Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay to both John Wick movies is via comparison to a contemporary: John Wick films are to guns what The Raid films are to fists. Within their respective spheres of combat, each is on an entirely separate level in terms of presentation. Both aspire to something more vital than to “entertain.” They don’t want to “satisfy” an audience—they want to make your jaw drop. They want you to stifle a guffaw as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) pulls off a move that is simultaneously so slickly unrealistic and bone-crunchingly visceral that the cognitive dissonance causes a brief misfire in your synapses. They’re everything that G.I. Joe or Fast & The Furious never bothers even attempting to be.
So yes, both cinephiles and action movie buffs will be pleased to know that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a worthy follow-up to the surprising 2014 original. Holding the torch passed from ’80s and ’90s John Woo classics, director Chad Stahelski delivers an epic ballet of arm-breaking and gun-kata that somehow manages to run for 122 minutes without ever overstaying its welcome. That’s far easier said than done.
We pick up where we left off with John: Fresh off his un-retirement as a result of some stupid Russian gangsters messing with a man they knew nothing about, John Wick is once again ready to “put it all aside and go straight.” With a new dog companion in tow, he wants nothing more than to be left alone, but of course that’s never going to happen. Forced back into action by a powerful assassin to whom he owes a blood debt, he embarks on an assassination contract whose fallout will only result in a domino effect: a cascade of fellow assassins coming after him in retaliation.
Among them is Cassian, smoothly played by rapper-turned-actor Common, whose smoldering charisma is every bit as present here as it was throughout TV’s Hell on Wheels. To say that he has a few epic battles with John Wick would be the understatement of the year. Also featured fairly prominently is Ruby Rose of Orange is the New Black, playing a mute assassin and right-hand woman of the antagonist. Her silence was a wise choice, allowing her performance to simply fall back on body language and a natural confluence with one of the series’ most affected aspects: Heavily stylized, center-screen subtitles/translations, often with splashes of color for emphasis. Gina Carano should be watching this performance, trying to pitch a film where she can also simply punch people and not have to emote or speak.
Many have already observed that the character of John Wick fits Keanu Reeves like a glove, and they’re correct. He fully commits to the physicality of a man whose legend is sold like a god by literally everyone who is given an opportunity to speak. As Peter Stormare states as a thesis in the film’s opening moments: “The stories you hear about this man, if nothing else, have been watered down.” And at the heart of it is Reeves’s steely determination to give it his all, to clearly sacrifice his body and take risks. If Stahelski is John Woo, then Reeves is his Chow Yun-fat.
The choreography, of course, is spectacular—it almost seems pointless to mention. The film lines up an endless sea of vaguely European guys to be dispatched—all suits and facial hair and highly desirable cheekbones—but the gunplay never loses vitality. If anything, though, the thing I walked out of the theater pondering on are the wonderfully colorful supporting characters. There may not be legitimate impetus for a real John Wick 3 storyline, but I submit that these two films have given us half a dozen other characters I’d like to see in their own features. Wouldn’t you watch a movie about an all-powerful Winston (Ian McShane) managing a hotel for assassins? Or Laurence Fishburne as the sewer-dwelling Hobo Assassin King? Hell, I’d watch a movie about the incredibly specialized service industry employees catering to these assassins, from the “sommelier” providing John’s guns to the tailor who’s able to wreathe him in literally bulletproof suit jackets of plot armor. It would be like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, except with bulletproof suit jackets.
In a just world, a film like John Wick: Chapter 2 would be recognized in award show categories such as Best Cinematography. This isn’t going to happen. Instead, film fans will just have to be content with the knowledge that 2017 has already produced a world-class action movie.
Director: Chad Stahelski
Writers: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, Peter Stormare
Release Date: February 10, 2017
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and genre movie-watcher. You can follow him on Twitter.