When you describe the plot of the first John Wick, it sounds like a Death Wish spoof written by an angry PDSA member. The film itself was, in fact, a shot-in-the-arm to Hollywood action cinema. It was directed by stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, whose previous work spanned the cinematic gamut from Bloodsport III to The Expendables 2. More pertinently, they founded 87Eleven stunts, which created pre-visualized fight and stunt choreography as pitches to get work on studio movies.
This method is reminiscent of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, but rarely seen outside of Asia. It got them gigs directing second unit on The Hunger Games and the opportunity to direct their first feature. Working from a script by Derek Kolstad (One In The Chamber, The Package – both starring Dolph Lundgren, both straight to DVD), John Wick starred Keanu Reeves in his first hit since The Matrix, a film in which Stahelski was Neo’s stunt double.
Its combination of dry wit, Refn-like neon-noir visuals and action not seen since the heroic bloodshed features of John Woo and Ringo Lam breathed fresh air into a genre which had been left in a mire of shoddy, shaky-cam Paul Greengrass wannabes. It’s like getting into bed with your partner and they distract you by putting the football on TV and 90 minutes later you realise you didn’t see any action. Then John Wick comes along and, as happily confessed by its directors, features 104 mins of ‘gunfight and car porn’.
This brings us to John Wick: Chapter 2 which, as the grandiose title suggests, expands the scope and reveals the grand world of assassins only hinted at in Chapter 1. Reeves’ Wick (his seventh time playing a John in films, fact fans) is dragged back into contracted killing by the very debt he used to escape in the first place. This road leads him to Rome and another branch of The Continental, a hotel-cum-safe house for hitpeople with its own set of rules (for example: no killing on hotel grounds…see how long that lasts) and even its own currency. It all adds to a vibrant atmosphere as a backdrop for more jaw-dropping, and jaw-stabbing, action.
This time around Wicks’ foes include action sequel go to gal Ruby Rose (xXx 3 and Resident Evil 6 just this year) as a mute assassin communicating through a sinister form of signing and rapper turned actor Common as John’s equal, who both end up taking sneaky pot shots at each other in a crowded airport like a pair of naughty school kids not wanting to get caught.
John Wick: Chapter 2 could quiet easily have been a do-over of the first with added explosions and unwanted CG. It works because, like The Raid 2, it takes what made the first one magic (physical, violent and visible action) and extends the canvas.
And - spoiler warning - the dog survives. Well, they needed some way to start Chapter 3. A box of kittens might be too much to take.