Director: Chad Stahelski Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane Running Time: 122 minutes
John Wick is not a character overloaded with depth, but there is something that stands out about him. There’s a moment in John Wick Chapter 2 where the rapper Common’s character tells him that he’ll make John’s death a painless one, as “a professional courtesy”. One of the stock phrases of movie assassins that the John Wick films throw out with glee. When he says this, Keanu Reeves makes a face of real exasperation. John Wick is so goddamn tired of this world of assassins and its rules and its posturing. Later a villain says that John is addicted to this life of killing, but it isn’t really true at all. Unlike most other protagonists who come back for one last job or who get pulled back in just when they thought they were out, John Wick is so done with this whole life. He really just does want to kick back and relax with his new dog. Fortunately for viewers and unfortunately for John, it seems that killing absolutely everybody is the only way to be certain that he never has to kill anyone again.
Though John Wick hit a point of diminishing returns in having Keanu Reeves takedown and shoot dozens and dozens of faceless henchman, it had an undeniable hook in the world that it set up. The secret assassin society that John is so eager to leave behind and his mythical status within it made for fun set dressing, especially because so little of it was explained. John Wick Chapter 2 skillfully manages to add to this world without getting bogged down in its mechanics or backstory. We’re only ever told exactly as much as we need to know to facilitate the action. John Wick has just finished crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of his rampage of revenge from the previous film, when he’s visited by the man who helped him get out of this world to live with his dearly departed wife in the first place, a slimy crime lord played by Riccardo Scamarcio. In being bailed out of the killer life, John became indebted to this man and so via the assassin underworld process of blood pacts and coins with skulls on them the debt is called in, with John tasked with killing the crime lord’s sister so he can assume her place of power on the nebulous group that controls the assassin society and presumably, everything else. John refuses, but is pushed into it by having his house blown up and, once the deed is done, John becomes a loose end with a contract on his head and all sides out to get him. These people just never learn that making John Wick cross is a bad idea.
Following the pre-title action scene that re-establishes John Wick’s hypercompetent fight skills and sees cars and motorcycles crunchingly face off, the film pulls the brakes on the action. There is a lot of setup of the villain’s plot, his inevitable portrayal and the introduction of the main people trying to take John down (the aforementioned Common as the guard of John’s successful assassination target and Ruby Rose as a mute henchwoman of Scamarcio’s). It moves a little bit slowly for the first act, but it’s a fun world to tourist through and once Keanu Reeves starts running and gunning through Roman catacombs the film hits a breathless pace that rarely stops. His journey takes on shades of The Warriors once the contract is put on his life, as John tries to survive against what seems to be the one in every two people worldwide that are secretly assassins who are standing in his way.
Director Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves and the choreography team put together slick, clearly staged and brutal fights across a range of locations from the streets of Rome to a glass mirror modern art exhibit. Just being able to tell what’s happening still remains a rare occurence in action movies, and by keeping the cuts to a minimum and the crunching, splattering sound effects loud and clear, it’s always clear what’s happening in John Wick Chapter 2: John Wick wasting fools. “Death’s own emissary” is how the character is described and that same major hyperbole that stops right on the line of parody is seen in the violence as well; John Wick shooting bad guys is cool, John Wick throwing his gun at bad guys’ heads is amazing. There’s a sense of escalation to the action as the odds become increasingly stacked, with John going from having his pick of weaponery provided courtesty of the assassin hotel chain the Continental to scrambling for the guns and ammo of his victims. Or, in one particularly bloody case of overkill, a pencil.
Expressiveness has never been Keanu Reeves’ strong point but it’s clear that settled into a project he has confidence and control over, the actor is in his element. Knock him if you will but it takes screen presence to play a character everyone else is calling an emissary of Death and Reeves has that in spades, all while carrying the weariness of a man who just wants to go home and play with his dog. Common and Ruby Rose acquit themselves well in their fights with Reeves, slotting in capably to this universe. Character actors like Peter Stormare, the returning Ian McShane and Django himself Franco Nero provide much of the flavour that’s so key to the John Wick films and just when the film could use a deep breath after many minutes of unrelenting violence, who should pop in but Laurence Fishburne himself. Playing what appears to be the king of New York City’s homeless population (who are of course in on the secret society of killers), Fishburne is having the time of his life, projecting a highly entertaining garnish by hamming it up that works all the better because absolutely everybody else plays the film straight.
John Wick Chapter 2 manages a rare feat for a sequel, not just improving on its predecessor but doing so while providing essentially more of the same and ending on the suggestion that there’s a lot more left in the tank. A must-see for action fans, it provides simple, effective action with audacity, while managing to maintain plenty of self control. High art it isn’t but like all the best low art it knows that as long as the people making it keep their brains switched on, viewers won’t have to swith theirs off.(4 / 5)