As any assassin will surely tell you, you’ve got to work twice as hard to achieve your goals once you’ve lost the element of surprise. When the first John Wick debuted, it came out of nowhere to end up being an instantly iconic action movie, revitalising the career of Keanu Reeves and giving us some of the best fight scenes in western action cinema. John Wick 2, therefore, comes laden with expectations, some of which weigh it down enough to ensure that it’s not quite at the same level of its predecessor. That’s not to say that it isn’t still a truly great time, with fascinating world-building and some inspired set-pieces.
A cardinal law of sequels is that they have to go bigger, and John Wick 2 sticks closely to this rule, losing some of the pure kinetic momentum that propelled the original forward so thrillingly. Thankfully, the film almost makes up for this in its doubling down on the surreal alt-underworld that made the universe of John Wick so much more memorable than its inferior genre rivals. Codes of honour, a pirate treasure-esque assassin currency, and the neutral ground of the Continental Hotel, all explored in the original, are expanded upon in fascinating and wryly funny detail, and we even see some new elements of Mr Wick’s world.
After being brought back into the assassin life for one last job by sleazy Italian Mafioso Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), John Wick (Reeves) is inevitably betrayed by his employer, leaving him running for his life in Rome and, later, New York. After D’Antonio makes the call, we get to see exactly how assassination orders are given in the world created by director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, and it doesn’t disappoint. All pneumatic tubes and ‘80s computers, it’s tinged with the same knowing, arch sense of camp that keeps the rest of the film from becoming too ridiculous.
Whilst the New York chapter of the film has the better action scenes, and the Rome segment does take too long kicking off, one of the best moments of John Wick 2 comes in a montage of John tooling up for his Italian mission, particularly his conversations with the Continental’s Gun Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz). However, if you’re in the cinema to see John Wick 2, your primary question is undoubtedly ‘can the action match that of the original?’ Rest assured, it very much can.
From an extended catacombs shootout to vehicular mayhem to an ingenious game of cat and mouse through New York as John is hunted by every assassin in the city, there’s no end of variety, imagination, and wince-inducing brutality on show. Each gunfight and martial arts showdown is perfectly choreographed, with Reeves’ astonishing physical capabilities allowing for long, unbroken takes of headshots and jiu-jitsu. A climactic battle between Wick and D’Antonio’s bodyguards, headed up by the mute Ares (Ruby Rose), in a disorienting hall of mirrors is every bit as masterful as the first film’s nightclub fight. Importantly, Stahelski and Kolstad recognise exactly how ridiculous these action scenes are, despite their impeccable execution.
Laughs and action are an intoxicating mix if pulled off correctly, and it’s evidently a skill which the team behind these films possess in spades, helping to cover up some patchy story moments. A hostile alliance that John is forced to make with vagabond assassin The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne in a neat Matrix reunion) is hurried over and given very little in the way of conclusion, setting up a story strand for the sequel that the end of the film leaves the door a little frustratingly open for.
Then again, we are in an era of franchises, and we could do far worse than having a new film in this universe with this creative team every couple of years. It’s not perfect – for example, the over-stylised subtitles from the first return and they’re just as stupid this time around – but it’s a consistently thrilling world with an original aesthetic and mythology and enjoyable characters (consistent movie work for Ian McShane and Lance Reddick is no bad thing at all). In terms of franchise comparisons, John Wick has thus far emulated Gareth Edwards’ The Raid – a lean, single-minded thriller followed up by an expansive sequel set just a few days after the original. Like The Raid, the first film is still just about better, but with the way the sequel opens up plenty of new story avenues while providing plenty of standalone entertainment, John Wick 2 remains vital action cinema.