The original ‘John Wick’ arrived in early 2015 and, on paper at least, its eponymous protagonist appeared to be merely the latest in a string of highly violent, largely forgettable hitmen to hit cinemas with a sole item on their agenda: retribution. The plot line was simple: a happily retired former hitman – possessing a highly honed arsenal of combat skills and intuition which render him a frighteningly efficient killing machine – is left with no choice but to return to the life he had fought tooth and nail to leave behind when a new enemy causes harm to someone he loves, setting out to kill anyone who stands in the way of him and his vengeance. Sound familiar? Denzel Washington (The Equalizer) and Liam Neeson (Taken trilogy) might think so. As such ‘John Wick’ generated minimal pre-release fanfare, with it seeming to conform to what was fast becoming the status quo for the trending vigilante rampage film. To the surprise of most, however, the film turned out to be a sleeper hit – wowing audiences with its slick cinematography and finely choreographed action, as well as the dream-like quality of its diegetic world, all of which combined to help the film earn almost four times its $20 million budget and re-energise the career of its leading man. And, in an era of film dominated by shared cinematic universe building and multiple picture contracts, John Wick proved a near anomaly: a thoroughly original tale which was granted a follow-up of its own accord, a sequel that it earned on merit alone.
‘Chapter Two’ is helmed by Chad Stahelski, one half of the directorial duo who handled the first film. Like its predecessor, the narrative here is relatively simple: picking up mere days after earning revenge on the mobsters who broke into his home John Wick (Reeves) endeavours to bury his bullet-riddled old life once again while still grieving the loss of his late wife Helen. Predictably, however, his newfound peace does not last long as an unwelcome figure from his past arrives to call in an old debt. While the plot doesn’t pack too many surprises it’s a joy to watch Wick backed into a corner, as Stahelski deftly creates a unique play box for his predatory assassin to wreak havoc in while simultaneously managing to expand on the unique mythos which was tantalisingly teased in the original ‘Wick’.
The film is propped up by Reeves and his performance as the titular terminator. The star performs his own stunts throughout, already being an adept martial artist, and specialised in learning judo, sambo, jujitsu and weaponry for the role of Wick. It is the latter which comes in most handy as the trigger-happy assassin makes little effort to conserve ammunition throughout the his tale. When one gun empties, another one seems to magically appear – all part of the fun of watching Wick at work. The rest of the cast are solid too – Ian McShane reprises his role as Winston, owner of the high-end hitman exclusive hotel The Continental, Ruby Rose silently smoulders as femme fatale Ares and the presence of Laurence Fishburne as The Bowery King provides a welcome ‘The Matrix’ reunion. The scene stealer from the supporting cast, however, is rapper Common whose bloodthirsty bodyguard proves to be an able adversary for Wick.
“The film is propped up by Reeves and his performance as the titular terminator”
Just like the first film, it is stylistically where ‘Chapter Two’ really soars. The set design is gorgeous, with the vibrant colour palettes and alternative environments giving the picture a dream-like quality. Although the bulk of the story is rooted in New York it looks and feels more like Hong Kong, providing an ode to the martial art films which inspired the action and helping to create a visual aesthetic which feeds into the mythos of Wick’s world. The cinematography is similarly striking. The action is captured in long drawn-out takes, providing a clear contrast to effect-heavy counterparts like the Bourne series and giving the combat a fluid feel that can only come from watching it play out before your eyes with no rapid-fire technological frills attached. One set piece rooted in a convex of mirrors is particularly impressive. Most of the picture is captured with wide shots in deep focus, serving to create an artistic identity that feels unique to the action genre.
Stahelski’s influences can be felt throughout the entirety of the film. The nods to Asian culture has already been noted and the brutal, no-tricks style of action feels like the work of Akira Kurosawa. The comparisons between John Wick and Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name (portrayed in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, which in turn was heavily inspired by Kurosawa) are clear while the first half of the picture bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain British spy series.
It’s difficult to find fault with ‘John Wick: Chapter Two’ as the creative team’s sense of humour is likably self-aware. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and isn’t afraid to laugh at itself: actively embracing its own goofiness while constantly winking at the audience. Sure, some of the dialogue can be clunky and Fishburne’s glorified cameo marks the only point when the story starts to drag but it’s easy to ignore these minor issues when the film is having so much fun. Overall John Wick’s return is a very welcome one and, based on this showing, we won’t be surprised if he earns himself another sequel. Better not hang up those guns just yet.
CT Rating: 4.5 /5
Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scarmarcio, Ruby Rose, Laurence Fishburne, Common
David Deignan | Film & TV Editor