A surprise hit when it propelled Keanu Reeves’ action career back into high gear, 2014’s John Wick concluded with more than enough momentum for a sequel, or even several. The thriller about a former professional assassin who reluctantly emerges from retirement to exact revenge against some mercilessly misguided Russian mobsters capitalized on an energetic visual style and relentless pacing as Reeves robustly performed much of his own high-energy stuntwork.
Ambitiously expanding the follow-up to a global scale implicitly signals its intention to operate at the level of iconic international actioners like the Bond, Bourne and Mission: Impossible series. The success of John Wick: Chapter 2 will go a long way toward demonstrating whether the franchise can distinguish itself from the competition in that rarefied realm, although it appears to have a good chance of topping its predecessor’s opening weekend haul of nearly $14.5 million.
Picking up only a few days after the events of the first film, the sequel finds John Wick (Reeves) finally succeeding in retrieving his prized 1969 black Mustang from New York’s Russian mob after a gut-wrenching car chase and more than a few retaliatory beatdowns. Wick barely finishes stashing his impressive collection of weaponry in anticipation of finally enjoying his retirement undisturbed when an unexpected visitor turns up at his door. Fellow assassin Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) has come to claim a debt that Wick incurred when D’Antonio saved Wick’s life. His intervention provided the opening for Wick to secretly withdraw from professional crime and start over again with his now-deceased wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan, seen only in brief flashbacks).
Although he’s obliged by a blood oath to honor his rival’s repayment demand, Wick declines to return to his spurned profession, growling, “I’m not that guy anymore.” D’Antonio responds, “You’re always that guy, John,” and directs him to target his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), the head of their Italian crime family. After Wick categorically refuses, D’Antonio finds a more emphatic means of persuasion, directing a grenade launcher at Wick’s home and incinerating it. Cut off from his supply of weapons, Wick pays a visit to Winston (Ian McShane), the shadowy arbiter of the secret assassins guild’s arcane customs, who informs Wick that if he doesn’t fulfill his obligation to D’Antonio, the organization itself will have him eliminated.
Out of options, Wick travels to Rome to prepare for taking out Gianna, who’s well-protected by loyal hitman Cassian (Common) and an army of thugs. D’Antonio is determined to stop her before she can assume a position among the leaders controlling the world’s top organized-crime groups, an honor that he claims for himself. So he assigns his mute but deadly bodyguard Ares (Ruby Rose) to shadow Wick, adding to the threats he’ll have to neutralize if he’s going to come out of this unwanted assignment alive.
Reeves is back in fine form, confirming how indispensable he is to the franchise with his lithe physicality, no-nonsense demeanor and impressive skill set, as he again performs many of his own driving and martial arts stunts. Returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad reaffirms the appealing ingenuity of his highly memorable lead character, whose clear motivations for underworld score-settling are both relatable and rootable. Once again, Reeves does not disappoint, fully inhabiting Wick by channeling his rage over life’s injustices into an intensely focused performance.
This time around, Kolstad miscues some key plot developments, however, principally by neglecting to center the action on Wick’s antagonist D’Antonio from the outset and initially focusing on the logistical intricacies of Wick’s assassination assignment instead. By the midpoint, though, more formidable adversaries have emerged, diluting the main conflict further.
Chief among these new opponents, Common’s Cassian stands out for his ability to match Wick one-on-one, either with laconic understatement or in hand-to-hand, knife-wielding combat. Most welcome of all, Fishburne reunites with his Matrix co-star in a cameo as a mysterious underground New York crime kingpin known as the Bowery King. Their brief, provocative exchange leaves little doubt that the character is likely to reemerge in subsequent installments.
In fact, a third chapter is already in the planning stages, perhaps for when director Chad Stahelski completes the Highlander reboot, which should benefit substantially from his John Wick expertise. Going solo on the second installment (with previous co-director David Leitch as an executive producer), Stahelski doubles up on the stunts and firepower. The film’s frenetic opening car chase through night-lit Manhattan streets, followed by a near demolition derby scene as Wick targets the Russian mob’s vehicle fleet by using the Mustang as a kinetic weapon, rank respectably with almost anything that the Fast and Furious franchise can muster.
An intensely staged shootout in the catacombs below Rome’s historic monuments is somewhat less impressive despite the obvious logistical challenges, overly relying on a video-game style third-person shooter setup. Individual face-offs between Wick and Cassian, Ares and any number of deadly henchmen are far more satisfying for their nonstop deployment of judo and jujitsu techniques.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen bathes the frequently low-light action scenes in pools of indigo and ultraviolet to achieve a suitable underworld vibe, allowing editor Evan Schiff to step in and amp up the pacing with stylishly energetic cutting.
Production companies: Thunder Road Pictures, 87Eleven Productions
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Claudia Gerini, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee
Executive producers: Robert Bernacchi, David Leitch, Jeff Waxman, Kevin Frakes, Vishal Rungta
Director of photography: Dan Laustsen
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Luca Mosca
Editor: Evan Schiff
Music: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard
Casting directors: Suzanne Smith Crowley, Jessica Kelly
Rated R, 122 minutes