TL;DR – John Wick was the gold standard for action films and John Wick Chapter 2 continues this with brutal action, and a deeper insight into this fascinating world.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Now it should come as no surprise that I love the first John Wick film, from the action, to the world building, to the sheer commitment of Keanu Reeves put into preparing for the role. Indeed I wrote a whole article on how it sets the gold standard for Worldbuilding and Visual Storytelling. The issue is that when you love the first film it is always a bit difficult to look at a sequel with an objective lens, on the one hand, you may be blinded by rose tinted glasses, or you may judge it harshly because nothing can live up to the expectations the first film made. With this in mind, I approached John Wick 2 cautiously but I am still happy to say while it did not quite live up to the first film it is still an amazing film in its own right. Its action is still as good as the first, we delve deeper into this world they are creating, and we get to see what happens when a movie is perfectly cast.
If you missed John Wick 1, well first you should go watch it, but to give you a summary. John (Keanu Reeves) was once assassin/professional ‘Baba Yaga’ working mostly for the Russian mafia in New York but part of a greater underground world. After finding love in a hopeless place he wanted out of his life, and was offered an out if he did one impossible task, a task he did and for a brief moment he was happy. However, his wife died due to an illness, but knowing John she gave him a new puppy to care for, as a way to help him grieve. But that was all ruined but professional asshat Iosef came into his house, attacked John, stole his car, killed his dog, and awoke the ‘Baba Yaga’. Now it is important to look at this set up because in the first film Winston gave this piece of advice “You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out, and drags you back into its depths”. Well, John should have taken that advice.
To set the scene John Wick Chapter Two is set within days of the first film, John and his new dog are starting a new life … once John gets his car back from the Tarasov’s. However, John’s hope that he could bury what he had just dug up is dashed when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) the one man left with some hold over John, a Marker, signed with his own blood, rocks up to his front door. Ok, to cut a long story short John is forced to do something he does not want to do to keep his obligations to the world he lives in, and everything that he had worked on starts to fall apart.
So when you are talking about a John Wick film the first thing we have to talk about is the actions, and it is just as good as the first film. Now you don’t have to watch the video of Keanu training (though you should) to know that he goes above and beyond in this role. Filming actors in action sequences can be a difficult job because you don’t just have to work on the choreography, in most cases, you also have to work on framing it so you don’t see the stunt double. Now stunt coordinators and stunt teams have a lot of great tricks that they can use to hide performers from the practical to the CGI, and usually this is done in such a way that the audience suspends their feeling of disbelief and goes with it. However, sometimes it just doesn’t work, you see the performer can’t fight, or they have to cut so many times between shots to hide it, so you lose the flow of the fight, it’s the difference between Daredevil and Iron Fist.
While it is not uncommon to see actors train and perform stunts themselves, it’s rare to see an actor go to such lengths to be in as many shots as possible, and for a studio to finance it. This clearly has an impact on the screen, because you can film longer shots if you don’t need to cut all the time, so you can build each moment naturally. It also helps because John employs a form of Gun Fu that each movement is not about looking good it is about dispatching the enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible and to make sure they don’t get up to be a threat. There are numerous action set pieces throughout the film and each could be an article in its own right, but we get car chases, gun battles, hand to hand combat, and battles with assorted objects he finds lying around. Look you probably know what to expect here, but everything needs to work to make scenes of this quality, the cinematography, the acting, the stunt performers, the directing, the editing, the score, everything.
While we are talking about acting, let’s chat about the cast. Like the first film John Wick 2 could be accused of employing stunt casting, and while I can see where you are coming from with that complaint, when the stunt casting is as good as it is here I welcome it with open arms. Why it works as well as it does is that everyone is giving the best, going that extra mile, so it’s hard to say who is stealing the scene from who because everyone is game with whatever the film throws at them. For example, we have our returning characters Winston (Ian McShane), Charon (Lance Reddick), and Aurelio (John Leguizamo) who continue to give this look into the deeper mythology of the world of John Wick. I mean every line of dialogue Lance Riddick has is pure gold, with the perfect intonation for his character. But this is only the start we have Peter Stormare who is in the film for all of five minutes and is amazing for every single moment of screen time, Franco Nero who has a resume that few can outmatch and who establishes his character with a single line of dialogue, now you can’t go wrong with adding Laurence Fishburne to your film and of course he is a delight, even Peter Serafinowicz who has a small role as the Sommelier is amazing.
