During the course of the first John Wick film (released in 2014), writer Derek Kolstad and first-time director Chad Stahelski (a former stunt man and coordinator) hinted at a vast underworld made up almost entirely of criminals who were hired to assassinate any required to keep the above-ground world running smoothly. With John Wick: Chapter 2, the creative team blows open the doors to this secret world and allows viewers inside this dark world where Wick (the appropriately understated Keanu Reeves) made his home before settling down and retiring prior to the events in the first film. And boy, do they make it fun again.
The entire promise of the John Wick movies is that the fight sequences and stunts we see in the film are all real, without the aid of special effects, and knowing that certainly make a difference while watching it. The impacts hurt so much more and the destruction sends shockwaves through the body. Chapter 2 begins not long after the first film ended. Wick is ready to slip back into retirement as soon as he clears up a first loose ends from the first film and complete the revenge for the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan), whose memory still haunts Wick.
Just as he returns home for some much-needed recovery time, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at his door ready to cash in a marker owed to him by Wick. Turns out this criminal mastermind made it possible for Wick to retire quietly, but now he needs him out of retirement to kill his sister, who he’s afraid will present a challenge for him taking over the family empire after their father passes away. Wick refuses, and D’Antonio has no choice but to blow up the man’s house. So Wick finally agrees to the job, but it makes him vulnerable to attack among the aforementioned criminals hiding in the shadows (although the best ones stay at the Continental Hotel, managed by returning favorites Winston (Ian McShane) and desk clerk Charon (Lance Reddick). I suspect if the John Wick series goes for a Chapter 3, these two will have a much bigger role to play, and that prospect makes me giddy.
One thing we get to see in Chapter 2 that we didn’t see before is Wick gearing up before a big mission. Peter Serafinowicz shows up as the Sommelier, who deals Wick his guns; Luca Mosca arrives as Wick’s Italian Tailor (who sews a bulletproof lining into every custom-made garment); and John Leguizamo returns as his car expert. And before long, John Wick is a superstar like we knew he was back in the day.
He completes the mission early in the film, but the broken promise of the marker makes everyone realize that Wick must die, and suddenly every assassin in the world is after him, and that’s when we see the underworld open up. The franchise queen, Ruby Rose, shows up as D’Antonio’s mute bodyguard, and the results are impressive. Common (as master assassin Cassian) shows up and has two extended, close-quarters fight scenes with Wick that are my favorite of any stunt sequence in the movie.
The idea that most sequels have of going bigger and better the second time around doesn’t always work. And while Chapter 2 is certainly the better of the two films, it doesn’t feel the need to ramp up the action to such a degree that we’re pulling back from the screen. That’s partly because, during the quieter moments, we’re learning a bit about where Wick comes from and why he needed to get out when he did (which in turn explains why he’s so desperate to stay out). One of the film most welcome moments comes when an injured Wick falls under the care of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who spares no dramatics and hand waving to let everyone around him know who’s in charge.
I’m a great admirer of how John Wick: Chapter 2 ends. It does more than simply set up a possible third film with a cheesy cliffhanger. Instead, the filmmakers literally strip away everything, every protection that Wick has ever possessed and leave him more vulnerable than he’s ever been. Reeves has always known how to bring the angst, but where this film leaves him, he might as well be naked in the Arctic Circle. Check that: he’d be safer there. The John Wick films are a budding franchise that is worth obsessing over the many already do, and I can’t wait to see what these knuckleheads do next.