John Wick: Chapter 2 is the kind of sequel that gives you more of everything from the original, sometimes to its detriment but mostly as a positive.
Let’s deal with this straight off the bat: no, John Wick: Chapter 2 is not as good as John Wick was. As much as I may have hoped in the back of mind, it would never be able to do so, and I’m not just talking about that in relation to the surprise factor of the original or the typical decline in quality with sequels. Those are factors, of course, part of the power of the original John Wick for a lot of people was how it really did come out of nowhere, a lean mean action machine of refreshing focus and emotional intensity, and that watching it for the first time was that rare instance of a film being just as amazing if you came into it after having had people yell about it for months prior or if you caught it before it really blew up.
But the reason why Chapter 2 would never be able to recapture the exact same magic that the first film bottled comes down to the very nature of sequels. John Wick was awesome for a lot of things – its action sequences were superb near-literal ballets of violence and bloodshed, Keanu Reeves forcibly reminding everybody of why he is such a fantastic actor, co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski having an effortless sense of style and visual composition – but it was a near-revelation for its simplicity and focus. Many of us, myself included, ribbed the film in the run up to its release for what seemed like an utterly tenuous premise even by the standards of mid-budget action vehicles (THE DOG WAS A FINAL GIFT FROM HIS DYING WIFE). But in practice, Derek Kolstad’s airtight script imbued that premise with a sincerity, weight, and simplicity that made it work totally, and situated it in a very idiosyncratic world that was explained just enough to be believable yet not so much as to drag the film down with distracting excess worldbuilding.
A sequel, therefore, has to grapple with two pretty significant stumbling blocks right out of the gate. How do we drag John Wick (Reeves) back out of retirement again without it feeling forced or going against the character established in the first film? And how much further do we shade in the world of assassins that John Wick is situated in without ruining the magic or becoming too ridiculous? To Chapter 2’s credit, that first one is something the film actively grapples with throughout, and actually becomes the backbone of the whole movie. By all accounts, John got out at the end of Wick. He got his vengeance, he violently worked through his grief at the illness that took his wife by channelling it into something he could fight, and he left with some semblance of the humanity he managed to scrape together during that retirement before her untimely death with a cute new pup to boot! But a film based around John living a quiet sheltered existence with that adorable little doggy is not what the paying public wants to see when they turn up for a John Wick sequel. Yet what they want essentially negates John’s entire arc throughout the first movie and any way to get him back to doing what he does best is going to feel contrived no matter what.
Initially, one may get the sense that a little too much blatant playing to the crowd is going on here. The phenomenal pre-title sequence – my God, this film hits the ground running so flawlessly, it was almost enough to convince me that maybe Chapter 2 really was going to be as amazing as the first one – calls back to That Monologue from the first film in a way that feels rather like a film believing its own hype too much, whilst our plot is once again kick-started by a colossal imbecile poking the bear and acting surprised when said bear turns around and proceeds to mercilessly maul the heads off of every single person in its nearby vicinity. Said colossal imbecile goes by the name of Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who calls in a blood oath that John swore on the night of his impossible task and, when John refuses to honour it, proceeds to burn Wick’s house to the ground. Unable to simply murder Santino due to the two steadfast rules of the underworld – no killing on Continental grounds, and blood oaths must be honoured, both under penalty of death – John is forced into pulling the job, after which Santino just cannot resist the urge to “clean up loose ends.”
Except that Chapter 2 openly recognises that John doesn’t really need the extra incentive to murder every single human being with a gun or a knife, and in the world of John Wick that turns out to be a lot of people. The nature of sequel making mostly demands More – more violence, more setpieces, more of a bodycount, a nebulous More – and John’s eventual bodycount is… well, it’s a lot more than the original and things are a lot more violent than last time, I can accurately report on that much. At a certain point, mowing down that many people is going to strip a person’s humanity out from them, particularly with some of the kills being genuinely gruesome, and make one question whether said person is really any better than those he’s killing, even if they’re doing it out of the desperation of staying alive. Whereas most action films would ignore this aspect entirely – or, worse, bring it up to appear like it’s some weighty and philosophically-engaging piece only to swiftly drop it because to truly grapple with said questions would be to argue against its own existence, MARVEL – Chapter 2 ends up going all in on it by the end. This is a film where Wick gets dragged further and further back down into this lifestyle, and the longer it goes on the more the realisation sets in that maybe this is all he deserves. Relentless, remorseless, emotionless killing. Fuelled by rage and vengeance that is all-consuming, equally out of his hands and self-inflected, with nothing left to replace them and the only choice being to descend further.
