‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ review

'John Wick: Chapter 2' ups the ante -- and the action -- for even more fun

Keanu Reeves’ 2014 action spectacular, John Wick, seemingly came out of nowhere to shock audiences — in the best possible way — with its blend of tightly choreographed action sequences and simmering intensity. The film rode a wave of enthusiastic buzz to an impressive $86 million in U.S. theaters (more than four times its budget), so it was a lot less surprising when a sequel was announced, bringing back Reeves as the titular assassin who can’t seem to stay retired.

John Wick: Chapter 2 arrives in theaters this week, and with all of the excitement that surrounded its predecessor, the bar is set considerably higher for Reeves’ return to the role.

Fortunately, director Chad Stahelski — who co-directed the first film with David Leitch — appears to be well aware of what made the first movie such a success. The former stunt man makes up for a lack of surprises the second time around by delivering more of what audiences loved about 2014’s John Wick, taking what worked about the original film to an exciting new level.

John Wick’s second take brings the best parts of the original to an exciting new level.

Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 has Wick once again trying to stay out of the killing game, only to be drawn back in again when an old associate tracks him down. Forced to settle an old debt, Wick is pitted against the combined might of both a powerful criminal family and the entire guild of assassins he once operated within, all in the hopes of returning to his former life of leisure.

Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 kicks off the action early and rarely slows its pace over the course of the film’s 122-minute running time. Reeves’ hitman is thrust into one environment after another that has him either shooting his way through or fending off a seemingly endless torrent of henchmen, and Stahelski does a remarkable job of holding your attention from the film’s opening scene until the end credits.

Rather than using the sequel to take John Wick in a new direction, Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (who also penned the 2014 film’s script) wisely chose to take a deeper dive into the world established by the first film and play a bit more in the wonderfully violent, fascinating sandbox they created.

While the first film skimmed the surface of the clandestine, murder-for-hire industry that forged John Wick’s reputation, Chapter 2 goes a step further by revealing how far-reaching and omnipresent that world’s network of professional killers actually is. The film enticingly explores the working relationship the assassins have with the criminal organizations that make use of their services. In the world of John Wick, the cashier at your local gas station could very well be a killer waiting for his or her next contract, and the film expertly nurtures that sense of potential threats surrounding its hero at every turn.

Along with doing a remarkably thorough job of expanding on the world of secret societies introduced in John Wick, the sequel also benefits from some notable upgrades on the visual side, too.

Much of the focus in the 2014 film was on the spectacular — and often spectacularly brutal — action sequences, which served to draw in audiences and critics alike. Chapter 2 doesn’t disappoint in that respect, either. There’s no sophomore slump for the second film’s fight choreography, and the action is complemented this time around by some brilliant set design that has Reeves’ character dispatching waves of villains against some fantastic backdrops. Fortunately, the grander sets (and budget) make the sequences pop even more, rather than distracting from them.

The sequel also benefits from some notable upgrades on the visual side, too.

One particularly impressive sequence has John Wick battling his way through a maze of ancient catacombs in Rome. Adding a smart dose of claustrophobic tension to go along with the explosive action, the locale takes the film’s hero from one dimly lit, subterranean room to the next. In contrast, another sequence has John pursuing a target through a modern art exhibit filled with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and psychedelic light shows.

Given how great the fight choreography looked in John Wick, it’s no small feat to make it look better in the sequel, but that’s exactly what Stahelski does here.

John Wick: Chapter 2 also follows the original film’s winning formula by surrounding Reeves with an excellent group of actors.

The roles of returning cast members Ian McShane and Lance Reddick are expanded a bit in the sequel, and their additional screen time serves the story well, while showcasing both actors’ considerable talents. Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio is thoroughly sinister as the heir to a criminal dynasty who forces Reeves’ hitman back into action, and his reckless vanity makes for a compelling contrast to John Wick’s stoic certainty of purpose.

john wick chapter 2 review
Niko Tavernise

The crowded cast of characters tasked with taking out John Wick is also beefed up with some quality performances from some of the other newcomers to the franchise, with actor Common and actress Ruby Rose both holding their own as some of the more formidable enemies. Although much of the film has our protagonist facing off against nameless swarms of enemies, Stahelski does a nice job of giving some of the blurred faces — whether fellow assassins, common thugs, or mercenaries — a dose of personality that makes them more than just cannon fodder.

One of the only disappointing spots in the cast of John Wick: Chapter 2 is actually one of the most surprising, given the actors’ history together. The reunion of Reeves with his Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne received a lot of attention in the lead-up to John Wick: Chapter 2, but ends up amounting to very little screen time together for the pair. Fishburne’s presence in the film feels a bit wasted in a relatively disposable role, and although he squeezes all he can out of the time he’s given, the pairing of the two actors is a bit anticlimactic.

There’s no sophomore slump for the John Wick’s incredible fight choreography.

Fishburne’s underwhelming role doesn’t make much of a negative mark on the film, though, and ends up being just one minor flaw in an otherwise excellent follow-up to one of 2014’s most exciting films.

After the pleasant surprise that was John Wick, few expected the sequel to capture that sort of lightning in a bottle again, but that’s exactly what John Wick: Chapter 2 does. Reeves and the film’s creative team — including the all-important stunt team and choreographers — clearly recognize which aspects of the first film connected with audiences, and they wisely put the focus on those elements.

The end result is one of those rare follow-up films that takes the bankroll of goodwill and resources made available to it by the success of the original movie and invests them in all the right places.

A success that more than lives up to the standard set by its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 does action — and sequels — right.