John Wick, the original, was a middling movie with exceptional action scenes.
The things about John Wick that set it apart were the things it left on the cutting room floor. It was designed around being a tight, fast movie.
That choice was evident in the exposition, Wick’s wife dies in the first minute, he receives a young puppy sent from her within 10 minutes, and by 20 minutes in the film makers have used the simple elements to craft a compelling narrative.
This simplicity in narrative isn’t matched in the filmmaking techniques. The first film was set in a rich, developed world and made with exhaustive attention to shot composition. Action scenes are understandable, the camera doesn’t shake, it follows the action in smooth pans so that viewers can drink in the brutal physical choreography.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” takes place immediately following the previous film, a decision by the creators that deserves applauding. The choice to continue the narrative directly made the difference in establishing a new action hero rather than an action franchise, but more on that later.
Under the direction of Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman who had his directorial debut with John Wick, the sequel knows what made the first a success. The film begins in media res, in the middle of the action, as Wick tracks down his car stolen in the original movie.
The opening scenes that follow are beautifully shot, taking the precision of the action scenes in the first movie and transferring the technique to nearly every shot. The set is full of visual depth as well, the film plays with reflection and bouncing light throughout.
The character of Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, is precise and deadly. Called “The Boogeyman” by character in the world, he kills, maims, or otherwise incapacitates scores of suited muscle in the first scene alone. Reeves brings a steadiness to the role that defines it. Wick isn’t about subtle emotion; he is the lack of emotion. When he is angry Reeves plays into it well, it seems unnatural and dangerous, volatile.
The film’s plot is a globe spanning adventure that peels back some of the hidden layers to the criminal underground world. Writer David Leitch has created a world that is its own, borrowing very little from established tropes. At the center of this world is the Continental, a hotel. Assassins all over the world stay in the Continental, and while on its ground may not conduct any business.
These elements are all used to their fullest extent, in one scene Wick and another assassin go crashing through a window into the lobby, where they must immediately stop their fighting. All the different tidbits about the world are used to this sort of effect, a coherent comedy that also serves a larger narrative.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is in many ways a film about rules. The basic plot of a man who is seeking revenge for his dog is muddled with more and more minutia as the series draws out. The imagery and characters all push for the same larger questions, why follow the rules? What would it take for us to break our own rules? Whose rules are important?
The way these questions are surfaced organically and dealt with systematically help frame “John Wick: Chapter 2” as more than the action gem its predecessor was. It manages to take on a proper film feeling, with things to say and ways to say them.
The problem with becoming a more mature idea of film is that the weaker elements tend to stick out more, and for “John Wick: Chapter 2”, that one element is John Wick himself.
There are worse things in the movie, like the mindless adversaries who ceaselessly walk toward wick without ever managing a decent shot at him, but those things don’t have as much pressure placed on them to be incredible. The movie is, very clearly, the second entry in a series, and while more time is spent developing the world than in the first, John Wick is still left to carry a large brunt of making this a good movie.
That weight isn’t always carried well. While the actions scenes are very nearly flawless, Wick’s character requires a suspension of disbelief. In the one hand he wants nothing more to be out of the violence that surrounds him, in the other he feels at home in it.
Then come the dialogue scenes. His dialogue is, without sugarcoating, bad. Reeves almost always feels robotic and tough in his delivery. While this is undoubtedly a character choice it seems like the wrong one, sacrificing the fluidity present in the action when things slow down. There are moments where he lives up to it all, when he kills three men at a bar with a pencil, but there are moments when he seems to be floating along, fighting because it’s a movie.
As a result of this dependence on Reeves’ Wick, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is only as good as his performance. As amazing, lights out, imaginative and immersive the action scenes tend to be, the parts in between feel stilted and slow. And as with the character, so goes the film.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a visual delight. It is laugh out loud funny when it wants to be, its brutality will make you groan, it’s a fully fleshed film with things to say. But in its intense character focus it finds a few flaws, when that character falls short of the surrounding excellence it leads to a bad taste that doesn’t completely go away.