When John Wick arrived in 2014, it took everyone by surprise. Delivering a rabbit punch to the action genre’s solar plexus, this sharp mix of gun-fu fight choreography and New York noir offered Keanu Reeves yet another career rebirth, just as The Matrix did in 1999.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, former stunt doubles who worked with Reeves on that seminal Wachowskis-directed sci-fi, it was the sort of lean, mean actioner that had rarely been seen since John Woo’s Hong Kong heyday (The Killer, Hard Boiled).
Picking up where the first film left off, John Wick: Chapter 2 sees Reeves’ titular, black-suited hitman still on the rampage. You’ll remember this retired assassin they call ‘the Boogeyman’ was forced to get back in the game after Russian gangsters took a fancy to his Mustang and killed his dog – given to him by his late wife Helen before her untimely demise.
Quite rightly, Chapter 2 starts mid-chase. “John Wick is a man of focus, commitment and sheer fucking will,” says Peter Stormare’s cigar-chomping syndicate boss, all too aware of Wick’s relentless nature and remarkable skill set.
Before the opening credits, Wick has taken down Stormare’s drug-smuggling goons in a warehouse, virtually turning his Mustang into scrap metal in the process.
Returning to his chic modernist pad, now occupied by the chocolate pit-bull he picked up from animal rescue in the previous film’s finale, Wick re-cements his cache of weapons back into the basement floor when there’s a knock at the door. Standing there is another ghost from his violent past, Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), who gives him a so-called “marker”: crime-speak for an offer he can’t refuse.
When Wick refuses the hit, Santino brings out the big guns – quite literally, in an explosive set-piece. This being the netherworld Wick operates in, run by a strict series of codes, he has little choice but to take the job – which involves killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini).
Turns out Santino wants her seat at the High Table, a coveted place among a group of elite crime lords bestowed to Gianna by their father. And so, with his Mustang being repaired by John Leguizamo’s returning chop-shop owner Aurelio, Wick hotfoots it to Rome.
Arriving in the eternal city, Wick gets tooled up thanks to Peter Serafinowicz’s classy gun-seller – and then the fun really starts. Forced to confront literally dozens of guards, Reeves gets to work – above ground in a plush palazzo and in the eerily lit catacombs below. But that’s just the beginning of his dilemmas, as Santino turns the tables and casts Wick as an outlaw in a world of outlaws.
With Derek Kolstad back on screenwriting duties, what JW: C2 does well is to expand on the underworld network hinted at in the original. Naturally, we return to the Continental, the swanky Manhattan hotel owned by Ian McShane’s suave Winston and overseen by Lance Reddick’s all-knowing concierge Charon – a sort of safe haven for hitmen and other organised crime types that doesn’t permit killing on the premises.
Here, Kolstad also shows what happens when a hit is put out on someone: tattoo-clad telephone operators take the message, sending it chuntering through old-fashioned suction tubes like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Likewise, we get to see more of just how deadly Wick’s world is: assassins lurk on every street corner, from violin-playing buskers to a giant sumo wrestler who puts all of Wick’s specialist skills to the test.
While Leitch doesn’t return as co-director, Stahelski has lost none of his knack for action. Last year’s Hardcore Henry may have upped the brutality ante but JW: C2 winds you with its intensity – driven by Reeves’ remarkable athleticism and some wonderful choreography.
A fight with Gianna’s bodyguard (Common) in a subway train is just one of the hugely inventive sequences that prove there’s plenty of life (and death) left in the genre yet.
There’s also a wry little Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, with Morpheus pitching up as a pigeon-fancying overlord to a network of assassin-street-beggars. It sounds weird, and it is – though no stranger than the oddball production design from Kevin Kavanaugh, culminating in a hall-of-mirrors modernist art exhibition called ‘Reflections on the Soul’ – “to lead you into deeper reflection of the nature of self”.
True, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original – partly because the element of surprise when it comes to the fight-work is gone, partly because it lacks the emotional pull of Wick avenging his wife’s memory. But as badass B-movies go, this really gets the blood pumping.