When John Wick was released it was hailed in many ways as a new standard for action movies. Unburdened by the need to service fans, studios or years of backstory like many other superheroes or action heroes, Keanu Reeves’ Wick was stripped back and simple, in a single-focus film that reflected the nature of its central character. Its action scenes provided an antidote to the jerky, handheld, frantic-cutting style that had plagued action films for over a decade. That style mostly dates back to Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Identity and it was, ironically, two of that film’s stuntmen that brought us John Wick. Why go to such lengths to create brutal, inventive and brilliantly choreographed fights, only to give the audience no idea what’s going on?
John Wick: Chapter 2 seems to work off a mantra of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Once again, in what could generously be called a plot, John Wick finds himself reluctantly drawn back into a world of violence. This time not for revenge, but forced to repay an underworld debt. Wick swore an oath that helped him leave the assassin life, and now, hearing of his recent exploits, Italian mafioso Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes to call it in. Things soon go south, and Wick finds a large bounty on his head.
That mantra above has its good points and bad though, highs and lows, and this is a reflection of the pulse of the movie, which can beat between thrills and tedium. It knowingly builds on the strengths of the original, but falls into some common sequel traps, inevitably lacking the surprise that the first one offered. Like most follow-ups it’s overly long at two hours plus, and for every beautifully crunching action set piece, there’s a long, drawn out scene of people sitting and talking. For each bit of poor dialogue delivered achingly slow, as if the space between words will somehow give them weight, there’s a great exchange between Reeves and Ian McShane (underworld kingpin Winston), Common (fellow retired assassin Cassian), or Laurence Fishburne (the leader of faction of assassins disguised as homeless).
In the absence of a real plot, the film doubles down on the mythology hinted at in the first, and it’s this that gives it personality. The rules of the secret assassin society The Continental are expanded on, the parallel world they operate in fleshed out. There are tattooed girls that work in a 50s-style telephone exchange and keep the (albeit ethnically stereotypical) criminal underworld ticking over, gunsmiths who double as sommeliers and armourers as tailors. In this way it’s a movie for the kind of bro that loves GQ and Esquire, a film that fetishises things – guns, watches, cars and suits – and how stuff represents who you are.
What really makes the film worth seeing though are the action scenes and Reeves. Director Chad Stahelski’s ‘Gun-Fu’ rises to a different level, the violence moving between clinical and artful, brutal and balletic, like a more bloodthirsty version of John Woo’s films. (That 90s feel is throughout, from the font of the subtitles to the euro-techno soundtrack). Wick moves with a precision early on –two shots to the body, one to the head, flip move, next one – that can become a little repetitive, but the kills do become increasingly ridiculous and inventive. The violence as art gets literal at the end as Wick takes on henchmen in a museum – brains splattering the walls like the paint on a canvas and a fight in a self-reflecting mirrored room a la The Lady from Shanghai. The violence gives rise to conflicting feelings – one minute you’re worrying about the way the film glorifies guns and killing, the next you’re thinking ‘Woah, cool, I can’t believe he did that’. Reeves is an incredibly well trained, researched and dedicated actor and a true action movie great, but you just wish he got to do some more actual acting here. His greatest skill is showing his personality through movement, when this stalking ghost of vengeance has little else to work with character-wise.
If you’re not expecting much more than the original, then John Wick: Chapter 2 delivers. The heights of the action, world building and Keanu Reeve’s physical performance are lowered by the dragging running time and dialogue, but it achieves that sequel rare trick of being just as good as the original.
[This post first appeared on Filmblerg]