Best case scenario, I figured, was that John Wick: Chapter 2, would be in pretty much every way just as good as 2014's John Wick - the best American action movie of the last decade and a half or more* - only without the jolt of novelty & thus not as enjoyable. Fairy tale, cloud cuckoo land idiot optimistic case scenario was that John Wick: Chapter 2 would in fact be better than John Wick.

So anyway, John Wick: Chapter 2 is better than John Wick.

This will be, I am sure, not necessarily the majority opinion, because in at least one hugely respect, the first film is still on top: it's a decisively better action movie, with more elegantly fluid gun-fu choreography. There's not one single, solitary action setpiece in Chapter 2 that I disliked - there's not really one setpiece that I'm terribly inclined to find even minor fault with - but there's also nothing here that matches the heights of the icy-blue bath house scene in the first film. The flipside is that the bath house scene is conspicuously the best part of John Wick, with absolutely nothing around it that can compete, while just about the entirety of Chapter 2 is operating at a level just a shade below that. Quantity, not quality, you understand.

Chapter 2 is a hell of a stylish movie. So is the first one, of course, but it's all in the style being evoked. John Wick is a fairly transparent attempt to do a '90s Hong Kong action movie in 2010s America, frequently with glosses of cool digital cinematography. Chapter 2 keeps the glossiness, and replaces Hong Kong with... I haven't decided, quite. It's continental as all hell, and not only because the Continental is the name of two of the film's most significant plot points. Or because a lengthy sequence takes place in the prettiest version of Rome to show up in any American-made movie basically in all of the history movies set in Rome. There's a certain kind of glamorousness to it that speaks of haughty '60s Jet Set art cinema - something distinctly Italianate, like all melange of all that country's many great cinematic stylists into one package that for whatever reason decided to contain a floridly choreographed action movie (genuine question: is there even one good Italian action movie? As many wonderful cop thrillers, horror movies, and Westerns as the country has produced over the last half-century, I have to imagine there must be, but I sure can't name it). It's beautiful, obsessed with surfaces, and drenched in blood, and the results couldn't be more striking: it's like Paolo Sorrentino trying his hand at Grand Guignol, or maybe Mario Bava making a perfume ad.

This may sound like so much stylish fluff and nonsense. It's not. Okay, it 100% is, but that is absolutely okay: in all my years of loving style-over-substance movies, I've never been more certain that it was okay than I am right now. The thing about John Wick: Chapter 2, and it's maybe the strangest facet of a movie that is, when you start to crack it up, strange in almost every possible detail, is that it is obsessed with equating fine art and violence. I think this is most clear (at any rate, it's where I switched from "is the movie doing this, or am I just reaching?" to "hell yeah, the movie is doing this") late in the film, when the action enters the New York subway system, and there's a poster for some modern art show at some modern art museum. I didn't catch enough of the details to know if any of it's real or not. It doesn't matter. What matters is the design of the poster: a plume of red billowing out into white. Whatever it's meant to be, you simply cannot look at it any not think "they're doing a gallery show about geysers of blood", certainly not in the context of such a violent sequence in such a violent movie. And that's the tell, I think: violence can be beautiful, art can be violent, and when you reduce everything to the basic ingredients of movement, shape, and color, it's all basically the same stuff, whether it's in a gallery or a multiplex. The makers of Chapter 2, including director Chad Stahelski, cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, and a whole lot of FX artists and lighting crew members, are in some capacity throughout almost the whole film inviting us to think of purely visual qualities of their film, and even when it's doing other things, as it nearly always is, that sense of compositional beauty and color design for the unmitigated joy of color design hangs on every frame. I imagine a sufficiently dedicated viewer could tease some kind of them from all of this, particularly when it arrives at the art installation hall of mirrors, and turns into the most "fuck you, I'm just going to show off" fight sequence in an action movie since The Raid 2. You can't put a movie in a hall of mirrors and have it not do anything thematic

(The Raid 2, incidentally, is just about the most perfect analogue to John Wick: Chapter 2 that I can think of. The Raid and John Wick are both mercilessly sleek machines designed to do exactly one thing with the bare minimum of fussy plot or anything. Both of their sequels are elaborate messes, drunk on the operatic grandeur of their expansive plots, both besotted with seeing how far out they can drag style before the whole film just collapses - which turns out to be quite far. I happen to prefer The Raid to The Raid 2, and John Wick: Chapter 2 to John Wick, but that's almost entirely incidental).

The film is almost nonstop rich imagery, using dramatic lighting in everything from a suburban basement to the catacombs under Rome, turning the New York subway into a viscerally beautiful space of white patches interrupted by human figures dancing in a brutal ballet of visceral death (the subway sequence is, comfortably even, my favorite part of the movie), and snatching visual influence from whatever crosses its mind. A mid-'00s rave here, some Hong Kong action here because why not, it is still a John Wick picture, and then over there, an immaculately-framed death in a stunning terrazzo bath that could not possibly be any more giallo.

There is, of course a plot in here somewhere. I'm not sure it matters - it absolutely didn't matter in John Wick, for which the logline "man avenges his dead dog" communicates absolutely everything that matters. Keanu Reeves is still John Wick, and Stahelski once again uses the actor's eerily perfect, flatly inexpressive features better than anybody since at least the Wachowskis in The Matrix. This time, the subdued but effective consideration of the grieving process that drove the first film is missing, to be replaced by not very much: a bog-standard "just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in" thing, with a dash of "the flagrantly untrustworthy criminal turns out to be, lo and behold, a liar" bait-and-switch to kick off the film's second half.

What Chapter Two has instead of that is an overripe doubling down on all of the strange world-building of the first movie: the hotel for assassins, run on a system of gold coins; John Wick's own shadowy backstory (he killed a man with a pencil. With a fucking pencil). To this is now added a second hotel for assassins, with the promise that it's in fact an international chain, a High Council of assassins, an elaborate Swiss bank-style system using stately, outdated technology to beam cell phone messages to the assassins of the world, and an unapologetically straightforward use of the old King of the Beggars routine (the actor playing said king is one of Chapter Two's pleasantest surprises). It is quite contrived in every way possible, so contrived that it doesn't even register anymore. John Wick, ultimately, felt like it took place in the seedy urban underworld of our own actual world. Chapter Two simply doesn't. It feels like a fable or a myth, with motivations and characters hastily and boldly dashed out in thick strokes, and the chronology moving according to the rushing, everything-all-at-once rules of a Grimm folk tale. Certainly not for all tastes, and if I had to defend myself in a court of law why I though this was "good", let alone "great", let alone "extremely fucking great", I simply don't know that I could do it. It's all about the vibe, I think: the movie is an intoxicating rush of images and complex movement, of worlds beyond and worlds within and worlds that frankly don't make any sense, except that Ian McShane is the coolest man alive in those worlds, just like he is in ours. It is stunningly good at action, and even better at intricate play with color, line, and shape, and when you put those things together, you have some spectacle of the very first order.

Reviews in this series
John Wick (Stahelski and Leitch, 2014)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Stahelski, 2017)
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (Stahelski, 2019)

*American money or not, Mad Max: Fury Road is Australian to its bones.