Director: Chad Stahelski
Runtime: 122 minutes
Having been released everywhere else in the world in mid-February, John Wick: Chapter 2 has finally made its way to Australian cinema – and it’s just as gory and glorious as we expected. Excessive, sure, but executed with such precision and panache that it’s hard to complain. The film is helmed by stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, who co-directed the first film with David Leitch. Stahelski proves to be more than comfortable in the director’s chair, producing another masterclass of action cinema that improves upon the first film in both scope and spectacle.
The plot is minimal once again. This time around, there is no slow sentimental opening, no beating around the bush – Chapter 2 is cinematic mayhem from the beginning. The narrative focus is barebones but compelling, providing an excellent grounding for the film’s action. As John Wick (Keanu Reeves) cleans up the last of the loose ends from the first film – just one more outing before he can claim retirement – his victim (Peter Stormare) asks a question that gives him pause: “Can a man like you know peace?” Not any time soon, we hope, but Wick replies, “Why not?” Nothing’s killed him yet – surely if he keeps going, keeps eliminating every obstacle, nothing can stand in the way of his retirement. But just as he’s buried his assortment of guns and ammo in concrete, an old assassin colleague (Riccardo Scamarcio) visits him to cash in an old favour – a medallion signed in Wick’s blood, an underground tradition signifying a debt that cannot be broken. Wick has no choice but to play the game a little longer, still searching for an exit but struggling to find a path that doesn’t create more loose ends.
The film benefits from the extended scope, providing an exploration of the underground community of assassins introduced in the first film. It’s nice to see this kind of worldbuilding in an original film franchise, even if it’s just to provide a backdrop for the mayhem. Having moved on from the world of Russian gangsters in the first film to that of professional assassins, I found it much easier to buy the extended sequences in which Wick’s targets avoid him or pose a serious threat to him. Throughout the previous film, Alfie Allen’s reckless gangster character seemed nigh indestructible through sheer dumb luck, making much of the resulting action feel formulaic. In Chapter 2, events flow more organically and the threats seem more serious – John Wick faces his equals, producing some excellent extended fight scenes that run the gamut from comedic to visceral.
Where the first film left us in a haze of gunpowder, grimy streets and sleazy nightclubs, Chapter 2 is more adventurous in its design. There is an element of cultural excess to many of the settings; as Wick infiltrates a concert held in an ancient Roman ruin, or as he fights his way through an elite team of assassins in a hall of mirrors, you might think you were watching a James Bond flick. There is certainly some homage paid to the outlandish Roger Moore era of Bond films in Chapter 2, which makes for an interesting conflict of thematic tones when combined with the solemn biblical symbolism that Wick evokes. The center of the film’s setting and design is The Continental, a hotel chain that doubles as a haven for assassins, at once a quaint image of high culture and a vision of purgatory. No assassin can spill blood on these grounds, or else they incur the wrath of the entire assassin community. The scenes in The Continental are some of my favourites, where tensions and rivalries come to an unnatural stillness; assassins grit their teeth, and the entire establishment seems to teeter on a coin’s edge, constantly threatening to drop the façade of fine living and erupt into a horde of demons. (They sign their contracts in blood, after all.)
Keanu Reeves is once again riveting as John Wick. His ability to consistently kick ass in such long takes is nothing short of astounding. There’s not a lot of emotion in Reeves’ performance, but snapshots of longing and regret come to surface just enough to tinge his rampaging fury with humanity. (Speaking of which, at what point should we start to worry about Keanu Reeves? We’ve known for a while that he doesn’t seem to age, but now he’s a killing machine as well.)
Common and Ruby Rose are a pleasure to watch as Wick’s rival assassins; Common really sells his physicality in his pivotal fight sequences, and Rose’s mute assassin provides a fascinating energy to every scene she’s in. Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne both put forward authoritative performances, cementing themselves as key figures in the John Wick mythology that I hope to see in future films. (It’s also nice to see Neo and Morpheus together once again.) My personal favourite performance is Lance Reddick as The Continental’s elegant concierge, Charon, who conducts his business with an impish pleasure that I find contagious.
John Wick: Chapter 2 knows what it wants to do and does it well. If you’re in the market to have your face melted in the most enjoyable manner possible, strap in and enjoy.