John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ian McShane
Free up a chair at the High Table of modern action films - John Wick: Chapter 2 has arrived and it is glorious.
There's been a clear trend in action films during the last several years: the number of films that fit squarely in the genre is quite small, and mediocre efforts outnumber the accomplished ones. Once or twice a year, however, a film is produced which immediately enters the pantheon of true greats. With their directorial debut John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch did exactly this in 2014. Combining their vast action design and second-unit experience with the total commitment of star Keanu Reeves, they forged one of the most exciting American action films of the decade.
Directing alone this time, Stahelski has gone and done it again. Chapter 2 is a blistering continuation and expansion of everything that made the original so intoxicating - the unique fictional underworld, the beautiful cinematography, Reeves' performance as "the man, the myth, the legend" that is John Wick and of course the astonishing action sequences. The sequel reaches a level of intensity and accomplishment in action cinema that, in recent years, is matched only by the likes of The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road.
The first film introduced us to two characters occupying the same body: not only "John Wick", the legendary and feared New York assassin but also "John", the grieving widower trying to rebuild his life. The mission of revenge that drove the plot sprang from John's emotions, but could only be completed via his transformation into John Wick: a side of himself he hoped was dead and buried. In Chapter 2, we delve much deeper into the world of John Wick: an underworld with its own distinct culture, expanded from New York to encircle the globe. The plot is driven less by John's emotions than by the rigid codes that govern this world. In this, writer Derek Kolstad has surely taken inspiration from Japanese samurai films as well as John Woo's heroic bloodshed.
This time around, John is visited by Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a high-ranking member of the brutal Camorra crime clans. Santino possesses a "marker", by which John is bound in blood to provide assistance. Although the legendary hitman longs to return to everyday life, he is gradually compelled to travel to Rome. There, the fascinating mythology of this world is expanded upon dramatically, as John Wick is drawn into a struggle over a seat at the "High Table" of global criminal power.
The expansion of Kolstad's heightened criminal reality is dramatic and enthralling. The first chapter introduced the Continental, a hotel for assassins where "business" on the premises is punisable by death. In Chapter 2, it is revealed that Rome also has a Continental (apparently the world's oldest) and the creator of the assassins' special gold currency is glimpsed. We also meet New York crime boss the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne); weapons connoisseur and vendor The Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz); the Rome Continental's manager Lucius (Franco Nero), and a warrior named Cassian (Common) whose skills are almost equal to Wick's. All these characters and insights are introduced deftly, and the worldbuilding never feels forced or overwhelms the action.
And what action. The shoot-outs and fight sequences in John Wick: Chapter 2 are numerous, superbly choreographed, engagingly performed, and beautifully shot. They have a violent intensity that only truly exceptional films like The Raid 2 or Woo's Hard Boiled - still the most extreme contemporary action film ever made - can challenge. The standout scene may be a running battle within Rome's catacombs, which Wick seeds with weapons just as Chow Yun-fat did a corridor in Woo's A Better Tomorrow. The most thrilling moment is more subtle: Wick and Cassian try to shoot each other as they duck alongside a row of parked cars. As all great action films, here action conveys character and story, in this case the tremendous respect and connection between these two consummate professionals.
Chapter 2's copious blood and heightened "hyper-real" approach will not please everyone, but Stahelski has undoubtedly crafted one of the best and most exciting action films of the last decade. Merging influences from heroic bloodshed, samurai films, the Italian western, and French noir. Chapter 2 is a tour de force of action cinema. John Wick is most definitely back - and long may he reign.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.