John Wick's world is wonderfully upside-down. In it, a dog's life is worth 76 men. A '69 Mustang, two dozen more. Humans are cheap and objects are priceless. Cocaine comes wrapped in tiny treasure chests, while magnetic key cards are engraved in platinum. Guns aren't purchased from a two-bit pawn shop or van; instead, the shooter sits down with a firearm sommelier, who coos, "I know your fondness for German varietals." Credit cards? How base. Here, everything from a custom three-piece kevlar-lined suit to a gin cocktail is bought with gold coins.
In the rarified surroundings of the Continental Hotel, the VIP club for assassins with flair, Keanu Reeves's spree killer John Wick isn't even called John, a name as blunt and basic as a bullet. He's "Jonathan" to hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane), who in the first film established the Continental's Curious Code of Ethics: Murder anyone, for any price, anywhere but inside the hotel. Misbehave, as did Adrianne Palicki's hitwoman when she offed a colleague on his king-size bed, and be excommunicated — and executed.
This shouldn't concern Wick. He's retired, or he'd like to be. But as Winston warned last time, "You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out and drags you back into its depths." In John Wick: Chapter 2, a title that evokes Old Testament wrath, that something knocks on Wick's door the minute — literally — he finishes pouring concrete over his verboten stash of guns.
The troublemaker's name is Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the son of a powerful gangster, who, in the John Wick tradition of wimps who trigger mass slaughter, has a tyrant-size ego and silly, girlish eyelashes. The target is his sister Gianna (imperious Italian actress Claudia Gerini), a chin-up, tits-out Amazon warrior covered in scaly silver sequins, who's just been anointed to take his family's seat at a global mob syndicate. And so our reluctant hitman hero is forced to fly to Rome, where we learn the Continental is a chain. Thank god Wick went wild avenging that puppy. We're thrilled to check into this fatal Four Seasons for a longer stay.
The first film felt like watching a decent thriller through frosted glass. We glimpsed the outline of Winston's strange domain but ended the movie with more questions than answers. Even the action felt like it was shot in a fog: The colors were murky and blurred, and the punches needed more pow. You could tell co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch had a vision — but what lingered was the quietly violent vibration of a widower slaying a busload of men over a beagle.
The sequel bursts through the pane. It's clear and bright and wicked and bold, and we see everything down to the tattooed receptionists in pink blouses and pencil skirts who take calls from killers and neatly tally up the price of a life. Stahelski, now working alone, kicks off with Wick decimating a warehouse owned by the canine-killer's uncle (Peter Stormare), an over-the-top drug baron who instantly embraces the film's bluff. As he sighs, in an accent thick with admiration, exasperation, fear, and awe, if the body count has risen this high over a dog, why stop now? It's all so pointless and goofy, neither brute can quit — a point hammered home when Wick gets even with the Russians for stealing his car by, er, destroying said car. After an ecstatic sequence in which Wick miraculously makes his Mustang turn right in mid-air, he sputters home in shambles: door missing, windshield smashed, mirrors ripped off, steel crumpled like paper. A Pyrrhic victory, but it's the principle that counts.
Straight away, it's clear that Stahelski, a former stuntman, and new-to-the-franchise cinematographer Dan Laustsen are a dynamite combo. This first sequence holds the camera wheel-high over slick concrete, speeding after Wick and then skidding to a stop at the perfect height to witness Reeves get thrown from the passenger seat and slam to the ground mere feet from our face. It's gorgeous. Every surface of the film is shiny and wet. Tables, pools, floors — even Wick's pants and, somehow, the walls of his house. When Wick eventually stumbled into a mirror-maze museum exhibit called "Reflections of the Soul," I nearly burst out laughing.
This overdetermined style could easily turn tacky. Yet sometimes — say, in a spotlit catacomb chase — I struggled to tear my eyes from the blue shadows and flashes of gold gunfire to appreciate the fantastic fight choreography. Then Stahelski stunned me with a kill I'd never seen: Wick pinning a goon to the ground with an empty rifle long enough to reload the gun and blam the guy into Hades. That's the Wick style. He doesn't surprise his enemies; he smashes through them. Instead of the magical bullets of most action flicks that off baddies with one shot yet leave our heroes unharmed, John Wick 2 triple-taps until people go down hard.
In the first film, his rhythmic overkills felt brutal. Here, they're more like a dance, and the best bits of the movie have a lightness that made me giggle with delight. Reeves pairs terrifically with Common, playing a rival hitman named Cassian who chases him across the film. In one scene, they sashay, pistols firing, on both sides of a string of parked cars. In another, they trade gentlemanly pot shots in a crowded subway terminal, as though they're exchanging business cards. When Reeves pins Common to the floor, the rapper-turned-actor evades punishment with a breakdance spin. And when they run into each other — literally — at the Roman outpost of the Continental, the Italian manager (film legend Franco Nero) forces them to sit down for a drink.
The fights are fantastic. But what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 special is those moments of quiet. Most thrillers keep their enemies apart until the final battle. If they talk at all, it's because the villain thinks he has tangled the protagonist in a death trap we know he'll escape. We're distracted by the foolishness of the creep not killing him when he has the chance. Here, Winston's rules make Wick and Cassian chitchat until we know they're friends, or at least friendly, in a workplace where allegiances are doomed. Any pulp flick can make a man bleed. Stahelski smartly keeps the focus on this universe's crazy culture.
Not that returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad lets Reeves open his mouth much besides saying what's absolutely necessary. (Like at the start of the film when Wick trots his new pit bull up to Lance Reddick's Continental concierge and grunts, "Do you board?") The subtitles do more talking than the star, and like the original, they're a crazy mix of capital letters, italics, and colors, as expressive as a silent film. Enjoy your RETIREMENT, Mr. Wick, they shout. But not too much. Action movies need you.