I didn’t love the first John Wick movie.
There were hints of greatness in some of the assassin underworld stuff and shootout choreography, but it was underdeveloped and the action sequences were lame. John Wick: Chapter 2 is damn near a masterpiece of action cinema. It’s so bad-ass that it hurts to watch. The pure joy of seeing John Wick mow down mother-effers with surgical precision over and over again—mothereffer after mothereffer—for two hours puts a big goofy grin on my face that hurts my cheeks. Some moments are so bad-ass they even make my heart skip a beat from shock, which is irresponsible. But I still totally respect the filmmakers for going there.
If you couldn’t tell by now, John Wick: Chapter Two—like so few films with colons in their titles—is better than the installment without a colon in the title that preceded it.
Chapter Two opens with John Wick (Keanu Reeves, who could be the only actor I know who isn’t great but I still get excited whenever he’s in a movie) crotch-kicking and car-punching his way through a chop shop full of bad guys to retrieve his stolen Mustang. The gangster in charge of the chop shop is less worried about his men being slaughtered and more irritated that he’s unlucky enough to suffer the wrath of John Wick. “John Wick killed three guys with a pencil. With a pencil! How does someone even do that?” Oddly enough, I sympathize with the gangster. One of the charms of Chapter Two, and even the un-coloned first chapter, is how casually these gangsters accept their fates once they piss off John Wick.
John Wick, who goes by his full name, promptly retires (again) before revenging his way back into the hitman game (again). He’s strong-armed into a hit job after an old friend confronts him with a Marker, a talisman signifying a blood oath that can be cashed in for a favor, and right away I’m sold. I dug assassins paying for everything with gold coins in the first movie, but the quirks didn’t go far enough for me. The movie wasn’t goofy enough. The moment John Wick agrees to assassinate a crime boss because he’s handed a gold talisman marked with a bloody fingerprint? I’m in. Obviously, John Wick is double-crossed after the hit and escapes into the criminal underworld he left behind.
This time around, the assassin subculture John Wick navigates has much more presence and depth. While the first movie was still shackled to reality, Chapter Two creates a universe that finally feels escapist. The “John Wickiverse” is so fleshed out that the movie maybe even spends a bit too much time developing it between action sequences. But it could just be that I was anxious to get back to the action because it's just so goddamn glorious. Shootouts and fist fights in the first movie weren’t quite big enough for me, but here John Wick unleashes himself and the results are stunning to behold. The action is filmed clearly, so that you know Reeves is down for doing most of his own stunt work; it’s infinitely impressive to watch the dude pull off some convoluted-as-hell choreography. John Wick probably armlocks and shoots over a hundred henchmen throughout the movie, but he always finds a slightly different way to do it so that armlocked headshots never get boring.
The only big disappointment of Chapter Two is Ruby Rose’s character. In a film where most of the women are either sweatshop seamstresses or switchboard operators, she’s one of the only women who gets to join in the action, as the main villain's trusted bodyguard; I wish she’d been given more to do. She's a missed opportunity to have a really bad-ass female antagonist go toe-to-toe with John Wick throughout the movie. It’s even more disappointing because when she finally does throw down with John Wick toward the end, it’s one of the best fight scenes, and Rose effing brings it.
After Chapter Two ends by setting up maybe my favorite action movie scenario ever for Chapter Three, the John Wickiverse will have absolutely no excuse to not introduce some awesome female assassins. The first John Wick didn't do much for me, but its sequel sold me, and I can’t wait for more.
Grade = A