The first John Wick movie was a neo-noir revenge movie made in 2014 from a script written in 2012 by Derek Kolstald, a writer who had been trying to break in for many years and finally did so. Thunder Road pictures emerged as the buyer and very quickly Keanu Reeves was attached to star. Not surprisingly, Reeves was able to suggest and have hired people that he had worked on in the past as far back as The Matrix movies. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch shared director work on the film although Guild rules only allowed Stahelski to be listed as helmer with Leitch as producer.
It was this core of people that honed the script to suit Reeves. The character remained widowed but younger than the original story and the action was ramped up. Four months of intensive training in judo and jujitsu as well as close quarters combat was added to Reeve’s extensive knowledge of martial arts. For the star, it was a return to form after some less well received films of the previous year of two like 47 Ronin.
The plot of John Wick is that he is retired assassin who only left the business when he found a woman that made him want to leave. His wife’s untimely death due to illness and the cruel violence against him and the puppy he received from her to love following her death sets him back on a path of revenge. The only clue to his attackers is the muscle car they stole from him and the motivation behind their surprise assault in his home. By finding the car, he can find them and do what he does best.
The return to the criminal underworld sees him re-connect with old friends, acquaintances and enemies. Eventually, Wick discovers it is the son of former crime lord he worked for who was responsible for the attack in his house. The inevitable conclusion to this is a mix of western along with Hong Kong cinema and noir. A violent pastiche that serves Keanu Reeves well.
The catchphrase “I’m thinking I’m back” suggested a future for the John Wick franchise and the box office success of the first film guaranteed it. The plot for the new movie has the antihero once again coming out of retirement to fulfill a blood oath sworn to an associate intending on taking over the assassin’s guild. The setting is Rome where deadly killers take on Wick at every turn.
So how is John Wick 2 compared to the first movie? In short: Fantastic. Easily better than the first in many ways which is saying a lot cause the first movie was very entertaining. It is action packed and world building. The brief glimpse of the world that Jonathan Wick occupies is opened up. The guild of assassins that call the Continental Hotel a sanctuary live by code and contract and are overseen by twelve called The High Table. When Wick returns to avenge the death of his dog in the first movie, he opens himself up to assassin Santino (Richard Scamarcio) asking him to honour a Marker for past services that led to his freedom in the first place.
The chance to return to retirement is denied and when he refuses the Marker, his house is blown up and burned down. Thankfully his new nameless dog survives and the two head to the sanctuary of the Continental where Winston (Ian McShane) says that his life will forfeit if he doesn’t honour the blood oath to Santino. Grudgingly, he hears what Santino wants done to fulfill the Marker. It is then that he learns he has been asked to kill sister Giana Camorra (Claudia Gerini) of the High Table in the ultimate gambit of sibling rivalry.
As per actor Keanu Reeves wishes to take story international, the setting moves from New York to Rome where Giana head of the Camorra crime family is celebrating about taking a seat at the High Table. She is protected by Cassian (Common) along with a host of other trained killers. Suffice to say, John Wick is able to fulfill is oath but not quite in the way that he or the audience anticipated.
After accomplishing his task, Wick is double crossed by Santini who sets his top assassin Ares (Ruby Rose) after him. A price is set by Santini who unleashed every killer out there looking to cash in. Actors Common and Ruby Rose play their parts well. Rose as a deaf tattooed and androgynous is a particularly compelling villain.
The world building that takes place is almost like a Bond-like attention to tradecraft. In this case: the world of the assassin. At the Continental and its associated businesses, we see Wick pick his clothes, his weapons and his vehicles like fine wines. His character will converse in Russian, Italian or sign language according to he is associating with. He may be a reluctant returnee to the game but he does so with style. And the characters he meets are juicy parts for the actors and actresses playing the roles.
One inspired casting choice went to Lawrence Fisbburne as the Bowery King. It brought Reeves and Fishburne back together again after their Matrix days. Upon returning to New York, Wick is left with no options other than to turn to the crime lord of the streets to place close to Santini to end the life of the man who has placed a bounty on his head.
The rest of the movie rolls along with explosive action, a touch of humour and a few surprises including the mannequin challenge at one point. The choreography is as good as you will see in any fight scene and the gun play and car chases are exhilarating. What makes it work though is that Keanu Reeves at last once more has a role that could and should be as fun for him as it will be for the audience. Without doubt this movie is better than the first and because of that, it won’t be the last.
This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations