HOLY SH*T

‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ Is an Action Movie Fan’s Wet Dream

The second installment in Keanu Reeves’s bullet-ballet franchise doesn’t disappoint.

Lionsgate

John Wick was a better breed of action film, an extravagant orgy of vengeance and brutality that dressed up its grungy mayhem in upper-crust accoutrements. Hell-bent on murdering the Russian scumbags responsible for stealing his turbo-charged ’69 Ford Mustang and killing his beloved puppy (which had been given to him as a parting gift from his dying wife!), Keanu Reeves’s assassin came out of retirement to wreak havoc with a level of panache rarely—if ever—seen in an American genre effort. Serving up a cornucopia of crushed limbs and gun-blasted craniums with breathtaking grace and inventiveness, it was an aesthete’s action-cinema wet dream.

Thing is, John Wick was also a self-contained effort, one that had a clear beginning, middle, and end, with no nods toward—nor ostensible need for—a follow-up. And yet profitably inevitably breeds progeny, so now Reeves’s well-dressed firearm fanatic is back in John Wick: Chapter 2, a sequel that has the unenviable task of both topping its predecessor’s slaughterhouse heights, as well as justifying its very existence. In a certain sense, it falls shy of that second aim, if only because this time around, Wick’s motivation for unholstering his weapons isn’t nearly as heartstring-tugging as the unwarranted slaying of his dog. In every other respect, however, director Chad Stahelski (working without his co-directing partner, David Leitch) provides more ritzy carnage than one could have hoped for. In the process, he cements his franchise as the rightful heir to the neo-noir throne—with, it must be said, a strong dash of superhero fantasy thrown in for good measure.

John Wick 2 picks up almost directly after 2015’s original, with Wick determined to recover his prized ride from the brother (Peter Stormare) of that film’s villain (Michael Nyqvist). Stormare’s quietly horrified reactions to hearing Wick raid his garage and dispatch his men are almost as amusing as the hero’s rampage—completed inside and outside vehicles—is beautifully concussive. From there, Wick tries to retire again. Alas, he’s soon compelled—by a grenade-launcher attack on his home—to honor a blood-oath he made to Italian criminal Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio). This elegant villain apparently facilitated Wick’s initial escape from his life of crime, which peaked with marriage to his late wife (Bridget Moynahan, once more relegated to brief flashbacks), and now he’s come to collect on Wick’s debt.

Specifically, Santino wants Wick to kill his sister so he can take her seat on a council of shadowy super-bad guys. Reluctantly agreeing to this task, Wick checks in first at the American assassin hotel The Continental (run by Ian McShane’s Winston), and then at its Rome branch (overseen by screen legend Franco Nero)—leaving his new pit bull companion, meanwhile, in the care of The Continental’s concierge Charon (Lance Reddick). As with its predecessor, John Wick 2’s set-up is absurd and yet meticulously laid out, detailing an intricately arranged underground system of regulations that govern Wick’s deadly trade, including the crimson fingerprint-signed “marker” that represents Wick’s pledge to Santino. That also extends to The Bowery King (Reeves’ Matrix mate Laurence Fishburne, hamming it up with relish), who sees and hears everything in New York via his network of fake-bum spies and SIM card-transporting carrier pigeons. Throughout, there’s an order to this chaotic eye-for-an-eye world, as well as a code of honor that stipulates that rules be followed (“Without them, we live with the animals,” opines Winston) lest one risk courting doom.

Such tidy world-building is married to ruthlessly efficient “gun-fu” action in which Reeves’s protagonist wields his handguns, shotguns and rifles with the same sort of pitiless punchiness that he does his various blades (which get extended use in a superb subway showdown with Common’s rival baddie). Whether he’s being ambushed in underground catacombs by Santino’s mute right-hand woman, Ares (Ruby Rose), or taking out hostiles on New York’s crowded streets, Wick deposits ammunition in foes’ heads with a ruthless efficiency and composure that never wavers, even when injured and outnumbered. A long-time stuntman and fight choreographer (his first job, in fact, was doubling Reeves in The Matrix), director Stahelski orchestrates his set pieces with symphonic dynamism. The action is so creative—and Reeves’s rapid-fire moves are so exacting—that it’s the rare film to make re-loading a weapon seem thrilling. Even its colorful subtitles have style.

John Wick 2 relocates traditionally down-and-dirty murder business to the realm of the 1%, imagining the “underworld” as a secret landscape of crystal glassware, ancient sculptures, lush lounges, magnificent bathrooms, swanky cars, and three-piece designer suits. Moreover, it treats murder as an art form-cum-delicacy. A gun salesmen (Peter Serafinowicz) is referred to as a “sommelier” who provides weapon suggestions based on Wick’s preference for something “robust, precise” or “big, bold.” Wick’s outfits are given bulletproof lining by tailors who cater to his every specification. And, highlighted by a hilarious tussle with a Manhattan violinist who apparently moonlights as a murderer, his showdowns take place among—and against—the elite, be it at rock shows, formal galas, or ultimately an NYC modern-art museum, where he’s forced to navigate a hall of mirrors exhibit known as “Reflections of the Soul” (which further underlines his soulful-warrior nature). He is, in short, an all-class Zen badass, and Stahelski’s film is shrewd enough to routinely wink at the character’s (and story’s) over-the-top cartoonishness.

Wick is a more ultra-violent, comic book-y variation on Alain Delon’s disciplined hood from Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic Le Samouraï, or Chow Yun-fat’s hitman from John Woo’s 1989 gem The Killer—all of them dapper criminals whose lives are defined by their quasi-spiritual adherence to ritual. Wick is repeatedly referred to as the Devil, as well as his notorious nickname, Baba Yaga (aka “The Boogeyman”). However, his praying-hands back tattoo, along with Stahelski’s religious imagery, eventually cast him as a fallen angel who does wrong only in order to achieve good. And courtesy of a bloody wound in his side that he eventually suffers, he also comes across as a pseudo-Christ figure showering mankind with his lethal love.

Reeves again embodies Wick as a no-nonsense professional who lets his trigger finger do the talking, and who’s only his true, unalterable self when peppering adversaries with round after round. Now 52 years old, Reeves’s placid demeanor and stoic face provide the ideal cover for Wick’s underlying anger, which detonates with a furiousness that the star’s prior big-screen men of action (in Speed and The Matrix trilogy) never possessed. It’s a performance of both poised cool and unbridled rage, as explosive and exhilarating as the scenarios in which his Wick invariably finds himself. John Wick 2 continues to prove that Stahelski’s series is a superior big-screen killing machine. Bring on Chapter 3.