The aerial shot of the New York City-scape that opens Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2 features the brief but unmistakable image of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr projected aside a skyscraper. Stahelski, a stuntman-turned-director, pays tribute to the messiah of cinematic physicality, submitting a fever dream of violent giddiness that’s heart-delaying in its beauty. The lineage of reference here is not one ingrained in modern action filmmaking but rather, much like Mad Max: Fury Road and the debt it pays to films like Battleship Potemkin and The Phantom Carriage, rooted in the silent comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd; filmmakers that expressed their anxieties and wrath through the physical. The architecture of John Wick: Chapter 2 recognizes the foundation that the three silent comics, particularly Keaton, have on contemporary action filmmaking, and as such, Stahelski crafts something that’s all at once modern and timeless.
The opening action sequence sees John Wick (Keanu Reeves) pick up where he left off, Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad concluding the prior film’s quest for vengeance at a NYC cab warehouse. But the endgame is peace and after a remarkable sequence that sees Wick dispatch numerous faceless thugs with the electric choreography we’ve come to expect from the character, he returns to his life of solitude with his new dog. But his retirement is short-lived, as he’s immediately recruited by an Italian mobster named Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) to fulfill the obligations of a blood oath. The worse your past, the worse your present will be, as Wick’s circular allegiance to violence proves inescapable.
And so, Wick quickly resumes his life of violence, departing to Rome to kill Santino’s sister. The ins-and-outs of Santino’s ambitions are best left unexplained, in part because they’re not nearly as interesting as watching the machinations of John Wick’s world come to play. What made the first film so intriguing was the world in which John Wick inhabited, where the Continental Hotel served as a hub for assassins; to see their coda and economy in practice. Chapter 2 explores with greater depths the global infrastructure in place, where the Continental possesses numerous hubs throughout the world, all entwined yet independent. Among the unique features of the Rome Continental is an in-house firearm sommelier, played with élan by Peter Serafinowicz. Elsewhere, we’re also afforded a look into the global Accounts Payable department that serves as a key narrative touchtone of Chapter 2. This A/P is a particularly compelling cinematic entity, one where uniformed, tattooed women will broadcast information on a new bounty to every assassin with a cell phone. And it’s following a bounty placed by Santino that Wick becomes the object of a global manhunt by the world he keeps trying to escape.
Not to get caught up in the narrative intricacies of the picture, but they’re ultimately cursory to what’s a more visceral exercise in vengeance enacted. It’s unavoidable: the primal qualities of John Wick escape your traditional modes of criticism. This is guttural, direct, and proficient action filmmaking that resists serious critical contemplation. I can suggest that the film offers some profound statement on the complexities of agency and belabor some point on the picture’s Hawksian-like virtues of doing Good Work. But that really doesn’t get at what makes John Wick Chapter 2 so compelling. The film is simply a series of well-executed action scenes that convey a spatial competence, led by a stoic character whose chief characteristic is his capacity to give baddies the greenlight to die. That is, as far as I’m concerned, enough.