John Wick: Chapter 2 – Perfecting Action

2014’s John Wick didn’t just set the bar for action cinema; it WAS the bar. On top of being shoot-em-up excellence, John Wick had the added bonus of being an emotionally-complex drama, bringing the generic action-revenge flick down to its knees with a character-focused story about a retired hitman avenging the brutal slaying of his dog while mourning his deceased wife. John Wick was also an unprecedented success. Expectations were low for the film, given the film industry was in steady decline in 2014 and Keanu Reeves had a multitude of box office failures prior to the film, but its reception and accolades as being one of the best action movies continues on to this day. 

Given its surprise success, a sequel was imminent, with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad returning. The duo wanted to put more emphasis on John Wick’s universe, addressing aspects the first film scratched the surface on, such as the hierarchy of power with the Continental, the assassin way of life, and the deadly excommunicado sentencing. John Wick: Chapter 2 was the turning point for the series, shifting the series from a slow and methodical sleeper hit to a multi-film action franchise. The action is ramped up to the nth degree; bloodier, more vibrant, and more stylish. Though it sacrifices a ton of the nuances and emotional complexity that made the first John Wick so unique and special, Chapter 2 makes up for that fact with some of the greatest, most visceral action to ever grace the silver screen.

John Wick: Chapter 2 starts off with a stark contrast to the first movie’s opening. That film took some time to set up the story and establish John Wick’s character, but the sequel jumps right into things. Understandably, since those watching should be familiar with John’s character so no use in introducing everything all over again. It begins within mere days after the events of the first movie; after successfully enacting his revenge on crime-lord Viggo’s family and his empire, John still has unfinished business as he must retrieve his stolen car from Abram Talasoc, the late Viggo’s brother. 

The opening shots show an homage to the late Buster Keaton, the original kinetic artist whose comedic physical acting in silent films paved the way for action cinema and stunt choreography for decades to come. Within the opening moments, the action has begun, a motorcycle crashing and skidding across the ground to sync with the violence of the silent film being projected on the side of the building. What ensues is a high-adrenaline chase as John pursues a motorcyclist to uncover the location of his car and Abram, only for John to outwit the motorcyclist and cause them to collide with John’s idle vehicle. This is a very amusing opening scene that tells you all about the current events without breaking into expositional dialogue; John is a hitman and appears to be in some pursuit of revenge.

After John gets his car back, things begin to slow down for a while. Over the course of the movie, we encounter some oddballs on John’s path, both major and minor. The central antagonist and Italian Mafia boss Santino D’Antonio, his mute companion Ares, vengeful bodyguard Cassian, and underworld leader Bowery King. The side characters in the original John Wick were a bit hit-and-miss, but Chapter 2 hits strides in making each side character interesting and memorable. 

Santino D’Antonio is a godsend of a villain; a total conniving and cowardly rat who manipulates John to do his bidding. He’s a huge step-up from the one-note crime boss Viggo and his spoiled son Iosef. Near the start, it is revealed that John formed a blood contract with Santino, who aided in John’s “impossible task” in exchange for business with him in the future. Though Santino seemingly respected John’s retirement, he still pursued John for work after his fiasco with Viggo and his family. Though I believe Santino still would’ve forced John’s hand whether he came out of retirement or not, he took advantage of the opportunity once it was most convenient. 

Each character in the John Wick universe has their roles and their own lives. They have their own code, language, currency. They are all connected in this giant chess board as a player. Any business is a front for assassin operations, cops don’t investigate assassins because innocent civilians are never caught in the cross-fire, and there’s in-fighting within the organization. Even though they get far less screen time, minor characters get plentiful personality and importance. In a classic gearing-up montage, John finds himself in Rome to ready himself for the big assassination mission. He meets an eccentric tailor whose sweatshop is used as a front for his base of operations, as well as a charismatic gun salesman who casually describes military-level weapons in detail as if he’s a sommelier offering fine wine. Each assassin who’s after John Wick have their own jobs, wants, and needs and feel like real people.

With all that said and done, the real meat here is the peak of action. The gunfights in this film are outstanding, maybe the best since… well, ever? The cathartic accuracy of pistol shots, exciting car chases through a garage, bare-knuckle brawling, explosive shotguns, and – of course – pencil fighting. Every second of the action is a money shot, and much like the first movie, you’re invited to see all of it: no shaky cameras, no filler, just straight-to-the-point action and violence. 

The big rising action of the film comes when John successfully kills Gianna and escapes the catacombs unscathed. Knowing Santino is coming for him, he places a $7 million bounty on John’s head, and it becomes a free-for-all for every assassin in New York to collect John’s head. It’s at this point the movie goes from a stellar action movie, to an absolutely deranged experience. If John’s fight through the concert is the true beginning of the movie, then the bounty scene is when Hell completely arises.

There’s one peculiar scene when this occurs, and it’s the montage of John fighting the assassins. He fights against a sumor wrestler in one place, and a violinist in another, which then leads him to the fancy and pristine New York subway. The catch is, this sequence is entirely out-of-order; we catch the aftermath of John’s fights, but he’s in critical condition — bleeding from the head, a gunshot wound near his stomach, and he can’t even stand up straight. We know John will win against these nobody nameless assassins, but cutting back and forth to John fighting them and him being winded in the aftermath helps keep up the tension while keeping the action constant. And, of course, there’s the iconic pencil fight in the midst of this montage, more than validating the chilling and gruesome story told by Viggo in the first movie.

Then there’s the ultimate climax; the fight in the Reflections of the Soul, Santino’s mirror exhibit at the art museum. The Reflections of the Soul is glistening with color and gloss, with the reflections of the characters beautifully beaming off reflections after reflections. This sequence showcased a lot of VFX trickery in order to hide the cameramen and crew in this room of mirrors, but the entire set itself and the action within it is completely authentic and it all looks immaculate. The set shows different perspectives of the fight scene that a single camera couldn’t catch by itself, a variety of different angles in every shot allowing us to see the fights in detail.

John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t exactly tug at your heart strings; it sacrifices a lot of the emotion and complexity from the original film in order to hone in on its universe and create the very best gunfighting ever caught on camera. Returning director Chad Stahelski is a stunt coordinator, and it shows. He can direct any fight scene and put it together marvelously. It’s his ingenuity that’s created the absolute best American action flicks of the last decade, if not ever. I adore John Wick: Chapter 2 with all my heart, and my heart racing after watching the savage cliffhanger for the first time will always be a part of me. Chapter 2 is perfect in every way.

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