Is it possible for a film to successfully build on its cinematic world when nothing of particular substance actually ever occurs in said film? On the basis of John Wick: Chapter 2, the answer is, apparently, “yes.” Here’s a film that is fueled solely by the propulsive energy of its action sequences, and the guttural grunts and surrounding broods are enough to communicate all we need to know along the way.
The original John Wick became something of an underground sensation, and rightly so: it was a slam-bang joyride, a simple revenge story fueled by gut-wrenching emotion and mitigated with blunt force satisfaction. If that film was the cinematic equivalent of a muscle car, then Chapter 2 has been stripped down to just the growl of the engine, and boy does it roar – loudly and incessantly, for over two hours, evidently in an effort to determine just how much awesomeness we can handle in one sitting.
That answer might vary from person to person, yet the film keeps pouring it down, a torrent of firing bullets, cracking bones, screeching tires, and bare-knuckling brawls. If one ever looked at John Wick and thought, “damn, there’s just too much story for my taste,” Chapter 2 would be the inevitable result; it’s an essence distillation if ever there was one. Whether that’s a good thing or not is subject to interpretation. I’m willing to say it is a good thing, but only because it’s girded by the framework of the environment created in the original film.
John Wick was such a lean and vicious actioner in no small part because of the world it created for its sleek ultra-violence. The story was spare, but it was affecting, setting up a scenario for which vengeance was all the audience could clamor for – I mean, come on…the wife AND THE DOG?!? – and then paying it off in spades. The purposeful strokes of arch foreboding provided a glimpse into this secret society of guns and gold coins in which we could luxuriate without the burden of pondering its absurdity. The emotions were real and the actions were over-the-top, and that was the perfect balance.
Chapter 2 picks up where the first film left off, both literally and figuratively. It basically cuts in mid-action, and it most certainly carries over the aggrieved attitude with which the previous film concluded. When last we saw Mr. Wick, he had wrested catharsis from the clutches of a cadre of mysterious baddies, and the point and purpose of this sequel is to push said catharsis into extended overdrive. What little plot there was to begin with is ripped from the first film’s cadaver, leaving as remnants only thickly-accented threats, cryptic exchanges referencing backstories the screenplay doesn’t bother explaining, and verbose dissertations on heavily-veiled hit-man “rules.” Such interludes are squeezed into the precious few breaks this film takes for air, quick and dirty bridges from one gonzo action sequence to the next. It plays like an immersive video game without the first-person shooter POV…and actually, returning director Chad Stahelski almost goes there in a few choice moments.
That’s the mold this team is trying to achieve – it’s like a winking reward for fans of the original film. Writer Derek Kolstad basically goes metal, delivering a screenplay that could read more as an action outline. Keanu Reeves can play this character in his sleep, but he’s as game as ever, his standard eyebrow tilt letting us know he’s in on the joke. The sound design is punched up to an almost 4-D level – each punch, each bullet, each engine rev reverberates through every seat in the house. There’s even a Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, who sinks his teeth into the most absurd, scenery-chewing, morally compromised heavy you’ll witness all year. They have as much fun playing off each other as we have watching them.
Somehow, amid all this, John Wick: Chapter 2 offers a certain degree of world-building. Essentially, this secret society runs deeper and wider than even Wick himself could imagine, with ruthless assassins populating every corner. It’s ludicrous…but that’s the point. Without giving too much away – and let’s face it, I couldn’t even if I tried – this film’s ending leaves no doubt that there will be a John Wick: Chapter 3, which will surely be the wildest ride of them all. For that inevitable trilogy-finisher all I can hope is that John Wick learns how to fly…because why the hell not?