John Wick: Chapter 2 turns a familiar page in Keanu Reeves’ cartoonish assassin franchise. Back are the stylized “Gun Fu” battles, lavish locales and adorable dogs (who are safe this time), like some MMO violence-fetish video game. Pacifists be warned – infinite henchmen feed John Wick’s cold, calculated bodycount. Those of you growing tired of head-exploding finishers will find little value in this savage, blood-soaked sequel. Thugs simply line-up to be blasted by Wick’s deadshot aim. The titular hitman appears invincible as he endures stab wounds and gunshot impacts, displaying little vested interest in portraying death for what it is – but goddamn if Chapter 2 isn’t more gorgeous body-snapping brutality.
Did you really think I was about to go soft, there? Not today, people. John Wick: Chapter 2 revs a supercharged engine that runs on gunpowder and Reeves’ marble-etched intensity. Showmanship overplays the lack of honor among killers, with enough pulse-pounding fight sequences to employ entire underworld staffing facilities. If Reeves was declared “back” in John Wick, what does that make him now – “super back?” You get what I’m saying. Liam Neeson has Taken, Sylvester Stallone has Expendables, but Reeves may boast the most tactically explosive “older-badass” action franchise of them all.
Chapter 2 finds John Wick in “retirement,” even though an opening theft sequence has him killing dozens of Russian lackeys. Nonetheless, Wick drives his recovered automobile home and looks forward to a quiet life with his nameless pit bull – until Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes calling. The visiting assassin asks Wick to make good on a blood debt between the two, but retirement is retirement. Wick politely declines, so Santino blows his house up to make a point. Message received! After asserting his displeasure, Wick boards a flight to Rome so he can leave the hitman game once and for all.
This alone would be enough plot material for one single thriller, but John Wick: Chapter 2 runs a lengthy 122 minutes. How, you ask? Because after Wick repays his debt, Santino plays the victim and places a $7 million bounty on Wick’s head to divert attention. Wick’s “stealthy” Italian assassination is just a warm-up for director Chad Stahelski and his stunt team. Once John Wick returns home to New York City, the film becomes an homage to The Warriors packed with rivals, friendlier rivals and a sacred assassin coven. Wick just wants to stay alive, but this is one violent city that never sleeps.
Do we really need two hours of the same side-cocked gunplay, though? For how gleefully punishing John Wick: Chapter 2 becomes, length is one of the only detractors. I can forgive a New York City Thunderdome without police interference, as Wick trades gunfire with Cassian (Common) amidst unaware World Trade Center subway commuters. I can also buy into Wick’s ability to fight through insurmountable pain in small doses. Hell, even the number of dead guards doesn’t seem so ridiculous at a shorter running time. But for two hours? A lawless New York City playground becomes suspect without repercussions for so long, as does Wick’s indestructible physical composure. It’s almost too much of a good thing, becoming laborious in an attempt to over-deliver promised devastation.
The key word here is almost.
Reeves’ plethora of ‘Fu action packs a knock-out punch. From his masterful “Gun Fu” ballistics ballet to “Car Fu” sequences that crunch bones and metal, intensity is mainlined. Wick’s quickfire double-taps waste ten villains per clip, whether they be wandering through a reflective house of mirrors or pushing through a packed concert audience (Wick also avoids civilian casualties).
You’ll rarely see boxing match type brawls – the hitman’s either going to press a gun to your temple or grapple away control. Pencils become daggers, bullets fly with precision and furious fight choreography rages with fatal fluidity. John Wick never misses his mark (unless a main character is targeted), and neither does Stahelski’s team of expert stunt professionals who go above-and-beyond the call of cinematic duty.
Reeves doesn’t have much to do when people aren’t dying, as John Wick’s most prominent qualities are walking his doggy, joking through suit-up montages and asking for favors. Still, people love the Wick character because of his renegade, morally-bound charms. A boogeyman afraid of damnation makes for quite the personality dilemma, as character interactions end up being icy, short and all-action. Common and Reeves waste no time trading heavy blows, Ian McShane teases Santino for stabbing the devil from behind, Ruby Rose taunts Reeves as a mute bodyguard – John Wick: Chapter 2 loads its casting chamber with quality ammunition. Laurence Fishburne, Franco Nero, Peter Stormare, Peter Serafinowicz. Have I died and gone to character actor heaven?
Stahelski wields style like an artist’s paint brush, touching scenes with eye-catching details. Action choreography is one thing, but music and visual pleasures are necessary in delivering a total package. Up-tempo remixes of classical orchestral compositions offer a modern twist on tired mainstays, much like John Wick: Chapter 2 does when re-imagining its whole “Gun Fu” phenomenon. European catacombs are riddled with ammunition casings, while a museum exhibit titled “Reflections of the Soul” stages an introspective (and crushing) finale. John Wick has that wacky Russian bathhouse nightclub, and neither Stahelski nor writer Derek Kolstad back down from upping their ambitions. Death shouldn’t be appealing, but entire scenes could be marked as art installations based on framing, color, design – even bloody accents.
As far as sequels go, John Wick: Chapter 2 is guns-blazing genre madness with vague similarities to Indonesia’s brand of martial-arts driven showstoppers (The Raid/Headshot). Action is elevated by an ability to capture more than just punches and kicks, while remaining disconnected from a reality that might suck the “fun” out of such violent pleasures.
In the world of Wick, Peter Serafinowicz can play a gun sommelier who likens firearms to wine. Cars can be used to tailwhip-kick thugs with insane force. Headshots can be executed 100 in a row without John Wick ever missing. Assassins rule the streets and operate under a secret code, while police are nowhere to be found. It’s not exactly xXx ridiculous, but John Wick: Chapter 2 blends the seriousness of piping-hot revenge with video game energies – without a single pesky loading screen in sight.
John Wick: Chapter 2 tempts fate with a 122-minute running time, but the "Gun Fu" is back and it's just as deathly awesome as it was in the first film.