'John Wick: Chapter Two' Review: Keanu is Back!
The last time Keanu Reeves made a sequel to an action movie with a huge cult following and two directors, it didn't really go well twice over. Nonetheless, John Wick wasn't exactly The Matrix, and John Wick: Chapter Two fortunately isn't The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions. Even so, this sequel does expose a few new cracks in the foundation of the latest Reeves franchise, whether or not it will really make any difference for its own inevitable threequel.
After tying up the last loose end of his last revenge mission, John Wick puts himself back into retirement. Yet he only has about five minutes in his old home with his new dog before a ghost from the past comes calling, as the Italian assassin who helped him get out of the life the first time demands that he honor his blood oath to him. When John's refusal results in his house getting blown up, and when the rules of his old assassin's guild prevent him from seeking retribution, he has no choice but to go to Rome and fulfill his obligation. But when even that isn't enough to get him out scot free, John has to go through a whole legion of killers to try and get it done.
While the original John Wick waited about 25 minutes to turn Wick loose, sequels usually play by different rules, so Chapter Two pretty much has him on the rampage in mere moments. It quickly proves that director Chad Stahelski and the Wick franchise in general still has the brutal, bloody action chops, even without original co-director and new Deadpool 2 director David Leitch's help. Still, John's opening quest to get his car back is the first of many opportunities to question how he can really keep getting up after so many hits, let alone how his car can keep working after them.
Things do slow down afterwards, however, as they set up John's latest reasons for revenge and for postponing retirement. Dog lovers should be reassured that John's much bigger new canine is out of the crossfire, and is safely sent away before the action really starts. Although that is surely a good thing, it does make Chapter Two less compelling than the original in giving John and the movie a pretext for mass destruction.
Triggering John's return to killing through dog murder last time may have been horrifying, but it did provide a real emotional hook, and helped prove how different the original was from its action peers. Yet this time around, merely burning down John's house and keeping him from retiring again just makes Chapter Two look like any other revenge/coming out of retirement story.
Dogs shouldn't keep dying to set these adventures up, but there should be other more original thoughts and motivations to get the ball rolling. It also works against Reeves, who doesn’t get to show as much of a drive behind his killing spree this time, or get anything like his “I’m thinking I’m back!” speech to speak when not shooting heads off. Even with that in mind, the commitment he still shows in his fighting and his rage remains a welcome difference from the ultra-robotic Reeves of past action movies.
The other big element that made John Wick more original, and more quirky than the average action film, was the assassin's society/hotel that John went back into during his mission. It was a unique brand of universe building that didn't seem forced in merely to set up more sequels, at least not much more than in the average blockbuster universe. Fortunately, Chapter Two keeps expanding that world with more quirky little touches, bits and details, especially as it and John goes international in Rome.
From having a special kind of suit fitting and 'tasting' in Rome, to having Franco Nero guest star as the head of Rome's Continental Hotel, bringing back Ian McShane as the head of New York's branch, showing the guild's 'accounts payable' branch and pairing Reeves up with old Matrix mentor Laurence Fishburne to start the third act, Chapter Two is at its best when branching out the wider world John just can't leave behind. But as the movie goes on, however, there is a bit of a downside to it all and perhaps to the newly expanded franchise in general.
John Wick was its own animal in going back to the old school ways of action movies, through a lack of hyperactive quick cuts, a lack of holding back in its action, and through telling a simple stand alone story. Chapter Two is a somewhat different matter, as it gives in to the usual sequel impulse in thinking bigger and longer automatically means better, and in turning into just another prequel for the next sequel to come by the end.
As welcome as Stahelski's bang-bang, bloody and CGI free brand of action still is, at least compared to the MTV-style editing and non-stop explosions of other action franchises, Chapter Two obviously can't be as fresh and new with such a style as the original was. In fact, when John goes underground in Rome's catacombs for the film's second big set piece, it is often too dark to really see anything and to savor how his enemies go down, which goes against the franchise's biggest action hook.
Of course, given that John and most everyone else has indestructible suits now, head shots are an even greater cause of death than last time, if that is actually possible. Yet there really are only so many head shots to take before they nearly become as repetitive as explosions are in other action movies.
There are still some joys to be had that don’t threaten to wear out their welcome, such as Claudia Gerini as John’s initial mandated target, a few big hand-to-hand fight scenes between John and Common, and Ruby Rose as the sign language speaking right-hand assassin of John’s nemesis. But it takes until the middle of Chapter Two before its most deliriously action-packed and outrageous set piece occurs, as seemingly everyone in New York is activated to take John out to no avail.
Stahelski still tries to top it with a big finale in a museum and a house of mirrors, although it is technically far from a finale. In fact, the last 10 minutes are pretty much devoted to setting up Chapter Three, in a way that should leave everyone wanting more until they stop to think about it.
By turning into another sequel that spends more time setting up the next movie with unanswered questions and cliffhangers, it threatens to turn John Wick into just another franchise, which really isn’t how the original worked at all. Regardless, “Sequelitis” is on the doorstep of the Wick series, which may well be inevitable for all franchises but is a bit disappointing for one that started like this.
This is hardly the worst case of it that Reeves has been a part of, as Chapter Two is nowhere near the letdown of either Matrix sequel, although that really isn’t hard to accomplish. There’s still good reason for many Wick fans to be excited for more and for what is set up to come, yet there is also reason to wonder about how much more innovative they can really get from here, which wasn’t something to question after the original.
Saying that Chapter Two is really more of the same isn’t an entirely damning statement, as almost everything that fans loved about the first chapter is still around in some form. Yet by definition and by its own repeated style, it can’t be as much of a breath of fresh air as the original was, which is even clearer in the other glaring ways that it doesn’t entirely match up.
There is still a share of imagination to be had in the Wick mythology, even if it pops up more infrequently this time around. However, spurts of the old John Wick originality, invention, brutal action style and universe building may not be enough on their own to keep up a passing grade when Chapter Three turns its first bloody pages.
John Wick: Chapter Two will start earning its grade with general audiences on Feb. 10.
Check out our John Wick: Chapter 2 review.