans of the first expect without at all dipping into repetition. It changes things up without really changing at all; it’s exactly the sort of “more” that all sequels should be.
Even less franchises manage to pull this off a second time. Here’s hoping John Wick can keep justifying putting off his retirement.