John Wick turned badassery into a tight science, which was its biggest strength and great detriment. The Keanu Reeves-starring actioner made the direct-to-DVD worthy story of a grieving retired assassin out for vengeance following his dog’s murder into a bonafide hit, one executed with precision, intelligence, taunt direction, focused storytelling, excellent fight choreography and coolness for days. John Wick: Chapter Two hopes to relight the spark with more, more, more of the same. It’s bigger, bolder, bloodier, angrier, longer and more violent than before. There won’t be many who believe it shrimps on the goods. Yet, why does this second installment feel a little burnt out?
Director Chad Stahelski returns to helm the continued adventures of Wick (Reeves), the hitman with a heart of gold ready to, once again, return to a quiet life away from bullet-fire and elaborately-staged kills. But John Wick is not one for a simple life. He cannot rest idly when a debt is left unpaid. Such a debt is owed to Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a dangerous man who gives Wick a dangerous proposition: to kill his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) in Rome. It takes a little persuading, largely from burning down his luxurious house, but John sorrowfully agrees to pay his dues. He reunites with a couple friendly acquaintances (Lance Reddick, Ian McShane), along with some assassin frenemies, like Cassian (Common) and Ares (Ruby Rose), and the lone gunman prepares another round of quick-triggered mayhem. It’s never easy when everyone wants you dead.
It’s hard to deny the rich craftsmanship on display. John Wick: Chapter Two is a smooth, well-crafted machine, oiled with slick camerawork, greater stakes, pulpier action, intriguingly ludicrous world-building, enjoyable new characters and more-than-enough well-executed headshots to blow your mind. The sequel is sillier, crazier and more explosive than the first, but in its sharp-shooting recklessness, it’s perhaps a little too calculated for its own good. The first one prided itself in staying true to the action. Knowing full well the bare outline of the plot wasn’t far from a bargain bin collection, Stahelski, Reeves and the rest of the team smartly kept the story simple while amplifying everything else around it. The result was an appealingly stylish, ruthlessly vigilant display of choreographed carnage, one that rejuvenated Reeves’ deflating career while also elevating the vigilante genre. It treated splashy weaponry like an operatic dance ballad, one built upon specific moves and intensely-detailed routines, which propelled it into a stunning visual accomplishment.
That precise rhythm is found throughout the sequel, most certainly, but it’s more repetitive this time. It’s sometimes deathly familiar too. While the same flow and gracefulness are present, it doesn’t capture the same charm. Because we know the moves. We expect the beats. We anticipated all the bullets, kicks, punches, chops, explosions, crashes, etc. We know what’s coming this time around, and it doesn’t hold the same punch. That’s not to dismiss what they’ve achieved, but rather to disappointingly admit that, sometimes, you can do the same thing twice and not contain the same exact magic in a bottle. Lightning can strike twice, but you only get that tingling sensation once.
That said, Reeves remains completely in his element. At 52, the action veteran knows how to make his younger peers blush with his almost-effortless zen. There are few who know how to play it chill like Keanu, and the master is in full form here. His stunts remain exceptional and impeccably timed, and there’s even a nice Spy vs. Spy-esque relationship with Common in this sequel that helps elevate the film’s dark humor, which was sometimes lost admit the smoke and fog throughout the original. The man respects the craft of martial arts like few others in Hollywood, and few gave him the opportunity to express that like these John Wick films. If for little else, I’d love to see this growingly-tired franchise keep up its momentum just to give the Taken franchise (and, frankly, most other ongoing action franchises) the kick-in-the-pants they deserve to be better. One actually needs to kick ass to, well, kick ass, and the seemingly-immortal Reeves has no problems in that regard.
Indeed, there’s quite a bit to like in this new John Wick, from Rose’s mute goddess to a very-welcomed Matrix reunion with Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, given one of his most entertaining characters in ages during the second half. Once it kicks into full throttle, this second film doesn’t relent for a second, and for the easily bored, there’s always someone getting kicked, stabbed, shot or punched at any moment’s notice. But it’s all very tiring. Though it might be appropriate to get one just as exhausted as the titular character, the act of watching such a wearisome film isn’t necessarily endearing. At 122 minutes, John Wick Chapter Two suffers from the same problems The Raid 2 had a few years back: it simply demands too much from its audience. It’s a draining visual experience, and unlike Silence, that isn’t necessarily rewarded in the long run. It just makes one want to deflate.
John Wick’s endless pursuit to mull down nameless henchmen and those who wrong him won’t come unwelcomed anytime soon. Despite its taxing flaws, John Wick Chapter Two is a consistently entertaining, if also consistently demanding, bullet-a-minute sequel with enough forward motion and high-strung stunt work to please nearly all action fans in the excited crowd. Reeves commands the screen with a presence all his own, and thankfully he found a franchise willing to drain his cucumber-cool charisma for all its worth. But this wick is a little closer to the bottom. One might be weary as to how long this franchise can keep up its friction. This is a sequel that excites and exhausts equally.