In retrospect, maybe what was best about the original John Wick was its modesty. That may sound like a strange thing to say about an ultra-violent action-thriller containing what’s probably a world record for lethal headshots. But the 2014 film had just the right scale for its stripped-down ambitions. In telling the story of an assassin (Keanu Reeves) who comes out of retirement to get vengeance on the people who killed his dog—a gift from his dead wife—John Wick played like a kinetic adaptation of a cult graphic novel. At a time when studio blockbusters feel overblown and impersonal, this nervy, giddy audacity was downright liberating—a low-budget gem you wanted to share with your friends.
Much of the original’s spirit is preserved in John Wick: Chapter 2—there are even more headshots in this one—but that modesty has gone by the wayside. Where the first film was 100 minutes, this one is over two hours. Where the original was spare and focused, the sequel is expansive and bloated. It’s the difference between a movie that doesn’t try to be edgy and one that tries too hard—and the difference between a movie that knows its limitations and one that doesn’t. Chapter 2 is an efficient, often dazzling symposium on sleek, ruthless action filmmaking. But as funny as it sometimes tries to be, it’s not a lot of fun.
Part of the problem is Wick himself. As played by Reeves without his trademark whoa-ness, the character was once a disarming surprise. In the first film, he was a man in mourning whose return to a life of killing felt deeply conflicted. Every death had a tinge of sadness to it—John Wick was an unstoppable assassin, but no amount of corpses could ever bring back his wife.
In the new movie, that emotional sting has been removed. This time, Wick has to honor the marker of a fellow assassin, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who wants Wick to bump off his sister (Claudia Gerini) so he can take her seat as part of a shadowy assassins guild. Wick reluctantly accepts the task but, predictably, that’s not the end of the matter. D’Antonio sends his goons to eliminate him, and this sets in motion an epic clash between Wick and much of the assassin underground. Our hero will lay waste to plenty of people, but you may find it difficult to care about any of them—including Wick.
The new film is directed by Chad Stahelski, who helmed the first film alongside David Leitch. Both former stunt coordinators, they masterminded a ground-level approach to fight scenes in John Wick that removed a lot of the computer-generated fakery and emphasized a hand-to-hand urgency. Even when Stahelski and Leitch used digital touchups, the embellishments felt raw and organic, providing action fans that rarest and most precious of commodities: a sense of gritty authenticity.
With Chapter 2, Stahelski has crafted a film that’s utterly gorgeous, incorporating underground catacombs, lustrous subway systems, and tony avant-garde museums as playgrounds in which Wick does battle with his foes. Recalling everyone from Michael Mann to Nicolas Winding Refn, Chapter 2 is as much an art piece as it is a down-and-dirty B-movie. Whether Wick is dispatching baddies with balletic grace or trapped in a disorienting, hall-of-mirrors gallery space, we’re always meant to be awestruck by the film’s visual grandeur. Stahelski may have gotten his start designing martial-arts fights in movies like The Matrix, but the John Wick films pay homage to noir and European art-house cinema, adding a gravitas and existential dread to myriad scenes of guys punching, kicking, and shooting the hell out of each other.
Which, as far as it goes, can be very satisfying. Chapter 2 looks like it has a bigger budget than the 2014 film, and Stahelski and returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad have used it to expand John Wick’s comic-book sensibility, offering more details about this world of secret assassins. (Hint: Be nice to that homeless man you see on the way to work.) Chapter 2 may still have a B-movie’s soul, but it swaggers.
On the other hand, the more we learn about this milieu, the sillier it seems. John Wick’s introduction of a hotel exclusively for hitmen was a nifty little conceit—seeing it again in Chapter 2 and discovering this fraternity’s inner workings only make the concept feel cartoon-y. One suspects Stahelski recognizes this: Chapter 2 is a lot campier than its predecessor, as if he hopes that owning up to the preposterousness will make it go down more smoothly. (This would also seem to be the motivation behind Laurence Fishburne’s distractingly loony performance as a crime lord with a penchant for pigeons.)
The supersized approach to Chapter 2 also affects Reeves. One of the first film’s chief pleasures was warming to the idea that the normally lightweight actor could be a coldblooded, grieving killer. But with that novelty now established, Chapter 2 doesn’t do much to deepen the character, leaving Reeves to repeat his zen-tough-guy routine, which isn’t as delightful the second time around. (Also, the shock of Wick blasting people in the head at point-blank range isn’t nearly as exhilarating once you know it’s his M.O.) As for Reeves reuniting with his Matrix costar Fishburne, it mostly reminds the viewer how much that franchise also wilted once its world expanded.
A lot of these complaints aren’t going to bother fans, who will rush out on opening weekend to see a new batch of carnage. And that carnage can be awfully impressive. Sometimes it’s gloriously choreographed, with the wit and precision of a silent comedy. (It’s no accident that Chapter 2 opens with a scene from a Buster Keaton film.) Other times, the sheer, pummeling immediacy grabs you by the throat. (Watching Reeves grapple with ace bodyguard Common is okay—watching them tumble down endless flights of stairs in between fight scenes is gripping.) And there are significant new enjoyments, such as model-turned-actress Ruby Rose playing D’Antonio’s most elegant henchman, a beguiling, androgynous killer who happens to be deaf. But ultimately John Wick: Chapter 2 is state-of-the-art action that’s sacrificed some of the charm and heart that were the first film’s secret weapon. It’s about the only armament not deployed in this sequel.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film,. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site .