The fists fly, the bullets blaze and the mayhem borders on magnificent in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” a sequel that ups the artistic ante even as it boosts the body count of that sleeper hit about the assassin’s assassin played by Keanu Reeves.
John Wick is “the legend, the myth,” “a man of focus, commitment and sheer f—ing will,” “the boogeyman,” “the ghost, ‘lo spettro,'” and “death’s very emissary.” So everybody in “Chapter 2” says.
It doesn’t matter that Wick, in Keanu’s spare, hoarse voice, mutters “I’m not that guy any more,” to one an all. To everyone who knows him — and that means pretty much everyone in the movie — he still is.
In a bravura opening gambit, stuntman turned “Wick” director Chad Stahelski hurls us back into the action of the first film — a noisy, nervy vintage car (1970 Chevelle SS) vs motorcycle chase that brings Wick to the Russian mob that stole his Boss Mustang and shot his dog.
Peter Stormare is the mob boss — Russians make the best villains, everybody except for Trump knows this — who fearfully regales a subordinate with the chaos that is coming their way. His hilarious reactions, simply hearing the sounds of Wick shooting, stabbing, beating up his minions and retrieving his car, reset the tone.
This is going to be bloody. Those in Wick’s underworld are going to be damned funny, comically querulous and resigned to their fates. And Keanu? He’s not going to say much, just the way he and we like him.
“Chapter 2” is about “a marker,” a chit Wick owes to a fellow member of the elite international underground mob. The oily, polished Santino (Ricardo Scamarico) is owed a hit. And he’s willing to blow up Wick’s house to make him repay a debt.
The code of killers means Wick will take the job. No honor among thieves means he’ll be double-crossed. And it doesn’t matter that the Italians and the rest of the elaborate underworld invented for the movie come after this killer with a staggeringly high price on his head. John Wick cannot be stopped, will not be denied his vengeance.
I love the world screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Stahelski concoct for this. There’s a chain of mob hotels run by the likes of the glorious old pros Ian McShane and Franco Nero, hostelries where “no blood” can be “spilled,” safe havens for the likes of Wick or whatever mobster he is hunting. The sommelier of the Rome Continentale (Peter Serafinowicz, plummy perfection) doubles as a Fine Firearms for the Well-Dressed Murderer dealer. Guns, like wines, are “robust” or “dessert. The concierge of the Manhattan Continentale (Lance Reddick, deliciously decorous) takes personal service to even greater heights, taking in Wick’s pitbull. There are tailors (with sweatshops) catering to bulletproof fashions, map dealers offering underground escape routes, a panoply of professionals serving other professionals.
Lawrence Fishburne is a laugh riot as “the Bowery King,” a sophisticate with a homing pigeon (microchip delivery) scam and an army of “homeless” killers who sit, beg for change or ramble on in dementia as they watch the city, guns with silencers under their tattered ponchos. Ruby Rose is sexy/scary as the deaf-mute killer in a lesbian chic bob who signs her oblique threats to Wick, who speaks sign language himself.
Reeves is stoic and focused and his adept, showboat gun handling has hints of TV cowboys of the ’50s, though his line-readings are as stiff as ever. Oscar winning singer/rapper Common doesn’t give us much in his scenes as Wick’s chief rival, the man hunting him down. They’re both overly concerned with the epic fight choreography they must master. At times, the overdone staging reveals itself as Reeves or Common can be seen waiting for the other’s next stage punch or lunge before throwing theirs. Jump cuts suggest the action is sped up for the actors’ benefits.
Shootouts — and there are oh-so-many — take place in glamorously-lit catacombs, an ancient crypt turned mafia queen’s boudoir and candlelit bath, Roman ruins turned into an elaborate laser light/house music rave, and in an art exhibit’s hall of mirrors.
It’s all too much, but also too much fun. The best thing one can say for “Chapter 2” is that it’s not spoiled by the knowledge that yeah, they’re hellbent on making Wick into a franchise, even as they shoot themselves into a corner. Again.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Peter Stormare, Ruby Rose, Ricardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne,
Running time: 2:02