If you haven’t seen Gareth Evans’ Indonesian The Raid movies, there’s a very blatant distinction between the two parts in the duology. Of course, they’re both action films set with the same lead cop (the talented Iko Uwais) battling down gangs in awe-inspiring physicality, but one of them – the 150 minute Raid 2 – very clearly has an emphasis and investment on character development (particularly a gangster family drama interwoven between the fight scenes) that the other one – the 101 minute The Raid – does not (this one is 99% action setpieces). The story about why that is will be for another time some day when I review the Raid films, as I only bring this up to note a parallel status with the John Wick movies, a vehicle franchise for the very dedicated Keanu Reeves focusing on a similar ballet of bodies involving gunfights and bullets. I would wonder if this change is on account of co-director David Leitch’s absence from the sequel (going on to direct Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2), but then both films still have director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad involved.
I would happen to recommend that you immediately get to watching the Raid and John Wick movies if you haven’t for they are the quintessential 2010s action movies in my eyes.
Anyway, to focus on our subject John Wick: Chapter Two, one wonders briefly if this series’ neglect on the mindset of our titular assassin would be as a result of its doubling down on visual aesthetic and world-building, which it does in spades. As the first movie is no less gorgeous but still stripped down and focused on John’s path of vengeance without intention at expanding the huge world of underground assassins that it establishes but only portrays peripheral to John’s perspective. Its aesthetic lives in its deliberately limited storytelling, which also resulted in a much more emotional film than Chapter Two. Chapter Two is certainly not an emotional movie.
It is, however, a wide epic now, expanding its scope from New York City to Rome and back as Wick (Reeves) is forced by the smug crime lord Santino D’Antonio (the effortlessly heel-like Riccardo Scamarcio, who I shortly after witnessed in season 2 of Master of None and realized he’s great at playing douchebags like an Italian Jon Bernthal) via the blood oath that helped Wick ensure his retirement, to kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Absolutely no one is surprised when Santino betrays John and sends Wick on the run, not only from his mute bodyguard Ares (Ruby Rose, who is having a good action movie year with that, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and XXX: Return of Xander Cage – I haven’t seen one of these, but I’m going out on a limb guessing this is her best performance of the three just from how expressive it is for such a small part) and Gianna’s own very personal bodyguard Cassian (Common in a more overt vengeful attitude than Reeves in the previous film), but from all the Assassins in the world. Santino’s arrangement of a 7 million dollar hit on Wick’s head forces the man’s desperation, hiding, and appeal for aid from the homeless Bowery King (kind of spoiled in the trailers, but I’ve seen enough reviews hold back on the actors’ identity to do similar. All I will say is the actor in question gave me a HUUUUUUUGE Orson Welles vibe which made it all the better to me).
Anyway, John Wick vs. The World, basically. The opportunities are endless and Stahelski goes crazy providing several different glorious setpiece designs for Reeves to grunt and sweat his way through, none of them as great as the central scene of John Wick (that club gun battle. Don’t night clubs make the best shooting ranges?) and all of them absolutely novel– here’s a car chase through the mirrored streets of New York, here’s Reeves and Common having a bit of slapstick comedy throwing each other down flights of stairs, here’s a throwback to the famous “with a FUCKING PENCIL!” line (with a foreshadow at the beginning by a cameoing Peter Stormare), here’s a shooting duck gallery in the subway station, here’s a chase/gun battle through a hall of mirrors – and shot by Dan Laustsen in high gloss that makes every fast motion and swipe smooth as baby Jesus’ bottom and edited by Evan Schiff with continuity and impact.
And that’s when they’re in the nocturnal lights of New York City, for the film somehow has a different visual language towards its European setting and gives an aristocratic art cinema sense of pace and style. From the elegant manner of weapon selection, to the underground historic catacombs, right down to briefly replacing Ian McShane as “Zeus”, the way Movies with Mikey called him oh so perfectly, with Franco Nero as “Italian Zeus”. Which possibly helps me enjoy John Wick more, the versatility in distinguishing only two cultures it feels like cheating into globe-trotting. The real expansion comes to the Assassins’ mythology now that we have not only our returning cast like John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, and David Patrick Kelly, but a real sense of stories outside of Wick’s point of view like Cassian’s and The Bowery King’s that only unluckily intertwine with Wick’s and a sense of consequence to their laws by the perfect note Chapter 2 chooses to end on, which only serves more promise for the inevitable third installment. I’ll welcome it eagerly, I only want to see more of this playground Stahelski has set Reeves’ unstoppable badass in, even if the bar is set already much too high by this chapter.