Why didn’t we get a sequel to 2008’s “Wanted?” The project has been knocking around for a while, but it has yet to materialize. And as we learn more about the expanded “John Wick” universe, I’m reminded of “Wanted,” which I haven’t seen in years, but remember favorably. The mysterious even glamorous life of an international assassin never seems to get cinematically old.
Who would have thought that the smallish actioner “John Wick” would have become such a hit? Starring the wooden by strangely radiant Keanu Reeves, the original story was largely a one note revenge tale. Wick’s wife passes away and leaves him a puppy. Some bad Russians kill the poor dog and steal his prized 1969 Mustang Mach1 Coupe. Naturally, things get bloody violent pronto.
What worked about the original film was its utter simplicity. Sure, the larger assassin world was hinted at mainly through the use of Ian McShane’s father-like character named Winston. But at its core, 2014’s “John Wick” was about kick ass and a high body count.
Well, continuing that success, “John Wick: Chapter 2” builds on the mysterious assassin mythology while also delivering copious amounts of comically violent bloodletting. John Wick’s world is dangerous and not one you’d really even want to visit, but it sure is fun to observe from the relative safety of a darkened theater.
In this outing, Wick is visited by a former acquaintance named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Wick owes D’Antonio a marker. And that marker must be paid, or Wick may find himself no longer in the land of the living. We learn that he gave the marker to D’Antonio in order to “get out” of the hitman business. But ironically, or, perhaps, idiotically, it is that marker that will ultimately bring him back into the violent business of killing people.
“Chapter 2” does not have a narrative that will stand up to much scrutiny. There are holes to be found throughout. But like the first film, the rugged hand-to-hand combat and gritty action more than covers any incongruities. And in these times, when men in tights dominate the box office, Wick’s style of action seems not only plausible but even slightly unique. This guy bleeds, and stumbles around, but keeps on killing.
And the filmmakers aren’t beneath a good old fashioned homage to cement their throwback roots. In one well-executed scene, Wick navigates a hall of mirrors reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s final battle in “Enter the Dragon.” This is clearly intentional, and in “Wick,” it works.
At another point in the film, we get an appearance by Laurence Fishburne, playing a character that is not entirely unlike that of Morpheus in the “Matrix” films. Veiled references to that famous (or infamous) series of films inevitably find a place in the sometimes awkward “Chapter 2” dialogue. This playfulness works, adding some levity to the overly heavy and sometimes too self-important and really silly larger narrative.
To be sure, Reeves is excellent in the role of the stoic killer John Wick. This character, no doubt written for him, fits his skill set remarkably. And with “Chapter 2” and the expansion of the pulpy mythology, a true franchise is born. Hopefully, it will continue to expand but won’t forget that its the action that drives the films forward. Meanwhile, “Wanted 2” is likely to get another look.