Keanu Reeves is American cinema’s greatest action star.
Wait, what about — nope. It’s Keanu.
Over thirty years in showbusiness, dozens of revered films to his credit, an inarguable pop culture icon with chameleon-like genre versatility, and it took until 2014’s majestic, breathtaking sleeper hit John Wick for the man to finally start receiving, in slow drips, the cultural appreciation he deserves. He’s a solid box office draw with an adoring fanbase, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard the “Keanu Reeves is the worst actor ever and only says Whoa” adage, I’d be Scrooge McDuck levels of rich. And it’s not true.
Remove the stunning fight scenes and fascinating worldbuilding from Wick (impossible as that sounds), and so much of its success resides on Reeves’s deliciously broad shoulders. The crumbling planes of his face evoke more grief than a spoken soliloquy. The martial arts skill honed into effortless presentation, a pristine-suited harbinger of death both terrifying and electric in equal measure. Infinitesimal switches in posture simultaneously convey a fury deadly as several hundred bullets and the chasm-deep devastation of a lost, broken man. The character, the actor, overflows with feeling, in polar opposite to the stoic and emotionless archetype — his brokenhearted rage informs every decision. Those prolonged stares aren’t cold, they’re vengeful Old Testament fire. And he bleeds. You feel the pounds of flesh taken; no macho Terminator bullshit here. Wick is a man — a humanized grim reaper antihero, but a man all the same, one we cheer for even as he leaves a massacre in his unshaven wake. (I mean, if someone killed my cat…just sayin’.) That’s all due to Reeves, in a role acknowledging and — if I may be so bold — weaponizing his talent for quiet, layered intensity and understated lethality.
John Wick: Chapter 2 does everything a sequel should. Bigger, louder, and somehow even better, it subtly unveils new layers to Wick’s character, expands its unique mythology with stunningly believable authenticity, and enhances its predecessor’s esteemed action through elaborate scenes of visceral beauty. It operates on the same level as Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part 2: realizing its formula, preserving, and elevating, while also ensuring the franchise’s place among the genre greats it idolizes.
We open with our lead character once more trying to settle down in his beautiful house with his beautiful dog, and, naturally, getting pulled back into the assassin world. Surprise! But under the competent guidance of returning director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad, Wick’s second failed go at retirement is a logical extension of the impressive universe they’ve created rather than a tired excuse to get him shooting again. He’s unwilling, but past deeds force his hand, and there’s no positive to his death quest this time. It’s cruel and needless, and backs him into a constant labyrinth of corners where the only option is to fight for his life. Wick is on the defensive rather than the offensive, a thrilling reversal in this off-kilter New York where hitmen are literally on every street corner. The lore of the assassin guild evolves into a fully-fleshed environment rather than a running gag backdrop, and a needfully diverse one at that; Common and Laurence Fishburne turn in stunning performances, and Ruby Rose’s prowling bodyguard uses sign language.
Likewise bolstered is the proliferation of humor. The first film’s tongue-in-cheek self-awareness made it charming, and Stahelski and Kolstad up the laughs to outrageous limits without resorting to slapstick or sacrificing their ideal brand of nihilistic tension.
If the first John Wick prioritized righteous revenge, Chapter 2 meditates on free will and the true cost of death — and the cost of survival.
And then there’s the action.
What caused Wick’s instant assimilation into cinema iconography was its expert re-popularization of gun fu. As former stuntmen, Stahelski and co-director David Leitch (who, delightfully, met Reeves on The Matrix set) know the style like the back of their hands and wear their love for its primary originator, director John Woo, on their sleeves. Highlighting the intense close-quarters choreography of both films with long, wide takes and concise, deliberate cuts feels revolutionary in a multiplex that relies on frantic editing as a crutch. We’re not barraged by a flurry of disorienting images meant to convey faux-energy and clumsily disguise stunt doubles. The skill is displayed without frills, the frenzied energy derived from witnessing. Reeves is fifty-two years old and contorting himself like a rag doll. It’s so damn refreshing, so utterly enthralling; each brawl evokes heart-stopping gasps. These are American Heroic Bloodshed films through and through, and honor their groundbreaking inspirations without copying to the point of hollow mimicry.
If you loved the first John Wick, you’ll love its successor. Saying so kinda makes this piece redundant, but I’m getting on the internet equivalent of a bullhorn to joyfully yell about it anyway. It may not be the deepest philosophical venture, but it makes no bones about what it is. If you need two non-stop hours of pure escapist fun, it’s a cathartic balm to the soul.