A surprise hit in 2014, John Wick struck a chord with audiences who yearned to see Keanu Reeves return to full-blown action mode. Earning cult status for its hyper-kinetic take on classic martial arts and gunplay, the film’s global success presented the producers with an inevitable question: What to do for an encore? For Reeves, the answer was clear: more action, a bigger scope and a deeper dive into the title character’s internal struggle.
“In the second film,” says Reeves, “we wanted to expand the underworld, so we’ve introduced a new element. In the original we had the assassins guild known as The Continental, now we have added an association called the High Table, where all of the different organized crime groups from around the world have a seat.”
Producers took pains to stay away from an obvious regurgitation of the first movie’s premise.
“We didn’t want to do some generic thing and go back to the same emotional well,” says producer Basil Iwanyk. “At the same time, we needed to satisfy both male and female fans, as well as audience members who don’t usually watch action movies, by giving them all an emotional way into this movie without repeating ourselves.”
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 was written by Derek Kolstad, who burst on the scene with the original John Wick, his first produced spec screenplay. “When Keanu signed on to play John Wick, it was literally a dream come true,” says the Wisconsin native, who named the title character after his grandfather.
“That the film was such a success and we’ve now made a sequel is even more unbelievable.”
While developing the script filmmakers sought to broaden the scope while staying true to the original’s core concept. “There were lots of incarnations of bad guys and locations,” says producer Erica Lee. “This story feels bigger and badder than the first one, while still keeping it emotional. That’s important because Keanu is one of those rare actors whom both women and men love. For a hit man, the way Keanu plays him, John Wick generates enormous empathy and we wanted to make sure the journey in our sequel kept audiences rooting for him.”
In addition to Reeves’ welcome return to big-screen action, John Wick also fascinated moviegoers with its depiction of The Continental, a secret society of assassins dating back centuries and ruled by an unforgiving code. To further explore those rules in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, Kolstad introduced the concept of an irrevocable debt symbolized by a gold coin or “marker.” “John Wick gave the marker so he could get out of the life,” explains the screenwriter. “And now that he’s resurfaced, they have shown up to cash it in. But John Wick has changed.”
“We loved the idea of the marker because it enabled us to bring in a new bad guy and to further explore The Continental,” says Lee. “One huge reason John Wick resonated with audiences is that we showed this underbelly of the assassins’ world and the guys that work in it. The marker builds on that mythology, and since they’re tactile, these markers became something you could really grab on to cinematically.”
“The fact that John Wick is obligated to honour this past debt also shifts the film’s focus from the revenge-at-any-cost motif of the original to the notion that even in the underworld, actions have ramifications,” notes executive producer David Leitch. “In the original, John Wick lives in a world where there don’t seem to be any consequences for killing people. In the sequel, Wick’s violent past catches up with him. Confronted with the marker and his own impulsive decisions, the hit man pays dearly for his crimes.”
For director Chad Stahelski, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 represented an opportunity to delve deeper into Wick’s universe visually as well as geographically. He recruited Guillermo del Toro collaborator Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak) to serve as director of photography. “We went with a widescreen look and used anamorphic lenses because we wanted to push the limits of how much we could fill the frames. The production design and cinematography really bring John Wick’s world forward.”
The sequel’s epic visual style coincided with a deeper exploration of Wick’s character and the strict, self-imposed rules that govern his life. “If you look back at any of Akira Kurosawa’s early Samurai films or the cowboy westerns by Sergio Leone, the heroes in those movies each had a code,” Stahelski says. “One of the most appealing things about John Wick is that the man does have a code, whether he’s on the right side of the law or the wrong side.”
The director draws a parallel between the actor and his on-screen persona. “Keanu Reeves is very much like John Wick in the sense that he’s a man of precision and stick-to-itiveness,” Stahelski says. “On that level, Keanu has his own code, too.”
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is in UK cinemas from Friday, 17th February, 2017