No sooner does John settle that business than he finds himself drafted by Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian mobster who orders a hit on his own sister so he can assume her role as head of the Camorra. John’s attempts to beg off the assignment meet the expected violent pushback, setting into motion his latest quest for revenge. More importantly, this exhausting continuum of violence pulls even more focus than the first film did onto Reeves’s work as John. In his early days, Reeves was that unlikeliest of creations, a heartthrob action hero, and his capacity for boundless energy and tender vulnerability suggested a limited range. Age hasn’t particularly weathered the actor the way it has beefier and much slower action stars, but it does permit him to cut his still youthful face with creases of bitterness without looking silly. John Wick: Chapter 2 traffics in clichés wholesale, none more so than Reeves’s reformed killing machine who wishes to be a man of peace, but neither the script nor Reeves puts much effort into the illusion that John isn’t instinctively thrilled by the hunt. The actor fills even John’s resting face with tense fury, and the further one gets into the film the more the tranquil moments he spends thinking of his late wife feel jarring.
One of the first film’s best attributes is how much of a clandestine second world it suggested while never offering any more information about it than necessary. This sequel delves deeper into the assassin network, linking the Continental Hotel seen in the previous film with an international chain of hotspots and havens that come with the same supply of comfortable rooms, ample armament, and excellent booze. The arcane set designs of the hotels stand in sharp contrast to the hypermodern style of much of the other locations in the film; one quickly loses count of the number of times John engages in a gunfight before a wall onto which light is projected, most memorably in a scene of him staggering against one wall that’s lit in incandescent white as he leaves splotches of blood on it every few feet. In a shot that could have come out of a 1980s Michael Mann film, Santino calls John while standing in an art gallery lit by soft fluorescent tubes that project electric blue up into the marble statues that loom over the gangster. Even an ancient Roman catacomb is washed in pale light, and director Chad Stahleski manages to cram a post-rock rave into the subterranean area.
The comic-book styling of the film’s sets extends to the characters, who round out John’s superhuman endurance with various quirks. Ian McShane returns as Winston, manager of the New York Continental and perhaps the only person in this series more intimidating than John, and his idiosyncratic presence is bolstered by Laurence Fishburne as a scenery-chewing lord of a homeless spy network, as well as Ruby Rose as a mute assassin who exudes focus and eerie calm. These are characters designed to be disposable, with only a functional relationship to the plot, yet their odd traits give them enough depth to suggest life outside the confines of the frame.
None of these ancillary elements ever get in the way of the action. The hand-to-hand combat is consistently brutal, favoring slams, armbars, and well-placed strikes over flashy gunplay (though John is prone to deliriously using his enemies’ guns against them). The mix of the two elements keeps every sequence engaging, even when the film is cribbing from its predecessor, as in the catacomb rave that calls to mind the first film’s club shootout. It all culminates in a climatic battle in an elaborate hall of mirrors that features enough shots of corridors refracted on themselves into infinity to make Paul W.S. Anderson jealous. There are moments of softness in the film, such as the paternal way that Winston treats John, and the moment of John holding the hand of a dying target in a show of empathy. But for the most part, John Wick: Chapter 2 hinges on these displays of expertly choreographed violence in ways that mark it as the closest an American action film has ever come to the energy, style, and precision of a classic Hong Kong feature.
'John Wick: Chapter 2' review: Action fans will love Keanu Reeves' bloody sequel
How you feel about John Wick: Chapter 2 – the more-of-everything sequel to Keanu Reeves’ assassin-on-a-rampage movie – depends on what you liked about the original.
For me, the body count aside (Reeves dispatched 84 people in that movie, by the way), it was the simplicity of the story. A retired hit man is randomly targeted by Russian thugs, with the result that his dog is dead and his vintage muscle car is stolen.
Cue the vengeance!
In much the same way that the killings are amped (officially 141 in this movie), the story is too. There are essentially three acts of revenge-tale in John Wick: Chapter 2, each an excuse for balletic, extended, over-the-top action from Reeves and stunt-king-turned-director Chad Stahelski.
Actually, I’m pretty pleased I went this far into the review without using the word “overkill.”
Subchapter 1 of Chapter 2: Wick has unfinished business with the Russian mob – the return of his 1969 Mustang, over their dead bodies (with the always-welcome Peter Stormare as the brother of the mob boss dispatched in the first movie).
Subchapter 2: Back to attempted-retirement, Wick is approached by an Italian mobster (Riccardo Scamarcio) with a “marker” from a previous debt. His reluctant mission: kill the mobster’s sister.
Subchapter 3: The mobster’s sister being futilely guarded by maybe the second most lethal hit man in the world, Cassian (Common), Wick is himself the target of lethal vengeance involving Cassian and what seems like every second person on the streets of New York.
What’s impressive is that despite all the noise and a death-rate of more than one a minute (skewed by the fact that Wick occasionally shoots three people in the head in a second), there is a story here.
John Wick: Chapter 2 expands the international assassin’s universe it introduced in the original, with a beefed up role for Winston (Ian McShane), operator of the Continental, the luxury refuge hotel that is a meeting place for killers who would otherwise be killing. (There is a tense, well-played scene where Cassian and Wick share a drink in what amounts to a time-out).
A happy addition to the cast is Laurence Fishburne as The Bowery King, a former assassin who has left the circuit and created his own army of killers posing as street people. (Seriously, give these people the change they’re asking for). He and his frenemy Wick are fun to watch (there’s even an oblique Matrix reference tossed in).
It’s a richer plot, maybe more than we needed all at once. But for those who are in it for non-stop car chases, explosions, gunplay and jujutsu, it’s an all-you-can-swallow buffet. Stahelski’s team (many of them veterans of the Wachowski siblings’ Matrix films) takes action more seriously than most production outfits, while seeming to have fun creating the spectacle.
Meanwhile, Reeves and Common both have a bruising commitment to their role as to-the-death antagonists. Their martial arts choreography is the best thing this side of Dancing with the Stars.
And hardly anybody ever gets shot in the head on that show.
Review: ‘John Wick: Chapter 2,’ a Roman Holiday With Shots Not Sparks
They just couldn’t leave it alone. The original “John Wick,” about an über assassin who’s reluctantly drawn out of retirement, was a near perfect synergy of simple premise and intricate movement — an action movie that danced. But the lightness and winking quality that softened the slaughter are less evident in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” an altogether more solemn affair weighed down by the philosophy that more is always more.
That means almost doubling the body count as John (Keanu Reeves, still superstoic and hyper-pliable) is once again yanked out of seclusion, this time to fulfill a debt to an Italian mobster by killing the mobster’s sister (Claudia Gerini). The plot matters only inasmuch as it allows the returning director, Chad Stahelski, to stage his spectacular fight sequences in various stunning Roman locations, where they unfold with an almost erotic brutality. In this movie, the camera contemplates weaponry with more lip-licking awe than is ever afforded Ms. Gerini’s curves.
John might remind you of James Bond, but he has no interest in the honeys. Carnage is his release, and the camera plays along, gazing up at his aspirational buttocks as he slides a knife from his back pocket, and circling his twisting torso with rapt attention. A brilliantly stylized foreplay sequence is constructed around assassin-related paraphernalia, and both Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne — as the respective heads of separate killing squads — remind us of madams, pimping death across continents.
Some of this world-building is fun, and almost all of it is dazzling, but the emotional sterility of John’s life will burden a franchise. At some point, he’ll have to care about more than his dog.