Only gifs will suffice.
EDIT: I totally forgot to finish this review. Oh well, better late than never! Sorry if it’s kind of weak, though. This movie is out of my system now that I sit down to finish.
John Wick was a movie that I was pleasantly surprised by. However, I underestimated the pop culture impact it would have. I am super glad that it has also changed peoples’ minds about Keanu Reeves, who I’ve always liked, since this a movie that he’s so inextricable to that you couldn’t have one without the other. There are sly jokes about his career in both movies (including small roles and cameos for actors he has worked with in the past, in his most iconic roles) and it shows a bit of awareness that Reeves has consistently been an actor underestimated and underappreciated. For a long time, the most common grudging compliment was that at least Neo (The Matrix) was a role no one else could have played quite the same way, but I think that may be even more true of John Wick. When I talk about how inextricable this character is to Reeves, a good example would be his reputation as an actor that works hard, is incredibly focused, thoughtful, and committed. Who else does that sound like?
Anyway. John Wick was not a movie that demanded a sequel, but I’m glad it got one. One of the most surprising parts of that movie was the way it subtly hinted at its alternate world, lurking just in the shadows. It’s a world of stringent and ritualized codes of behavior governing the top echelons of global crime and the chess pieces that move within their world. The hints of this world, from the gold coins to the “neutral ground” of the Continental Hotel, were tantalizing and gave the movie something special. If anything, it’s the world more than the character that needed its story to continue. Though I’m sure it was tempting to blow the doors off for Chapter 2, writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Strehelski wisely maintain the now-signature restraint and focus that reflects their anti-hero. Good stories are often fractals and it’s clear now that this is the way these guys are constructing one of the most exciting original cinematic franchises to come along in recent memory.
Chapter 2 doesn’t so much attempt to “top” the first one as refine it. This movie had a bigger budget, more locations, and a wider scope on the shadowy world Wick walks in and out of. What I think is most interesting about it, though, is that it doesn’t try to repeat the emotional beats of the first movie more than to remind us of Wick’s core motivations. Instead, it focuses on the stark philosophical ethos of Wick’s world and its globalized reach, with ornate parties and larger-than-life tribes, families, agents, and powers. It’s like a fucking vampire movie, really. And that isn’t to say that it’s got any explicitly supernatural elements, just that the tropes involving the power structure of its world are very reminiscent of vampire fiction in which ancient customs govern the affairs of equally ancient clans as they rule the world from the shadows. It seems that Kolstad and Strehelski really know what they are doing in terms of deliberately pacing their exploration of that world, keeping John Wick central at almost all times so that we experience the world as he does, as if we’re not strangers but have catching up to do. This shows that we’re in good hands as Chapter 2 ends with a major shift in their world and more tantalizing hints of what’s to come.
When we do see NYC, it looks grander than in the first film.
John Wick 2 picks up like minutes after the last one left off. He got his new dog and he got his revenge, but Mr. Wick never got his car back so that’s what he’s up to as we rejoin him. Who has it? None other than the brother of the bad guy in the first one! We’re treated to a fun little mini-movie that feels like a bridging sequence and light-hearted rehash of the whole first movie. Same haunted stories about Wick, same oily Russian gangsters, same rain-soaked night-time fisticuffs and gunplay. The brother is played by Peter Stormare, starting what I hope will become a trend in future John Wick movies of bringing in heavies from Keanu Reeves’s filmography. Hugo Weaving would kill in a John Wick movie. So would Lambert Wilson. When Lawrence Fishburne shows up as an unlikely ally (possibly the man Wick was supposed to kill in his retirement mission?), you can see that these movies really are both a brand new, surprising action juggernaut and also a love letter to Keanu Reeves and his career.
