John Wick was a low-budget passion project that was fuelled by Keanu Reeves’ singular focus, reinvigorating his career in the process. So what happens when you take its unique style and add sequel money? Exactly what you’d think. John Wick: Chapter 2 takes what came before and expands in almost every direction, and creates some spectacular moments in the process. The problem, though, is that John Wick now wants to be a franchise, and its increased focus on worldbuilding isn’t entirely successful.
Set two weeks after the original, John Wick 2 launches straight into a beautifully choreographed pre-title sequence that will have fans reeling with giddy excitement. In fact, the whole movie has callbacks that are deliciously subtle (no overlong shots of familiar side characters here, Rogue One). Cars, upon bikes, upon guns, upon fists; the classic John Wick formula is here in full force. Reeves hasn’t lost any of his physical prowess in the intervening years, the camera constantly trying to show that’s it’s actually him flipping goons on the floor and drifting cars between concrete pillars. It’s hard to believe he’s 53 years old when he’s just thrown himself down three sets of stairs.
From an action point of view, everything is better. Some of the gunfights of the first John Wick were amazing but sometimes slightly lacking; too short, or the camera too close. This is not a problem for John Wick 2 – the camera this time is far more passive, pulling back and allowing us to take in the grandeur of the fight choreography. The constant dance of guns, fists and legs is almost balletic, and utterly hypnotising. Of course, the CG headshots are a bit more obvious as a result, still too much of a video game effect to convince fully. But the long, varied gunfights, which often veer almost into outright weapon porn, are never short of sensational.
Outside of the action, things are a little less focussed. It doesn’t help that the original’s story was defined by Wick’s singular motivation for revenge. Its elements worked beautifully in eliciting our empathy for a contract killer: lost love, a need for normality, a jumped-up young idiot, and a dead puppy. It didn’t need anything else, honing the film’s narrative thrust with bullet precision. John Wick 2, though, tries to spread its wings by pushing hard into the mythology behind the characters: a blood oath demanding to be honoured, secret assassin rules to be obeyed, targeted killing, betrayal, revenge, a guild of killer tramps, an underground communication system, and a network of hired killers that eventually seems to be the entire population of New York. By the time we reach the finale – which again is a wonderful setpiece that recalls a classic Bond standoff – the story feels overworked after jumping through so many hoops.
However, the more time we spend with Wick, the more chance Reeves has to win us over. And it’s not just with his expanded move set; he also has more wonderful dialogue moments, delivered with a verve that caused our cinema to cheer on more than one occasion. The Matrix reunion of Reeves and Laurence Fishburne isn’t much more than a cameo, and isn’t entirely necessary, but the whole interaction is worth it for their final lines together. In fact, when Reeves later growls that he’s back, it’s a moment for celebration; this is his best role in years, and one that firmly reasserts him back at the top of the action ladder.
If the box offices agrees, there will be a John Wick: Chapter 3. This isn’t conjecture; the final twenty minutes of Chapter 2 has the singular purpose of setting it up. It’s this pushed expansion that ultimately distracts from the wonderful efforts of Reeves and the stunt crew. There are still fantastic little moments – casual potshots in a subway, a final bullet that comes at exactly the right moment, and the gleeful use of a pencil – but these are diluted by the new need to pad out Wick’s world. I hope the sequel arrives, soon, as there’s few better ways to spend a Friday night in the cinema. I just hope John Wick: Chapter 3 has a slightly more steady aim.