The first John Wick was the third movie I ever reviewed in the bygone year of 2014. That was the first and last time I saw it, but I remember it fondly. It did something original with the gunplay, making it personal and up close using the technique known as center axis relock. While I do not know of its real-world application, it was well suited for John Wick and set it apart form the norm. The film did not take itself too seriously either, going for fun in the same vein as Commando. At the same time, it established a small wealth of lore that was easy to understand where most movies would not have bothered. Where does Chapter 2 take the Wick Mythos roughly two years later?
After finishing off the Russians and retrieving his car Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, returns home to give up his life of crime for good. As soon as he buries his weapons in the basement, however, he is visited by an old acquaintance looking to settle a debt.
I take back everything I said about Return of Xander Cage. It sucks… hard. Chapter 2 curb-stomps that film into oblivion before setting the corpse on fire and throwing it into oncoming traffic. Chapter 2 is not only a better movie, but also a better action movie that sets the standard for years to come. If its cotemporaries follow its example, then the future seems a little brighter for the genre.
Right from the start there is a perfect balance of style and substance. What started as seemingly superfluous lore is expanded upon and integrated in Chapter 2. It presents this underworld with rules, traditions, and hierarchy that the characters are beholden to and must operate within. Even if it is not important the little details of world building add leagues of depth. A single line uttered by Franco Nero’s character said more about the world than a whole page worth of exposition in any other movie.
All these details give life and meaning to the meat of Chapter 2: the action. I remember in Suicide Squad, that despite the okay combat and characters, I could not care less because there was no substance. There was nothing to enjoy or latch onto beyond the superficial. A cool action sequence is not cool unless you have something to care about or consider while it is happening.
The first half of Chapter 2 is spent building up the world and fleshing out Wick’s overall struggle to retire. With the death of his wife, he is intent on staying out of crime, but is bound by honor and the world’s rules to remain a part of it. You get what the characters are about and how the world operates before the start of the second half. There the film veers head long into the action and the style that separates Chapter 2 from its contemporaries.
Imagine if Nicolas Winding Refn, the man behind Neon Demon and Drive, decided to direct an action movie. It is strange that such a violent feature like Chapter 2 is shot with the touch of a true auteur. There is colored lighting, long shots, and meticulous set design in service to building this atmosphere of underlining dread that runs parallel with the narrative of Wick being dragged into the abyss. The ending scene in particular involves the typical house of mirrors trope on psychedelic drugs. Even without substance the film could stand on its visuals alone. All it needed was a synth soundtrack.
The action itself has been vastly improved since the first. There are more gun battles with a higher body counts, and more creative situations. As the movie progresses, Wick is left to his own devices, forcing him to improvise by disarming opponents or using his fists. There are a good handful of large, multi-layered set pieces that evolve as they wind down or ramp up. The sequence that sets off the second half begins with a subtle assassination, followed by a tunnel gunfight that ends in a brutal melee. A lot of it seems the same, but there are enough scenarios to break up the potential monotony. It also helps that the brutality of said scenarios is incredible and kind of hard to watch with how close the people are shot.
Though Reeves is not the most expressive actor, he more than makes up for his shortcomings in the physical department. From what I could tell he performed most of his own stunts to the point he looks exhausted. The gunfights show off the most skill where he practices complicated reload techniques and quick draws that are probably more cool looking than they are useful. Ruby Rose shows up as the mute Ares and almost steals the show with simple facial expressions. She has a lot more to do here than in the third XXX without cheap lesbian one-liners to remind the audience that she likes girls.
One negative that must be considered is also an important component to the story. Chapter 2 is very dark in tone, but reflective in what Wick goes through and what the world does to him. He does not want to be there, yet the powers that be will not let him go, even after he accomplishes his mission. The pace is also slow as it builds upon Wick’s suffering and it works. You feel bad for him and the brutality of the violence further punctuates how he feels about the situation.
I am tempted to see John Wick: Chapter 2 a second time. Despite the darkness of the tone and story it is also fun to watch from an action standpoint. Like Commando there are many scenes that will stay in your mind for days to come. The opening and ending scenes alone warrant admission. With that said, before you do anything this week, go see it, regardless if you saw the first John Wick.