The first John Wick film had something special, a taut and entertaining naughtiness that allowed guilty pleasure to meet up with actual entertainment. It was the kind of film where you knew you were rooting for a bad guy, but you didn't particularly care. It wasn't a masterpiece, far from it, but it was an immensely fun film made even more fun because everyone in the whole damn world likes Keanu Reeves and there was a certain emotional core that allowed us to keep loving him even though we knew in our heart of hearts that he was still a bad guy just like the rest of them.
If all that you liked about John Wick was its refreshingly authentic and frenzied action largely devoid of CGI, then there's a fair enough chance that you'll still find much to love about John Wick: Chapter 2. If, however, that emotional core mattered to you, John Wick: Chapter 2 may suddenly be revealed for the maddeningly nonsensical and stylistic retread that it is and for the rather pathetic creature of a character with whom it asks us to identify.
The character of John Wick isn't a likable guy. He wasn't in the first film. He isn't in this film. He has sort of a brooding, monosyllabic presence that made you grateful in the first film that he'd found someone to love him because you knew damn well that it was a fluke and would never happen again. When that love was brutally taken away by Russian thugs, we understood Wick's quest for vengeance and his rather primal attack on everyone and everything that got in his way.
John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up almost immediately where John Wick left off, Wick is wrapping up loose ends including the reclaiming of his prized 1969 Mustang Boss 429. With his mission accomplished, Wick heads back to his now empty home filled with nothing but memories of his late wife and his dog. He's content to leave the assassin's life behind, but that's not an easy task when one's very survival depends upon deals being made and debts being honored. When Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) pays a visit to the Wick homestead and calls in a "marker," Wick's retirement plans are put on hold.
Where John Wick: Chapter 2 could have really excelled, but doesn't, is in the more elaborate world created by returning scripter Derek Kolstad and returning helmer Chad Stahelski's that more deeply immerses us inside the almost mythological world of the planet's greatest assassins. It is this world's "High Table" that serves as the force being everything that unfolds in John Wick: Chapter 2, a table representing international crime syndicate families and easily a table worth killing and dying over.
Tasked with honoring his "marker" in a world ruled with meticulous precision by Winston (Ian McShane). The rules are the same for everyone and there are no exceptions.
You'll need to remember that.
The story that unfolds lacks the emotional appeal of John Wick. After all, we're essentially being asked to sympathize with a ruthless assassin whose feeble attempt at retirement ended abruptly after one serious yet fairly inconsequential challenge. The action that unfolds in John Wick: Chapter 2 continues to be largely, and refreshingly, devoid of CGI or special effects. Somewhat reminiscent of old Charles Bronson flicks, John Wick: Chapter 2 features elaborately choreographed fight sequences with Wick taking out his opponents with equal parts flexible body mechanics and a quick trigger finger. It helps that a good majority of these supposedly world famous assassins have godawful aim.
Of course, we do get to spend more time with a few of the assassins before their inevitable demise. Cassian, played with smooth credibility by Common, has the film's best sequences and fight scenes with Wick and Common makes the most of them. As Santino's enforcer Ares, Ruby Rose tackles the role of an assassin who gives the impression of being deaf but who, in reality, merely uses sign language as more discreet communication.
We'll ignore the fact that there was no reason Stahelski couldn't have actually cast an actual disabled actor here. But, I digress.
There are scenes in John Wick: Chapter 2 that radiate the kind of style meets substance that the entire film tries to possess but never does, the most notable one being a slowly sizzling scene involving Wick's meet-up with the ill-fated Gianna (Claudia Gerini), whose honor demands every moment in her life, including the final one, be lived with dignity intact. It's a memorable scene that stays with me still.
Unfortunately, there's too many other scenes that are instant throwaways where Stahelski's willingness to stay the course feels lazy and stunningly lacking in ambition. These dialogue heavy scenes only serve to give us time to ask such questions as "Why do all assassins have just hilariously awful haircuts?" and "Why do so many of the assassins sound like they inhaled helium before delivering their lines?"
Inquiring minds want to know.
There were fight sequences that played out as overly intentional, one particular scene between Cassian and Wick being particularly offensive as the two faux tumbled down a stairway with occasional stops and starts to hit each other before they practically seemed to play rock 'em sock'em robots to knock each other to the next level. I actually laughed. I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to.
Then, there is Reeves himself. A gifted actor who has too often either selected hilariously awful films or just plain bad roles, Reeves isn't so much tasked with acting here as he is tasked with being a slightly more emotive Jason Statham. Not exactly difficult. I certainly don't begrudge the likable Reeves returning to a popular role, but it's rather painful to see him relegated to playing a guy whose rage we once understood become that which he hated the most.
A decent film for those seeking nothing more than escapist action devoid of CGI, John Wick: Chapter 2 will likely attract enough of an audience to warrant the already set up third flick in the series. So be it. The film is harmless enough that one can't so much despise its presence as simply wish that Stahelski had managed to capture everything that people loved about the first film. Instead, we get the guy we loved in a film we don't.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic