[This review also posted on Film Festival Today.]
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)
The first John Wick film, released in 2014, offered up many delights, not the least of which was the sight of then 50-year-old Keanu Reeves (The Neon Demon) running, kicking, punching and shooting his way through hordes of bad guys, all with balletic grace. What really lifted the film beyond the usual well-choreographed action thriller, however, was its invention of an alternate universe where professional hitmen (and hitwomen) inhabit a nether region of secret hotels and organizations and live by a very strict honor code that guides their behavior. They may be killers, but they have rules. Break those rules and risk ostracization. As an exercise in creative worldbuilding, it was very aesthetically satisfying, as well as entertaining.
Flash forward a few years, and John Wick (Reeves) is back, guns (of both metal and muscle) blazing. We pick up more or less where the last film ended, with Wick still in search of the car that was stolen from him by the (now deceased) son of a mobster (also deceased). If you remember, Wick is a former hitman who came out of retirement after the little beagle puppy that his late wife, who had just died of illness, was brutally killed by a gang of tough guys who wanted his beautifully maintained Mustang car (which they subsequently stole, for good measure). Roused from his grieving torpor, Wick dug up the weapons buried in his basement and vowed revenge on those who had taken that last living memory of his wife from him. Along the way, he reconnected with old colleagues, which is how we, the audience, plunged into the fascinating details of the hitman universe. Much blood was shed, but with panache.
After an exciting prologue involving a chase scene and the brother – played by Peter Stormare (Bang Bang Baby) in a very funny cameo – of the lead gangster from last time, Wick prepares to settle down once more. Peace is not to be, however, as a new character shows up, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, Loose Cannons, all reptilian grace), a member of a prominent Italian mafia family. He has come to cash in a marker, pledged to him when Wick asked to be release from active service , years earlier. The negotiations do not go smoothly, and we are soon off on a new round of adventures that take us to Rome, where the same company that runs the hitman hotel we encountered in Chapter 1 has another outlet.
For a brief while, John Wick: Chapter 2 promises the same level of cleverness as its predecessor, but all too soon it descends into a messy series of violent sequences. After a few too many bloody, brain-splattered close-ups, it becomes difficult to distinguish the one scene from the next. Like last year’s Hardcore Henry, which started well and then quickly settled into video-game mayhem, this movie loses its way in all the carnage. Death becomes its raison d’être. Reeves, always appealing, carries the grim narrative as best he can – joined by other fine performers like Common (Selma), Ian McShane (Deadwood), Lance Roddick (The Wire) and relative newcomer Ruby Rose (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) – but at some point there is simply not enough story to justify our investment in the butchery. Based on this movie’s unhappy open ending, there are clear plans for a John Wick: Chapter 3, but unless they refocus on meaningful characters and dramatic conflict beyond slaughter, I will not be there to watch it.