The first John Wick was like lightning: It came out of nowhere, hit hard, and didn’t seem likely to strike again. It was a seemingly one-of-a-kind exercise of directorial fancy by former stunt person Chad Stahelski that lent some renewed credibility to Keanu Reeves as an action star and had a surprisingly mythos-rich story lurking around the edges of its revenge fantasy conceit. So I was pretty skeptical about the attempt to make that lightning strike twice with John Wick: Chapter 2, but the crazy thing is that not only do Stahelski, Reeves, and screenwriter Derek Kolstad manage that improbable feat, they seem intent to electrocute us into a satisfied stupor.
Picking up directly after the events of the first film, Chapter 2 finds John Wick (Reeves) trying to reclaim the normalcy of the retirement that he abandoned for his revenge. He is visited by an old associate (Riccardo Scamarcio), who calls on a blood oath John made to him in exchange for being able to retire in the first place, and so John has to take on one last mission. Only, of course, the proposed target makes the job much more complicated than what a normal assassin would have to deal with, and soon things spiral out of control as John fights for his life against a multitude of other assassins across Europe.
If you loved the subtle mythmaking that existed on the periphery of the first film, you’re likely to be on board for the veritable ecosystem that is developed in Chapter 2. This is a film that posits that an assassin lurks around every corner, and yet it never goes over the top or exceeds the limits of its audience’s credibility. Yes, it’s silly to think that such a vast network of underground crime and killing could actually exist, but the way Chapter 2 presents the political machinations and intricate customs of the assassin subculture make it seem almost real. If the film has one glaring flaw, it’s that it perhaps focuses too heavily on its imaginative world to the detriment of the action set pieces—at least during the first half.
It does, however, fully redeem itself during that second half, where the set pieces are turned up to eleven and John goes into full survival mode. It’s a hell of a feat to make a sequel where the hook of the first film was that the protagonist is an unstoppable killing machine, but when John is forced to fight other killing machines of comparable skill in rapid succession, it makes for a thrill ride that is hard to compete with. Keanu Reeves doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being a superb physical actor, so a franchise like John Wick is perfectly suited to his abilities, and he doesn’t disappoint.
The obvious question is whether John Wick or Chapter 2 is the superior film, and while I’m forced to conclude that my personal preference is for the quiet understatement of the original, it’s hard to deny that there’s plenty of room for argument in preferring its sequel. It’s more John Wick, no compromises, and the finale promises that even more John Wick is on the way. If you aren’t excited for a third chapter when the credits start to roll, check your pulse; you might have died from shock.