When co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch released John Wick, their debut feature, in 2014 fleeting initial impressions might not have been particularly hopeful. As expensive and hyperactive as it looked, revenge tales starring sullen loners do not scream originality.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that John Wick was so outstanding, a neon-drenched action fable both knowing and surprisingly fresh. With Keanu Reeves on form as the eponymous avenging angel – the kind of apex predator none of us should ever aspire to provoke – the picture thrilled critics and raked in enough at the box office to justify a sequel.
That follow-up has now arrived in the form of John Wick: Chapter 2 (a spare title at odds with the mayhem that garlands much of the 122-minute running time). Stahelski, now alone at the helm, has fine tuned his original work and conjured a vision that feels like a heightened, refined version of its progenitor. The film is far from perfect, lacking John Wick's rage and scorching momentum, but the world is expanded, feeling significantly more dangerous.
It picks up where the first instalment left off. Having taken revenge on his former Russian mob employers for stealing his car and killing his dog, former-not-so-former hitman Wick infiltrates the bad guys' HQ and reclaims the purloined motor. As the fearful kingpin (a cameoing Peter Stormare) assures his underling, stories of Wick's capabilities have been watered down.
Later, having re-settled into his peaceful domestic life for a matter of hours, Wick – the villains' boogeyman – is visited by Riccardo Scamarcio's elegant Italian crime lord, Santino D’Antonio, the man who facilitated Wick's withdrawal from the underworld but now holds a promise to kill on instruction over his head. Wick, predictably, refuses, so D'Antonio torches his debtor's homestead. Realising he has no choice, Wick must hunt down D'Antonio's sister, a newly crowned member of the gangsters' 'high table'. That mission is complicated, however, when D'Antonio sends his mute, outrageously beautiful enforcer, Ares (Ruby Rose), to tie up the Keanu-shaped loose end.
And so begins an inversion of Wick's previous tale. No longer the hunter but the prey, he is pursued through a bevvy of atmospheric locations by myriad assassins, all keen to cash in on the bounty. From the Roman catacombs to the New York subway, Wick must desperately fight off each new adversary. A series of hectic scenes depict him at his best. Punching, stabbing, shooting; he occasionally accomplishes all three in a single movement.
His methods range from comic (he and Common's icy killer, Cassian, trade secretive silenced gunshots across a crowd concourse) to unbelievably brutal (never underestimate pencils again). He even seeks the aid of Matrix alum Laurence Fishburne – a rumpled beggar king – in the quest to cut off the head of a snake that stalks him. Boxed in by a house of mirrors, one late sequence involving automatic weapons and beards in sharp suits is beautiful as it is ruthless.
Like Reeves's other great thriller, Speed, Chapter 2's pace rarely slows. When it does, the proceedings are invariably girded by exposition that helps to build a sense of Wick's increasing desperation. Once the tightly observed rules of his subculture are breached, nobody, not even Ian McShane's urbane arbiter can stave off the consequences. A third volume is all but promised. Expect more gunfire.