WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.
Four days have passed since the famed, widely feared assassin John Wick took revenge on a young criminal named Iosef Tarasov and his father, Viggo. The hitman has unfinished business with Viggo’s next of kin, for his prized 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 remains in the possession of the crime lord’s brother, Abram. John carves a bloody swath through Abram’s henchman, though he spares him when he is allowed to leave with the vehicle in peace. With his task at last complete, he cements his weapons into the ground once more. However, he is about to learn that retirement is not in his future.
Naturally, John Wick: Chapter 2 would be a distressingly dull experience if its title character were allowed to retire in peace. Though he may have moved on from his past, his past isn’t ready to move on from him. After chop shop owner Aurelio takes John’s Mustang for repairs, the legendary hitman is then visited by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio. The previous installment made a reference to an impossible task that John had to complete in order to remove himself from Viggo’s employ. To see this task through, John asked Santino for help, making a blood pact using a special medallion called a Marker with each other. Santino is now pulling in the favor. John refuses to honor the contract, prompting an enraged Santino to destroy John’s house with a grenade launcher. When the house is reduced to dust, not even his photographs of his late wife, Helen, remain. With nothing from the peaceful life he wanted to live remaining, John finds he has no choice but to fulfill the contract.
The original John Wick was a triumph in minimalism. People from John’s past would appear throughout the film, and the narrative placed the onus on the audience to infer backstory details from there. John Wick: Chapter 2 continues this trend, crafting another narrative places a clear emphasis on showing rather than telling. However, as a direct continuation, it has a bit of an advantage over its predecessor in that regard. It has been firmly established that situated in New York City’s underbelly is an underground league of assassins. When one assassin decided she was above the rules, Winston, the owner of the Continental Hotel put a swift, permanent end to those delusions. However, as it turns out, a Marker contract must be fulfilled, being one of the two unbreakable rules along with the one that prevents bloodshed from occurring on the neutral Continental grounds. Because of this, John is left with no choice but to honor the contract.
Santino’s sister, Gianna, has a seat on the league’s High Table, giving her a lot of clout among the powerful crime lords. Realizing the seat will fall under his possession in the event of her death, Santino orders John to travel to Rome and assassinate her. To ensure he fulfills his task, Santino sends his mute bodyguard, Ares, to watch over John. Gianna, knowing full well that John Wick coming after her is akin to contracting a terminal illness, commits suicide right before his very eyes. Unfortunately, he soon finds himself with a new problem on his hands. In an attempt to tie up the loose ends, Santino opens up a $7 million contract on John’s head, claiming he wants vengeance for his sister’s death.
This development brings to mind classic yakuza films such as Tokyo Drifter or Branded to Kill. The director of both films, Seijun Suzuki, made it a point that the yakuza talked a big game when it came to extoling the values of honor and loyalty only to gleefully ditch both the exact second they became even a minor inconvenience. Similarly, the assassins in John Wick’s world claim to uphold a strict code, believing it’s the only thing that separates them from the unorganized barbarians, yet it allows opportunistic manipulators such as Santino to abuse the system. He abides by the code not out of any genuine honor, but rather to serve his selfish interests.
Although one could reasonably infer from the original film that this league of assassins is a secret society, John Wick: Chapter 2 demonstrates they are anything but hidden. Before the end of this film, you will see assassins shooting at each other in crowded streets and not a single person lifts a finger to stop the carnage. What I feel John Wick: Chapter 2 does with this development is craft a world heavily influenced by the fantasy genre and modernizes it. This is a world in which fights can break out at any moment and people go on world-spanning journeys for the sake of honoring their kings and queens.
Because of this, while the original John Wick was an exemplary revenge film, its sequel is more of a suspense feature. With the assassins coming in all shapes and sizes and the populace’s general indolence towards these prolonged gunfights, it feels as though any random background character can jump in the fray at any moment. Only John’s superb instincts protect him from meeting an early demise. The sequel remains true to the original’s strengths, having no shortage of stellar action sequences. However, because of this subtle change, the impetus for these choreographed fight scenes is a lot different. You still get the feeling that John Wick is nigh-invincible in battle, yet there is more of a reason to fear for his life this time around. While Viggo’s associates simply weren’t in John’s league, the legendary hitman now has to constantly fight against his well-trained peers.
Despite his elaborate planning, Santino demonstrates a shocking lack of common sense when he decides to burn down John Wick’s house. Even if John needed his help to pull off the impossible task, his reputation within the league of assassins speaks for itself by this point. Like Iosef before him, he was clearly blinded by his extreme arrogance; it is of little wonder that his sister won a seat at the High Table over him. However, Santino proves to be a little smarter than Iosef because the when John kills all of his assassins, the crime lord retreats to the Continental. He intends to remain there indefinitely where he will be protected from harm. Santino’s stay ends up being significantly shorter than he would have wanted, for John kills him right there and then.
Although John exacted his revenge, Winston informs him that his rash action violates their most sacred rule. In response, the High Table has doubled the bounty on John’s head, extending it to every assassin in the world. Winston then excommunicates John from the Continental, denying him use of any of their services. However, as it turns out, Winston too had a Marker, which he discreetly hands to John. After he does so, Winston makes the decision to delay John’s excommunication for one hour, though he knows full well that anyone he sends after him will die. The hitman leaves the hotel, hearing the sounds of several cellphones ringing in unison.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is everything you could ever want out of a sequel. Chad Stahelski took the little context established in the first film and built upon it, finding new, clever ways to impress and raise the stakes. On the surface, it’s easy to get the impression that John Wick: Chapter 2 is more of the same. In reality, it uses the aspects that made the original so memorable and recontextualizes them, adding suspense elements to the proceedings. In fact, I could even see a few James Bond affectations within the narrative – particularly in how John’s journey spans the world this time around. Because of these reasons and more, I can easily recommend this film – especially if you enjoyed the original.
Final Score: 7/10