When it comes to the new antagonists I liked that all of the three big bads all had different motivations, fighting styles, and relationships with John. We have Cassian (Common) who set on a collision course with John by forces outside either of their controls, you have Ares (Ruby Rose) a straight up no nonsense unremorseful killer, and Santino the winner of this chapters Iosef’s award for overconfidence through being an ass. They are all amazing but I want to give a special shout out to Ruby Rose and the writer Derek Kolstad here, Aries is a fantastic character but it is also fantastic to see a character that has an impairment, something that leads to her communicating through sign language, but it does not stop her in any way from being central player in this brutal world.
Now as I said the first John Wick film was a masterclass in world building and John Wick 2 does not just sit on its laurels, instead it delves deeper into this world. In the first film there was only one unbreakable rule, no business on Continental grounds, but in the second film we get an extra rule, all Markers have to be upheld. A Marker is an agreement that for services rendered the bearer will at some point call in the debt and you have to do anything they request under pain of death. As well as this, we see where all the contracts are processed and without giving anything away I was fascinated by every moment in this place. We also find that this world that they live in goes deeper and higher than we saw before. Now one of the more interesting analyses of the first John Wick film I’ve watched was Movies with Mikey, who in part of his analysis looked at the film in the guise of it being a classical Greek God narrative. While I can sort of see that in the first film, it is much clearer in the second film and no that’s not just because one of the characters is named Ares. We see this world existing in counter to our own, but more than that, human almost seem to be oblivious to the other world, it’s not until they are brawling in front of you that the scales are removed from your eyes and you see what is going on.
This works because technically speaking the film is firing on all cylinders, now I have mentioned the action side but more than that, it’s the little touches. For example, we have people speaking Russian, Italian, and ASL, so there needs to be subtitles, but instead of just plopping them on screen, they are integrated into the narrative and the cinematography. The score is also used to highlight the action sometimes by having a driving beat when you needed and sometimes playing back so you can hear the foley in all its gory glory. The story also works well, because unlike other comparable films like Taken, the second film is not just a rehash of the first in a new location, sure it has similar themes, but it is about dealing with the consequences of the first film and how they start to tear his life apart. It is also good with leaving narration breadcrumbs throughout the film to add to the impact. For example, a character at the start references something from the first film, it’s kind of played for laughs, but instead of being a throwaway gag, it’s actually there to remind you of it so when it happens later in the film you already have that connection. Now while I did like the story, one area they need to work on is that some of the sections just felt a little too much like treading water till the next action set piece. [Spoilers] Also the ending I think will work better once we get to see John Wick Chapter 3, it’s sort of that same feeling I had when I walked out of The Two Towers for the first time, which is not really the film’s fault but more just the fact of where this film lies. [End of Spoilers]
In the end, did I like John Wick Chapter 2 as much as the first film, to be honest no, but to be fair I doubt anything could have because I came into that knowing nothing about the film and that is an experience you just cannot have with a sequel. But is the action great, yes, are the characters intriguing, yes, was the story engaging, yes, do I want to see more of this world, you bet ya I do, and I do look forward to the next film which gen how well this did in the cinema’s I hope we get to see.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Chad Stahelski
Written by – Derek Kolstad
Based on – Characters created by Derek Kolstad
Music by – Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard
Cinematography by – Dan Laustsen
Edited by – Evan Schiff
Starring – Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Franco Nero, Tobias Segal, Claudia Gerini, Peter Serafinowicz & Peter Stormare
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; NZ: R; UK: 15; USA: R