This sounds heavy and bleak, and in a way it is. Here is a film that provides a self-examination on its own existence as the film it is and does not shy away from the answers it finds. Yet, and somehow without undercutting in the slightest that thematic undercurrent, Chapter 2 manages to have its cake and eat it too by still being genuinely badass and fun as all hell! It helps that there are still, two and a half years on from the release of the first John Wick, no other American action movies doing action sequences in the style of John Wick or with the same virtuoso trick that John Wick manages to pull off. The conceit of John Wick is that he is an unstoppable badass and the greatest assassin who has ever lived, not invulnerable but capable of decimating anybody or anything put in his path without much difficulty. It’s the usual “they’re not really going to kill the protagonist” fridge logic that you put on hold for watching a film taken to its logical conclusion. When John says “I’ll kill them all,” that’s not just the character talking, that’s the film explicitly laying out to the audience exactly what will happen.
In theory, this should rob these films of any tension or excitement, particularly since it is very clearly explained that the only reason Wick has any trouble with the various goons and heavies he comes across is down to him having come out of retirement and not operating at full strength. And yet… well, I’m assuming you’ve already seen the original John Wick, so you’ll know that said theory is a load of bollocks. That holds true here, too, when the film finally turns up the heat and brings on the action. In particular, John has a pair of fantastic and brutal exchanges with Cassian (Common), a fellow assassin whom he shares a mutual respect for, that includes a wince-inducing tumble down three flights of stairs and a stealth pot-shot shootout in a crowded underground Metro station. Stahelski, working solo this time around, as usual choreographs every last one of these setpieces like dances, punctuating headshots and flips with stabs from the returning Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s propulsive score, even managing to apply the same style to a car chase of all things. Whilst Dan Laustsen’s cinematography coats the film in a gorgeous neo-noir hue and adds a very purgatorial feel to a final setpiece that takes place in an art exhibition involving copious amounts of mirrors.
So, if that’s the first half the aforementioned critical equation effortlessly answered, why is Chapter 2 not as good as John Wick? Well, aside from the surprise factor which automatically assured that this film of course couldn’t be as good as the original, that comes from the second aspect of those opening questions. Put simply, Chapter 2 is too long. At 2 hours, it was never not going to be, even if stuffed itself with wall-to-wall action sequences that climaxed with the actual physical embodiment of God descending from Heaven to hand out baskets of free puppies to all audience members. John Wick was economical, it was focussed, precise, paced to near-perfection. Chapter 2 has to start expanding its world and dealing with a somewhat more complex and wider-reaching plot which can’t help but take the shine off somewhat.
After that explosive pre-title sequence, Chapter 2 bogs itself down for a little too long in moving the pieces around and luxuriating in its world. It is arguably all necessary, and none of it is unentertaining, but it simultaneously goes against the simplicity that made John Wick so low-key revolutionary. This is best encapsulated by Laurence Fishburne’s extended cameo. It’s very entertaining, both on a meta-level for seeing Reeves and Fishburne together on-screen again and because Fishburne’s “king of the hobos” shtick is a riot, and it is necessary for the plot and the theme of whether John Wick really deserves to be able to go back to a normal life again. But it also facilitates a development that strains credibility in the world of John Wick more than a little too much, even if it does lead to a phenomenal final scene that makes the prospect of Chapter 3 very tantalising indeed.
Again, there honestly wasn’t any real chance of John Wick: Chapter 2 being as good as the first one. But that’s genuinely fine. Once one lowers their expectations to more realistic and manageable levels, then they will end up seeing Chapter 2 for what it is: a damn, damn great time at the movies. It’s a film that subscribes to the “bigger, better, faster, more!” school of sequel-making, where it resists the urge to simply do over the original yet still retains its spirit and style. It’s more of what the first film gave you – more action sequences, more violence, more world-building, more quirky assassins for John to throw down against, more minutes of film – and whilst there may be a feeling afterwards that gorging on it was slightly inferior to the meticulously-refined portions you were given last time, in the moment of watching it the experience is far too fun and amazing to care.
You also get to see why you don’t give John Wick a pencil, and that is legitimately worth the asking price alone.