Once Wick settles down with his car and his dog and everything being right in the world, a new oily European fella enters the mix. This time it’s an Italian, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and he comes mostly in peace, because Wick owes him a favour. The mythology around Wick’s exit from the criminal shadow world he once inhabited came at a high price, apparently, and the new movie effortlessly weaves off-hand backstory from the first one back into focus here. It turns out that Wick’s “impossible job”, which was his price for retirement in the first place, could not have been done without Santino’s help, which prompted a “blood-oath” sealed in by blood in a ritualistic medallion. Now Santino expects Wick to help him secure his sister’s seat at the “High Table”, which is never fully revealed (movie three!) but hinted at to be a kind of council of criminal empires from around the world. This is the way John Wick 2 capitalizes on one of the most surprising and interesting parts of its predecessor: a wider world of coins, contracts, oaths, and Continentals is out there and New York is just one battleground.
It’s a blast watching how people react to Wick.
The fate of New York is ultimately a big part of what Wick ends up doing. He helps Santino, but bitterly. When Santino’s sister, Gianna, discovers Wick they have this great conversation and there’s this haunting death scene… it’s really the best stuff in the movie. It’s where John Wick 2 is operating at the operatic level, where it shows that it’s got more in mind than the first movie and the chops to pull it off. There’s a sense of decorum around all this danger, an element which keeps it fun and engaging but still unrealistic enough that we’re okay with the many, many henchfolk that Wick executes brutally. The catacombs sequence is just amazing all around, and it’ll probably stand out as the most memorable part of this film even though it’s almost always giving you the goods.
This decorum also lets the movie introduce a few more characters that are like Wick. Well, not really (cuz no one is), but sort of. In the first one, it was easy to deduce that nobody in NYC was really on his level. Here we watch him fight waves of assassins like himself, and they really put him through his paces. Especially Cassian (Common) who really brings the goods here and will be a big hit as a character, such that I expect him to show up again. He has two great fights with Reeves, one of which has an intermission that is truly and remarkably hilarious. That’s another thing to point out, really… John Wick 2 has a sense of humor that is fully embodied in Reeves’s dry and casually prepared interactions, facial expressions, and body language. However, there’s more humor here than you’d expect and it rises fully out of the world this movie presents so it’s really just a blast to see scenes like the subway shootout where the arch ridiculousness of this world is undermined and addressed in fine form. Even though it’s not as funny, they are doing the same thing when they tease a big fight with Ares (Ruby Rose) and she winds up being completely outmatched. They are playing with expectations, even those of the characters in the film.
In other words, John Wick 2 may feel serious and certainly Wick himself is, but these movies are not taking themselves super seriously. They know what’s up, even when they layer in some slightly heavy-handed symbolism. The symbolism works here because this is a world of aesthetics, where everything from the clothes to the guns to the setpieces are chosen from character, so it isn’t about just having a cool location or cool clothes but also always staying informed by the writing, in the sense that the world and characters as written feel like they’d choose to hang out in the Met and wear bulletproof suits.
Honestly, that attention to detail reminds me of The Matrix. The Wachowskis surely thought the counter-culture clubs and technogoth costuming were cool and I think audiences agreed, because it was kind of new and familiar (especially to cyberpunk fans or card-carrying goths and hackers). More than that, it felt like the kinds of outfits and places to hang that characters like the human rebels of The Matrix would choose for themselves.
John Wick 3 is going to be cray.
After helping Santino, Wick has another reason to get revenge and the movie does sort of meditate on this… is Wick addicted to vengeance? Is the honorable code of the “Continental” and “High Table” world really just an excuse to repeat violent cycles that wind up consuming whatever could be good about having those codes in the first place? Even though the John Wick films are not philosophically inquisitive (they aren’t spending a lot of time asking questions), they are still philosophical, like all great crime movies.
By the end of it, Wick violates a sacred law with full knowledge of the consequences. Though Wilson (Ian McShane) seems to favor him and even though Santino was a dirt bag, Wick is still declaring war on the world he left. And the beauty of that is, of course that’s where this was always going. It had to. It locks into place with a click, a familiar click, and even more than after this sequel was announced last year, we’re ready for more.