Dear Every Other Action Franchise in Hollywood - look at John Wick: Chapter 2 and hang your heads in shame.
The first John Wick was a big kick in the pants back in 2014, finding its way into my heart as easily and quickly as the title character's bullets enter his enemy's brains. It was 101 minutes of immediate pathos, sumptuous world-building, economic-to-the-point-of-artistic character and narrative progression, and a WHOLE LOTTA SHOOTIN' STUFF. The second chapter gives you everything you could have ever wanted from a sequel, and then some stuff you never even thought to ask about for good measure.
Now, here's where I usually take a moment to defend action film as a valid artistic genre, beholden to the same rules of dramatic principle that govern other movies while making wholly unique use of the visual aspect of the medium to find alternate ways to convey character details and advance a story or establish/raise stakes. However, Mad Max: Fury Road got nominated for Best Fecking Picture last year, so I don't feel like I have to explain myself right now. Suffice it to say, there are genuine auteurs that have worked in action film over the years, and if John Wick: Chapter 2 is any indication, Chad Stahelski (a stuntman-turned-director who's been doubling for/working with Keanu Reeves since the star's Point Break days) is the heir apparent to the "heroic bloodshed" work that John Woo perfected in Hard Boiled.
Picking up where the original film left off, Chapter 2 finds John Wick trying to hang his guns back up after righting the wrongs done to both him and the final gift from his wife that set the whole mess in motion. However, dipping so much as a toe back into the world of guns-for-hire that he once walked away from has consequences, and a deal with the devil is called in that leaves John no choice but to accept an assignment with apocalyptic consequences - and that's before things get messy and crosses get doubled. The film opens up the world established in its predecessor in a big way, giving us a healthy dollop of information about the international assassins and those that run their tables both in the U.S. and around the world. It makes it very clear that, for all the spent casings, the beef in John Wick was a personal and quiet affair compared to the storm that's about to break. The stakes are much bigger here, the places John has to get in and out of much more impossible and the people targeting him for retribution both more numerous and much more capable. Which, of course, leads to WAY more head-shots.
If there's a real problem with the movie (and that's a big "if"), it's that it sprinkles in a bit too much this time around. Where I wouldn't cut a single second from Wick the 1st, I could see maybe trimming all of 2 minutes (and that's a big "maybe") from Chapter 2. But the movie manages the neat trick of packing more kick-ass action and entertaining turns and memorable characters into just barely over two hours than all three Expendables movies combined. It feels absolutely stuffed with fascinating vignettes and perfectly-shot (ha ha) set pieces that tie neatly into the over-arcing near-Olympian mythology that the two films' stories have built to this point, all of it wonderfully driven by Keanu Reeves' taciturn but undeniably expressive acting.
And it also starts to bring you into the darker corners of the head space of Wick himself.
There's a neat inversion here of John Wick's "rooting for the unstoppable killer" tone in that he's now a target of every other unstoppable killer that smells his blood in the water. And if the first film was an exercise in creating the ultimate catharsis through giving John the perfect reason to choose to pick up his guns again, here we have the ultimate exploration of the consequences which now force him to hold on to them against his will. It's not just that Reeves' sells the physicality of the gauntlet he's put through - though his skills there are damn-near peerless - but the spiritual toll on John Wick is every bit as evident. Every fight is one that he doesn't want, every bullet is taking a piece of his humanity with him, and as glorious as it is to watch it play out, the action is structured to make the audience feel the wear on Wick's body and soul, so that - by the time the last shot is fired - you dread the consequences as much as you hunger to see them.
For all that these films borrow bits and pieces from Hong Kong action films or Michael Mann thrillers, the resulting concoction is something quite unlike anything else in the genre, all while making just about every other film in the genre look bad for doing half as much with four times the budget. And I'll be more than happy to follow the harrowed hitman from Greek tragedy and his good dog through whatever neon hell their chase leads them to next.