Mythmaking in popular culture these days isn't what it used to be. The mythological hero has gone through as many mediums as he has genres, from Greek adventurer to knight errant to samurai to cowboy. Our current popular version is the superhero, but, as any thinkpiece will tell you, we've recently been suffused with a gluttony of superheroes and comic book characters in cinema to the point of near exhaustion. As a result, the most recent superhero films eschew the "modern mythology" approach that legitimized comics in the 80s, and instead adapt the characters using other genres entirely. Moreover, the more down to earth recent action icons have either become worn out like Jason Bourne, or turned into a revolving door ensemble such as in the Fast & Furious series. It's rare to have a new iconic action hero these days, and even rarer to have one that's not sprung from any preexisting intellectual property. Even more elusive is a sequel that improves upon and actually surpasses its original predecessor. John Wick Chapter 2 is all of that and more, putting in its early bid for best action film of 2017, and cementing a new mythological action icon for the 2010's and beyond. Best of all, it does this in the most effective, intelligent way: by keeping it simple.
That simplicity starts with the continuation of the first film's story by writer Derek Kolstad. John Wick (Keanu Reeves), only a few days out from wreaking vengeance on the Russian mafia for stealing his car and killing the puppy left to him by his deceased wife, returns home and tries to literally bury his old assassin's life in the basement. Immediately after, a slimy Italian menace, Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his door, demanding that Wick honor the assassins marker that he left Santino long ago. Wick initially refuses, causing Santino to destroy Wick's house, leaving him no choice but to honor the marker and kill the target Santino chooses. Traveling from New York City to Rome and back again, Wick moves through the streets and catacombs like a wraith, weathering one double cross after another, refusing to back down until the job is finished.
First and foremost, John Wick works because of Keanu Reeves. His dedication to the physical action required to perform the role is immense, and it shows. Director Chad Stahelski (returning to the franchise he helped create after co-directing the first Wick with David Leitch) shoots a large amount of the action sequences in wide shots, allowing Reeves to literally take center stage and show off the impressive result of the months of Ju Jitsu, choreography, and arms training he did to prepare for the role. Reeves' physical prowess is one thing, besting even his iconic work in the Matrix series. But it's his sardonic wit, his grief, his loneliness, his badass arrogance, and his vulnerability that makes John Wick into a character only he can play. Anybody who still doubts Reeves' ability as a performer can compare Ted "Theodore" Logan to Jack Traven to Neo to John Constantine to Wick, and then they can shut up.
Reeves' performance is a gateway to the film's secret strength, which is the depth and richness of the world Wick inhabits. Just like the first film, the particulars of theinternational underground league of assassins are revealed to the audience on a need to know basis. Rather than having a character introduced to the rules of the game through an expositional info dump (or an intrusive use of on screen titles and graphics), the film treats the audience as the characters treat Wick, as a peer. Thus, while the basic concepts are easy to discern (each major city has a hotel that acts as neutral territory, any official business cannot be conducted on neutral ground, and so on), there remains an air of clandestine mystery to everything. Amazingly, Chapter 2 not only keeps that mystery but deepens it, introducing everything from an arms dealer "Sommelier" (played by a pitch perfect Peter Serafinowicz) to the fact that there may be more assassins living among "normal" people than even Wick expected. Stahelski goes to great lengths to keep the truth of the assassins' world existing within our own a secret, staging bravura fights and cat and mouse chases in the middle of busy streets and subway cars while plausibly keeping the violence under wraps. It makes the world of Wick that much more tangible, and allows each punch to land with more weight.
And man, those punches. As I said before, the fact that Stahelski keeps a wide eye on the action sequences means that we get to take them in in a way we are rarely allowed to. The action is as close to a live theatrical stunt show as you can get without losing the immediacy, intimacy and emotions that cinema provides. There's a sequence where Wick slinks through a series of catacombs, reloading and switching weapons as he goes, that is a series of long takes. There's another scene where Reeves and Common (playing a rival assassin) literally throw themselves down several flights of stairs, over and over again (paying off a sly Buster Keaton reference at the very beginning of the film). There's the grand finale set in a Enter The Dragon-esque hall of mirrors, where Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen don't do the expected Lady From Shanghai "now I'm over here" schtick, but rather emphasize the paranoia of an enemy being potentially around every corner. If any fan of the first Wick was worried, they needn't have been: the action holds up.
Doing the unexpected has now become a staple of the John Wick series. That doesn't mean that Chapter 2 is stuffed with twist upon twist and superfluous characters or set pieces, but rather slightly zigs when it might be expected to zag. There's a scene in the first half hour or so of the film, when John finds his intended target, that goes a very different way than one might expect. It cements the Wick series as one that can be melancholy and introspective while still providing playful comic book-like flourishes like giant animated translation subtitles. The rest of the film follows suit, feeling like a natural progression of a sequel rather then a tired retread. When I first saw John Wick in its opening weekend in 2014, it was with a modestly sized audience who eventually hollered in approval at the end. In that film, every character spoke about and treated John Wick like a mythological legend, contrasting with Keanu's grief-stricken everyman performance. When I saw Chapter 2 the other night, it was with a completely sold out crowd who reacted to every line, gunshot, and inventive kill like a rock concert. It was obvious that the reputation of the character is no longer just fictional. That alone proves that John Wick has ascended to action legend status, and provided this decade with its own distinctive hero. It's about damn time.