John Wick hit the scene in 2014 and was an instant hit with its monument in the hall of action classics already being sculpted after its first day of release. Needless to say, expectations were high going into the sequel, yet I feared that what made the original so strong would be absent from this film. For me, what made John Wick a gem in the swath of action blockbuster noise was the heart-wrenching story propelling Wick into the fray. You could feel the weight of his losses in every punch, kick, and bullet spent. You needed John Wick to deliver swift justice to his foes and it felt so damn good to see each bloody resolution. John Wick 2, as I feared, forgot about the story and went full throttle on a run-of-the-mill hitman plot with far less inventive action scenes, and most importantly, no compelling reason to care like we did in the first film.
Full disclosure, I'm a massive fan of John Wick (2014) and have seen the film probably a dozen times now.
When we see John Wick for the first time in 2014 taking a sledgehammer literally and figuratively to his past as he destroys the cemented seal over his treasure chest of death hidden in his basement, we are salivating for Wick to take down everyone who dared confront him and steal away his right to mourn in peace. There's nothing of the sort in John Wick 2. The biting, ferocious "Killed that from me" monologue he spits at Viggo in the original was fueled by a pained rage that pushes the audience forward in their seats, praying for Viggo's demise at the hands of Baba Yaga himself. If you go into John Wick 2 expecting Keanu Reeves just to shoot and knife a lot of dudes, you're in luck because there's lots of that, but it lacks the boiling blood at its center that made the first into a instant legend of the action genre.
Fortunately, John Wick 2 is still a really good action flick, albeit above average.
The standout element here is the richly detailed hitman underworld. In every scene, we are let in on some secrets of how the Continental works, how the members network between each other, how hits are made, and checks and balances are kept. It's endlessly fascinating and for me was more entertaining than the action segments or plot. John Wick 2 is nothing if not oozing with incredible world building. It's simply unmatched, but without it I feel it wouldn't be able to peak its head above the crowd. Regardless, there's nothing quite like it in any other film of its ilk. The rules of the game unfold scene after scene and we're invited to wonder when, how, or where these rules could be broken and at what stakes. Maybe we don't quite have a beating heart at the center of this shoot 'em up, but we certainly can get lost in the atmosphere.
The first act didn't do much for me until its close. I wasn't engaged in the film until then when his past is thrown in his face which somewhat indirectly introduces Common's character, Cassian, who proves to be a formidable combatant against Wick. While the beef with Cassian was my personal favorite conflict in the film, Wick's other foes in the sequel aren't nearly as nuanced as Cassian or his peers and villains of the first. Viggo and his wretched son, Iosef, were loaded with color and purpose. The same could even be said of Perkins, another "mini boss" from John Wick (2014), who proves rather deadly against Wick. Unfortunately, the collage of "red shirt" villains in the sequel aren't up to snuff and can make for some unmemorable combat.
Despite this, the cinematography in John Wick 2 cranks the color and dynamism up just a notch. The action is often framed a little further away which allows us to wash in the glow of revolving beams of light, mirrored walls, and musty catacombs. This also affords a better feet-on-the-ground perspective of a lot of the action. It often seemed like director, Chad Stahleski, wanted the audience to feel like they were standing right there in the chaos with the best angle possible. Set design and costuming, likewise, were just as tasty. Each scene, every corner, character, object, and room felt alive with mood. It's clear that an awesome level of care went into crafting each visual nuance of John Wick 2.
|"Did I leave all 84 of my guns in the car?"|
But what did we come here for? We want to see John Wick absolutely break bones, choke people with his legs, and fire pinpoint lead into all of their faces. Your 10 dollar ticket, popcorn, and liquid diabetes will get you all of the above, and a near endless train of it running from beginning to end of this sequel. For most audiences, this will surely be enough to satisfy. For me, however, it lacked a lot of the power and invention of the first film and had me counting the bodies until something unique happened -- which certainly does here and there. Without spoiling anything, there is some beautiful fan service that will have you cheering at some gruesome and slick deaths, but it's too few and far between. Where the original sets a precedent of purpose for every bullet and punch of each integral scene, John Wick 2 can feel masturbatory more often than I'd like. A few scenes go on far too long for the sake of shooting more stuff. It seems Stahleski ran out of ideas and figured the average viewer wouldn't care. The action choreography, while it has its fair share of ferocious moments, rests on the shoulders of its predecessor too comfortably giving us little to heighten the tension or grab us by the eyes and make us scream with delight at the exquisitely crafted violence. In 2014, John Wick did just that.
I do, however, appreciate that they didn't go full James Bond with it and put Wick in a helicopter or have him trying to disarm nukes or something equally ridiculous. Stahleski keeps the action grounded and personal just like it should be, but I was hoping for more. This franchise deserves better than this. This is John f**kin' Wick, man. This should not be played safely. I'm already bracing myself for the "If it's not broken, don't fix it" critiques of my own opinion. That's a fine attitude to have if that's what you're looking for in this sequel, but coming from a bleeding heart fan of the original, I was a little let down. I did still enjoy it quite a bit and will without question be purchasing the disc the day of its release for what is likely to be many rewatches. I hope I can come away from multiple viewings appreciating it more. For everyone else, please see John Wick 2 as soon as you can and let's get this 3rd film in theaters sooner than later because by the end of it, you're going to be dying to see what in the hell John Wick is going to do now.
- JG Barnes