Review: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

They call him the Boogeyman, and whisper about that time he killed three men in a bar with only a pencil.  As much as everyone hypes up the skills of assassin John Wick, it would be very easy to fail to meet audience expectations for the character.  But not only did the first “John Wick” movie surpass expectations, the sequel, “John Wick: Chapter 2,” takes it a step further, taking everything people loved about the first film and amping it up to create what will likely be, even though it is still very early in the year, the best action movie of 2017.

Chad Stahelski is back on as director, while Keanu Reeves returns as the titular character.  “Chapter 2” picks up where the previous film left off, with an attention-grabbing intro that involves John Wick stealing back his vintage Mustang from Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), a Russian gangster whose nephew stole the car and killed John’s puppy in the first movie, prompting former hitman John to leave retirement to get revenge.  With that final loose end tied up, John returns home and attempts to go back into retirement as well.  He has a new dog to love, but still constantly thinks of his deceased wife, the woman he tried to leave his past behind for.

But while the first film really only scratches the surface of John’s past and the criminal world he used to be a part of, “Chapter 2” dives into it head-first.  John isn’t home for long before he is visited by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a crime lord whom John took a blood oath with for help with his impossible task that would allow him to leave his job and marry his wife.  John is obligated to accept the marker Santino presents to him and help him with his task—the assassination of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), which would allow him to take her seat at a council of high-level crime lords—but he refuses.  When Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental Hotel that serves as refuge for criminals in New York City, tells John that if he doesn’t accept the marker his life will be over, John takes the mission.  But as it soon becomes apparent, this movie isn’t about the completion of that mission, which plays just a small role in the story—it’s about John Wick, and how you should really, really never mess with him when he doesn’t want to do something.

There are lots of familiar faces back for this sequel, from Reeves—who is really in his element in what will go down as one of the most memorable characters in his career—and McShane to Lance Reddick, the always accommodating concierge of the Continental Hotel, and Aurelio (John Leguizamo), the owner of a chop shop who helps John find his stolen Mustang.  But there’s also an effective batch of newcomers, including Gerini, who is electric in her one scene in the film, and Scamarcio, who is an adequately menacing villain.  Ruby Rose plays Ares, a deaf security guard for D’Antonio, while we get a little Matrix reunion with the appearance of Laurence Fishburne as The Bowery King, a crime lord who helps John.  But perhaps the biggest impact is made by Common, who plays Cassian, a bodyguard whose set of skills make him come the closest to being John’s equal.

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Cassian (Common), the bodyguard who pursues John Wick

And that’s one of the ways in which this sequel ups the stakes and improves upon the first film.  In “John Wick,” the action was primarily John versus a bunch of low level henchmen.  Not that watching John go to town on a bunch of random dudes isn’t still one of the most entertaining aspects of the sequel, but in this movie, John has to face fellow hitmen as well, people who are almost as skilled as he is and therefore much harder to take down.  Two of the film’s highlights come from showdowns between John and Cassian, where it’s nothing but them and a flurry of guns, knives, and fists.

Influenced by martial arts movies and spaghetti westerns, the action scenes, like those in the first film, are extraordinarily well-choreographed, with each movement flowing seamlessly into the next.  At times the action—which after a certain point in the film never seems to stop—gets a tad repetitive, but never to the point where it loses the audience’s focus.  Things are kept interesting not just by having John encounter a host of different characters, but also by changing up the setting.  John travels to Rome for a bit, where one of the film’s biggest scenes takes place during a concert in an underground cavern.  Back in New York, John fights in the streets, in the subway, and finally, in a museum, where a mirror-filled exhibit encourages him to reflect on his soul as he beats up baddies.  The cinematography throughout is gorgeous, from sweeping establishing shots of cityscapes to the intimate scenes between characters.  The editing is nicely done as well, particularly in those action scenes, with very few cuts taking place to allow the movement of the characters to really flow.

One of the other fascinating aspects of this film is the world-building.  We’re given just enough details about certain characters, situations, and rules of the criminal underworld to intrigue us without spoon-feeding everything to the audience.  We see just how deep this world goes during a montage in which John, in Rome, prepares for his mission by visiting a series of clandestine operations to obtain everything from weapons to new clothes to maps of the venue.  While the story is generally serious, there’s also the right dose of tongue-in-cheek humor at the right moments; after all, some of the action scenes are so over-the-top, it’s hard for the film—and the audience—to take itself too seriously anyway.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is the sort of action movie all other action movies should aspire to be.  It’s main flaw is that is gets a little too far away from the first film’s theme of John trying to hold on to love in his life; after all, the entire plot of “John Wick” was set in motion because of John’s love for his wife.  Still, at the rate it’s going, it’s hard to think how a third movie—which the ending of this film seems to indicate there will certainly be—could top it.  But so far, the “John Wick” franchise has successfully delivered on the hype—and yes, we do get to see John Wick beat people up with a pencil.

Runtime: 122 minutes. Rated R.

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