Three years after “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski are back with “John Wick: Chapter 2,” a stylish follow-up to the 2014 hit. Picking up just days after “John Wick” leaves off, “Chapter 2” wastes no time, immediately plunging into a dynamic car chase sequence that sets a high bar for the rest of the film. Still grappling with his wife’s death, John Wick (Reeves) is dragged back into the cold, sophisticated world of international assassins’ guild, the Continental. When a former acquaintance shows up to collect on a past favor, John is forced to travel to Rome to engage with the brutal Camorra crime syndicate, and is reminded that, even among assassins, certain rules can’t be broken.
“Chapter 2” answers lingering questions and builds on the original film’s modern noir style. Director Chad Stahelski is an art aficionado who just happens to make his career in action film, and it shows. He has an incredible eye for detail that is reflected in nearly every aspect of production, from the sleek costuming and grandiose locations, to the liquor bottles on the bar at the Il Continentale. Shot composition, along with the striking color palette, was inspired by Baroque master Caravaggio. “I’m a big fan,” Stahelski says. “The [centerpiece sequences] are based almost solely off his paintings. […]That’s, art-wise, just what I consider pretty. I like colors. I like deep black—black where you can see things happening—not just two-dimensional black. That’s, again, Caravaggio.”
In a film crammed with intense action and rich visuals, Stahelski wisely keeps the narrative lean. As in the original, screenwriter Derek Kolstad prefers a streamlined plot and sparse dialogue (and if you’re going to throw in a few lines that are a little too over-the-top, it’s smart to leave them to Laurence Fishburne, who plays the enigmatic Bowery King). Too many action flicks falter in the third act, when filmmakers scramble to find a plausible conclusion in the midst of gratuitous special effects. Stahelski and Kolstad, however, earn big points for respecting story structure. As wild as John’s world is, we can still buy in, because the rules are established early in the game and the filmmakers never deviate.
And lest you think this is a mere lesson in style and structure, have no fear; the action in “Chapter 2” is top-notch. Notably absent: explsions. Stahelski, who began his career as a stuntman (he met Reeves when he was his double in “The Matrix”), relies on his expertise as a fight coordinator to create unique and thrilling sequences, including a killer (literally) game of flashlight tag through the Roman catacombs and a dizzying showdown in a hall of mirrors, for which the editor and cinematographer deserve a huge credit.
“Chapter 2” is missing one other thing: girls in bikinis. The women of John Wick’s universe are distinct, motivated, and frequently terrifying. Ruby Rose is glamorous and engaging as mute assassin Ares, but Italian actress Claudia Gerini is truly compelling. Playing the leader of the Camorra criminal organization, Gerini steals the spotlight in the film’s most darkly memorable scene. As a female action fan, I’ve been consistently disappointed with how my favorite genre tends to treat women as props and plot devices. If you feel the same way, remember director Chad Stahelski, because the man has a plan. “My biggest desire in film right now is to do a female action movie. We’re just trying to find the property for it. We’re talking to several great writers right now about that, but if we’re lucky enough to do John Wick 3, I think you may see more of that.” Yes, please.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” opens nationwide on February 10th. With enough tension for the action junkie and enough style for the art snob, it just might be the perfect date movie. Happy Valentine’s Day.