One of the (sub)taglines on the various poster art for the sequel to John Wick is "John Wick Reloaded" - which I thought was a bold move, and very much tempting fate. And so it has proved; the highly anticipated follow up to the brilliant first film is John Wick's answer to The Matrix Reloaded. It's bigger, has a more expansive plot line - in narrative and geography - and wall to wall with action; but it's highly debatable on whether it improves or even matches upon the original. Both The Matrix and John Wick caught audiences by surprised with how good the films were, both reinvigorating their respective genres, and also the career of its leading man. Both films performed beyond expectation, financially and critically, and to say anticipation for the sequels were high is a small understatement. However, there are several reasons why the original John Wick worked so well, and why John Wick: Chapter Two fails to expand upon it.
When John Wick came along, it was a shot in the arm for the action film genre. There had been a studio trend in recent years to tone down the violence - with one or two exceptions such as Liam Neeson's Taken, and the last Rambo movie, but that was more to do with lack of studio interference - to get a PG-13 rating rather than an R (or 15/18 certificate in the UK) to achieve extra theatrical ticket sales. Here was a return to a proper R rated actioner (albeit with mostly CGI bloodletting). It had also been a while since we had a proper "badass on a rampage", one man on a mission style movies (again, the original Taken excepted) which were the preserve of the 80s/90s and Schwarzenegger/Stallone in their pomp. John Wick delivered not only this but a lot more. Factor in the "dont'cha know who John Wick is?" comic book-esque universe mythology, the intriguing and enigmatic underworld code of conduct that must be strictly adhered, and the scintillating "gun fu" action choreography, and it was an almost perfect package for action film aficionados. Another reason why the first John Wick struck a chord with viewers is that it had genuine heart - how much emotional manipulation plays a part is another thing entirely - and Keanu's acting was pretty decent for a change. Even though the character is more of an anti-hero, you were able to root for him (in a similar way to Mel Gibson's Porter in Payback). The film's success put experienced stunt choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (who both worked with Reeves on The Matrix trilogy) on the map.
So, what has gone wrong with John Wick: Chapter Two? Before discussing that, lets firstly focus on the positives. As already mentioned, one of the more interesting aspects of John Wick part one were the strict Underworld rules that must not be broken no matter what the circumstances. The significance of honour is the running theme throughout both films. This has been expanded upon in chapter two onto the international arena, and encompassing blood oaths, and the serious consequences of not upholding the rules ("excommunicado" as the eloquent Ian McShane's Continental Hotel owner, Winston, puts it). Speaking of the latter, McShane's role is extended for the sequel, and all the better for it. The veteran actor (and former Lovejoy) adds a touch of class to the film. The return of Lance Reddick's quirky Hotel manager is also welcome, as is the addition of the original Django, Franco Nero, as McShane's counterpart of The Hotel Continental Italia. One of the best parts of Chapter Two is the Bondian sequence where Wick selects his weapons and attire of choice for his mission - it's one of those smile inducing moments that are an absolute pleasure to come by, and the only time that the sequel feels particularly inspired.
Unfortunately, there is much that is not quite so right with John Wick: Chapter Two. Maybe it's losing co-director/choreographer David Leitch - who has a couple of upcoming hot tickets in the Charlize Theron headlining Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 - but the action sequences in Chapter Two are well below par - an endless barrage of rinse and repeat ad infinitum. Maybe its the inevitable curse of a sequel, and possibly the action was of such a high standard in the original that it was difficult to emulate, but the choreography in this follow up seems like an inferior, tired and uninspired, retread of the sequences from John Wick. Even the finale's "Reflection of the Soul" sequence feels like a blatant plagiarism (rather than homage) of Enter The Dragon's closing set piece. Despite the scope for plausibility stretching in its premise, the original John Wick managed to stay within the boundaries of the off kilter universe of which the film is set. Chapter Two demolishes those boundaries by almost literally turning it into a video game scenario, e.g. the sequence where every assassin in the city is activated to seek and destroy Wick. It's no longer believable how one man can survive having endured so much punishment no matter how skilled, or what knife/bulletproof vest he is wearing.
Whereas Michael Nyqvist (exasperated and eccentric) and Alfie Allen's (obnoxious and despicable) father and son Russian mafia combo in the first movie made for an effective (if not the most formidable) pair of antagonists, Wick's nemeses in Chapter Two fail to make much of an impression at all. Riccardo Scarmarcio's Italian mafioso, Santino D'Antonio feels like a college undergraduate who convinced daddy to let him play gangster. He's as menacing as an undercooked lasagne. Give me any of the guys from Goodfellas any day. Ruby Rose lacks conviction as a sort of female version of Wick - much like Adrianne Palicki failed to register in part one (these guys are no good at writing parts for women!) - and its only Common's Cassian who is able to provide any notable trouble for our protagonist. Laurence Fishburne makes a fun - if ultimately as indulgent as the appearance of The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded - cameo as a "king of beggars" style character that adds to the ridiculousness of the sequel. As for the star himself, Reeves is fully committed as ever. He's obviously put a lot into the action sequences, even if they fall rather short of what was anticipated. However, his acting also seems to have gone backwards along with the set pieces. Whereas I praised his performance in the original, Keanu's wooden and stilted delivery in chapter two stands out like a rusty old six shooter, especially against the Walter PPK class of Ian McShane.
So, John Wick: Chapter Three? Its difficult to see what they can do with a three-quel that will be fresh since it appears all decent ideas have already been exhausted if chapter two is anything to go by. Maybe Stahelski can get Leitch back on board, although it looks unlikely, especially if Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 are a big success. Maybe there will be loads of gunfights in the rain? How about an extended rave scene whilst a huge network of assassins close in?