Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane
Director: Chad Stahelski
Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's a playful moment around the halfway mark in John Wick: Chapter 2 in which the titular anti-hero (Keanu Reeves, oozing stilted charisma) is engaging in some brutal hand-to-hand combat with a high ranking bodyguard (Common) before falling through the glass door of an International Hotel for assassins. As in the first film, there are rules against violence inside such an establishment, and so the two combatants take a breather by having a drink at the bar. This interlude, in which the two battered and bruised men exchange clipped pleasantries through blood-clenched teeth, is an indication of the tone director Chad Stahelski (a former stunt coordinator who also helmed the first film) is going for. Essentially, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a comic book fantasy in which an indestructible superhero goes on a rampage within a universe formulated by tokens, markers, and fluorescent tube-lit art galleries. It's also breathtakingly made; barreling through a series of thrilling sequences staged and choreographed by people who what they're doing, only pausing occasionally so that Wick can brood over his dead wife, pet his dog, and have a glass of bourbon.
Things start off in earnest right where the original left off, with Wick infiltrating a Russian warehouse run by a mobster (Peter Stormare, muggingly wildly), whose in possession of our hero's stolen car. The opening action set-piece is a doozy; full of crashing vehicles, flailing bodies, and Keanu going full Neo with some skull-crushing/leg-breaking martial arts moves. Wick gets repeatedly struck by speeding cars, instantly gets back up to throw punches, and of course, takes out a stream of henchmen without so much as a hobbled limp. The absolute ludicrousness of the action here creates a giddy sensation, made all the more palpable by Stahelski's use of wide angle shots so that we can clearly understand the geographical mahem, and aided immensely by Reeve's weathered everyman quality.
Whereas the original film's tale of vengeance was triggered by the killing of a puppy and the stealing of a beloved muscle car, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn't require that kind of streamlined vigilante thrust. Instead, Wick is pushed back into the life of hired killing by Italian mobster Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), who orders a hit on his sister so that he can assume control of the Camorra. Despite Wick's initial refusal to participate, he's left without a choice since he owes Santino (visualized by the use of a token marker), which sets into motion a series of violent encounters, double crosses, and the inevitable high body count left in the wake of Wick's wrath. If the original had to do the business of setting up Wick as a man tormented by his wife's death and longing to retire, the sequel has the advantage of simply cutting right to the meat of the escalating plot. Though there are a few stray instances where Reeves looks despondently while clutching a tattered photo of his deceased wife, John Wick: Chapter 2 thankfully gives such "character moments" short shrift. Instead, it fully leans into the goofy mythology of the network of assassins; adding more layers to the clandestine Hotel from the first picture by revealing that there are essentially sleeper cell establishments all over the globe. When Wick travels to Rome to carry out the hit on Santino's sister, for example, he's given the five-star treatment; including a map of the catacombs, tailored suits, and a hardware upgrade that feels like something out of a James Bond movie.
However, for all his stealth-like precision, Bond would never dare get blood-spattered brain matter all over his finely cut suit, and it's here where the character of John Wick is born out of the violent comic book/video game ethos rather than the classic dashing hero model. The kill shot ratio in which Wick blasts hordes of nameless bad guys in the face with an assortment of handguns is staggering, but like video game violence, the effect is numbing rather than shocking. What keeps the action scenes from becoming repetitive, through, are touches like that aforementioned moment between Reeves and Common in the bar. In another scene, the two exchange polite gunfire with silencers from across the room at a crowded train station, so as not to be noticed by the throng of oblivious bystanders. It's absurdist touches like these, interconnected with the more hyper-violent stretches where Wick simply lays waste to all who dare challenge him, that make the film so consistently engaging.
In terms of plot, John Wick: Chapter 2 really doesn't have one. In terms of acting and character, Reeves brings a believable coiled physicality to the fight scenes and a stoic gaze to the moments where he must engage in transactional dialogue, but he's more or less a blank canvas for highly controlled destruction. There are a few grace notes; a tender moment where Wick holds the hand of a dying mark, the way his relationship with Hotel "manager" Winston (Ian McShane), borders on paternal, but honestly, this is all background texture for what fans have paid to see. By increasing the production values with elaborate set design and more colorful cinematography; complete with a stunning final set-piece inside a revolving room of mirrors which plays like a deranged riff on The Lady from Shanghai, and one has the rare sequel which actually makes good on the original's promise.
Hong Kong action films have always led the way in terms of balletic choreography and inventive direction, but John Wick: Chapter 2 comes very close to approximating that style of filmmaking, which doesn't usually get a chance to shine stateside in a marketplace clogged with incomprehensible, shaky-cam action drivel. During the third act, when Wick intones "Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all," in that patented Keanu monotone, our response is just a step ahead of Winston's, who stands grinning with recognition before muttering "Of course you will." If John Wick: Chapter 3 has as much style, conviction, and silly mythologizing as this one, then we are in for yet another grisly ballet of retirement deferred.