I think the best compliment you can give a sequel is not only is it a better film than the one it follows, but it makes that original film better in retrospect. I was not an enormous fan of John Wick when it came out (you can read my underwhelmed review here, which I would now probably bump up several points). I think it was a combination of it being one of those cult movies that gets overhyped by the time it gets to you and you can no longer be pleasantly surprised along with some thematic material in John’s origin that whacks certain personal buttons with me (btw, we’ll try to stay spoiler free on Chapter 2, but if you read on, I’m assuming you saw the first film). John Wick Chapter 2 takes everything that worked in the first film, amps it to 11, and ends up being a much better movie that earns both its own existence and the inevitable Chapter 3 to come.
I suppose it is possible to go into Chapter 2 cold, but the reason why the film justly uses the “Chapter” moniker is that this flows directly from the ending of and events of 2014’s John Wick. For the uninitiated, John Wick is essentially the world’s greatest hitman (hitperson….there are a lot more hitpeople than you’d think per capita from these films). Once the bogeyman of the underworld, John got out of the game and married a good woman who passed away. A Russian gangster was stupid enough to break into Wick’s home, steal his car and kill the dog (still not cool with that) his wife left him, and John responded calmly by killing anyone remotely connected with the incident…and maybe 70 or so additional people who just looked at him funny.
It may work in physics that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but I’ve found in life that proportional response in the realm of human interaction tends to work more on an exponential level of action vs. reaction. This certainly is the case for John in Chapter 2 as his actions in avenging the violation of his freedom and pet ownership cause a domino effect in the criminal underground that erase any chance Wick thinks he has of being the good man he could be for his wife and drag him into an international war between criminal factions.
The best part of John Wick (and I rewatched it last night so I was fresh going into this film) were the hints it gave of an organized underground of contract killers who had their own currency, rules, codes, traditions, and sanctuaries. This is something seized on in Chapter 2 and fully explored so you see the world Wick walked away from, and it’s one that’s really very unique. The idea of another world lying just under our noses is one that’s always fun to play around with, and what was only hinted at in the first film becomes the centerpiece around which the non-stop action rotates in the sequel.
Keanu Reeves is NOT a good actor. Let’s just put that on the table. He works best in a film when he doesn’t talk very much and his skills as an action star are showcased (ex. Speed or The Matrix). Chapter One gave Reeves a little too much to try to do as an actor, and he’s never going to be able to rise above a certain level. Chapter Two finds the right balance in surrounding him with interesting characters and better actors to do most of the talking and lets Reeves react and showcase the impressive physical skills he does possess as an action star. In additon to the return of Ian McShane, Lance Riddick and John Leguizamo’s characters from the first film, Chapter 2 introduces several new characters, one of the best is Laurence Fishburne’s and we get a mini-Matrix reunion between Neo and Morpheus.
Though the script is certainly better, I think the main factor behind the improvement in the second film is that director Chad Stahlecki shows some serious growth in helming the film. John Wick was his first film and this was his second (he’s doing a remake of Highlander next). There are some really great shots in this film and some of the best action set pieces I’ve seen in any film in a long time. The “House of Mirrors” gun battle especially was a cinematography showcase, mixing trippy shots with exceedingly well-choreographed action sequences to create my favorite sequence from the film.
Obviously, there is a suspension of reality that has to occur. This is not a film operating on any plane of realism, but that’s fine; not every film has to do that. You can enjoy a film for what it is if it’s done right and nearly everything in John Wick Chapter 2 is what you want in a guns-blazing action movie. Since my nephew is making me wait until Sunday for The LEGO Batman Movie, this can sit-for now-as the best film of 2017 (six weeks in).
PS -If you want to try to play the “try to count the bodies Wick leaves in his wake” mini game in your head while you watch, let me know what triple digit number you come up with.
PPS – Mine was 123. Conservatively.