John Wick: Chapter 2 (R) ★★★
Much to the delight of those who enjoyed 2014's John Wick, the second installment of the series (which is intended to be a trilogy, assuming box office performance warrants its continuation) represents a seamless extension of the original film. All the things that made the first movie so compulsively watchable, at least for high-octane action fans, are once again in the forefront: stylized action sequences, minimal "down time", and a dry sense of wit. John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn't amp up the humor enough to be considered an "action comedy" but it doesn't take itself too seriously. This is "more of the same" but, at least in this case, that's a good thing.
Keanu Reeves continues to show that age has refined his acting capabilities. Although he's by no means a likely Oscar-winner, he is able to play a role like John Wick, which demands more physicality and "presence" than it does range, with confidence. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Watching John mow down waves of bad guys reminds me of a video game. At one point, he has to run around grabbing rounds from dead enemies because he has run out of ammo. Gamers will recognize that (and a lot more). John Wick: Chapter 2 isn't based on a video game but it could be the template for one.
In the movie's prologue, John closes out some "old business" that wasn't finalized in the previous episode. Then it's on to new material. Although all John wants is to retire and live a peaceful life, his old associates won't permit it. He owes a marker to a boss named Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). When he refuses to honor it, Santino repays the slight by blowing up John's house. A visit to his friend Winston (Ian McShane) confirms that for John to remain in good standing with the shadowy criminal syndicate of which he's a member, he must honor the marker. That means assassinating Santino's sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), an act that invites swift and violent retribution. John soon finds himself the target of a $7 million bounty and every hit man and hit woman in New York City wants to take him out. His chief enemies are Santino's mute henchwoman, Ares (Ruby Rose), and Gianna's personal bodyguard, Cassian (Common), but those are by no means his only adversaries.
Director Chad Stahelski maintains the tone of the first movie. That means, among other things, that only those with a taste for extreme screen violence will find this to be a rewarding experience. John Wick: Chapter 2, like John Wick, is all about testosterone, adrenaline, blood, viscera, and broken bones. The frequent, high-energy action scenes are shot in a manner intended to hold the viewer's attention without becoming incoherent or monotonous. The movie approaches John's ability to take out a seemingly endless array of enemy forces with a wink and a nod, acknowledging the humor in this absurd situation and thereby allowing the audience to be "in on" the joke. John Wick: Chapter 2, like its predecessor, employs a stylized, kinetic method of action that is more reflective of films like The Raid than the traditional, generic form favored by a xXx: Return of Xander Cage (to cite a recent example).
The movie has its share of stand-out scenes. The final showdown, which happens in an extended hall of mirrors, offers plenty of visual trickery. The catacombs shootout is relentless and intense. And, to highlight a calmer sequence, consider the tête-à-tête where John consults a sommelier about his eclectic choices.
John Wick is a loner so he's unencumbered by sidekicks. He has plenty of enemies and a few allies. The most notable member of the latter group is played by Ian McShane, with John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick making brief appearances. Riccardo Scamarcio is a little weak as the chief bad guy but Ruby Rose and Common help to fill the breach. John's fights with their characters get the blood pumping. Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in the mix is Laurence Fishburne, whose limited appearance hints at a larger role in a potential third film. (And, yes, there is a Matrix in-joke that's not too obvious to stick out like a sore thumb.)
John Wick: Chapter 2 ends with a quasi-cliffhanger. It's obvious where the story intends to go but the filmmakers hedge a little, providing enough of a sense of closure that, if the movie doesn't succeed financially, viewers won't feel cheated (at least not too much). Like The Dark Knight, the chapter is closed but there's more story to tell. Assuming the same creative team can be assembled for a third time to deliver at the high level of the first two outings, I'd welcome a third John Wick with an enthusiasm I rarely have for second sequels.
© 2017 James Berardinelli
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