John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) ★★★★½

When a film has such unexpected success that it demands a sequel, like 2014’s modestly budgeted John Wick, that went on to gross more than four times that amount, there are usually one of two paths taken. Either the sequel becomes a total rush-job for a quick and easy cash grab, or its creators capitalize on the increased budget, increased attention, and increased pressure to further explore the story they’ve created, by doubling down on the original’s greatness and uping the ante. Thankfully the people behind John Wick Chapter 2 opted for the latter, because this sequel is so good it surpasses the original, improving on its strengths in every possible way, and even offering a few new delights. To watch it is to experience all the gears of a well-oiled machine clicking into place, the birth of a new franchise that I hope the box office will allow many more chapters of. If you are looking for a great off season action extravaganza, look no further.

I’ll admit I am not a fan of the original John Wick. Even after rewatching it, to reacquaint myself with the story in preparation for the sequel, and to give its charms one more chance to work on me, its deficiencies still hold up. For those unfamiliar, it involves the usual conceit of a career criminal, this time a member of an international crime syndicate, pulled back into the life after giving it up to settle down with his wife in retirement bliss. Framed as a tale of vengeance, after the son of a local crime lord steals his car and kills his dog, we watch as quite ridiculously John Wick goes on a one-man killing spree, shooting dozens of people point blank in the face and head, while CGI blood sprays everywhere, in a hefty dose of ultra-graphic violence. Meant to be a single sustained catharsis throughout the last hour, the film ultimately suffers from its lack of a developed story, and refusal to offer any reason to care about the titular character, played with a measured amount of passion and aloofness by Keanu Reeves, other than the superficial coolness of his milieu, while the sparse references to the crime syndicate make its rules seem arbitrary and its interference in the story an all too convenient means for the script to get out of certain predicaments.

John Wick Chapter 2 has none of these problems. Freed from the responsibility of creating a world, and orienting the audience to new characters and storylines, the film’s burdens are much lighter, and it takes advantage of this by diving headfirst into the criminal underworld, and further exploring The Continental Hotel and its owner Winston (Ian McShane), including a glorious montage that shows just what happens behind the scenes when a contract is put out on someone. The film slowly reveals more and more of the mythology of these characters and the world they inhabit, instead of merely manipulating plot points for its own sake. And John Wick’s motivation has changed from the dark vacuum of revenge to self-preservation, as he is forced at the beginning to make good on a debt he owes in the form of a marker, but then soon ends up being hunted by the members of the world he was once a part of. For most of the film he is just trying to stay alive, and it makes for a much more satisfying narrative, and a great excuse for the film’s wildly original action set pieces.

Stunt man-turned-director Chad Stahelski orchestrates the chaos in this film with a deft touch, and shows a great improvement over the first film, which was his directorial debut. There are protracted scenes here without any dialogue, with non-stop martial arts and gunplay in its place. John Wick Chapter 2 also finds the director having fun with his scenes and characters, exemplified by one scene between Wick and a nemesis (played by Common) where they are walking through a crowded terminal taking silencer shots at each other from guns tucked under their arm. Elsewhere Stahelski experiments with editing, cutting together several different fights that take place at different times, but as if they were parallel action. All of it works in concert to make the film a singular action spectacle unlike anything else, and by the time its over you’ll be screaming for Chapter 3.

If there’s a flaw here, it lies in the burden of sequels with franchise responsibility. Great effort is taken when it comes to poetic justice to not make Wick an anti-hero, especially during a hit he is forced to carry out, leading to an outcome which is believable only as a screenwriting ploy. Because it happens to be the culmination of the film’s first half it has the effect of taking you out of the film for a time, but luckily the rest is wall-to-wall intensity and cathartic release, like only the best actioners achieve. There is a slight tinge of revisionism to the film, in order to solidify its chances at the box office, but I suppose I can’t blame them, considering the filmmakers are keenly aware of the greatness they are flirting with. John Wick Chapter 2 is a remarkable continuation of a story that I didn’t realize there was anything more I needed to learn, made by talented, passionate artists nearing the top of their game. Reeves may have been here before, but this film lends itself very well to his strengths and weaknesses, and I hope he is able to play this character for many years to come, through the late-career renaissance he definitely deserves after so many flops at the box office. Winter is a very sleepy season at the cinema, but John Wick Chapter 2 is a cure-all that invites repeat viewings, and will have you on the edge of your seat over where they might take this character next.

The Verdict: Rave