The original “John Wick” was a film of highly stylized and gratuitous violence, and while it was often grimly tongue-in-cheek and occasionally really beautiful to look at, its action pyrotechnics eventually collapsed in on themselves as no better than what they were attempting to mimic and mock. The best thing in the entire movie was The Continental, a sort of professional retreat for hitmen, lorded over by a demure, cerebral Ian McShane and where the film’s titular character (Keanu Reeves) briefly holed up to ready for his obligatory bout of revenging. It suggested a whole other world just to the side of the movie, where hitmen are not as much the isolated depressives the movies so often suggest but a semi-closeknit society unto themselves, with their own rules and flowery terminology. Well, for “John Wick: Chapter 2” director Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolstad do not so much build on its character, who was already pretty much who he was from the get-go, as build on the world its main character inhabits.
Not that this two hour movie is short on blood splattering spectacle. Ha! “Chapter 2” begins in the midst of a car chase already in progress which yields another car chase in the immediate aftermath of the first one as John Wick goes about tying up a few loose ends. That is quickly cast aside, however, when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls on John Wick to honor a blood oath, an offer John Wick is legally allowed to refuse yet refuses anyway. He refuses it because he wants “out” of the killing game, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. I never believed this, chiefly because a peeved Santino consequently blows up John Wick’s house which leads directly to a close-up of John Wick staring at the flames, pulling back his long hair, his eyes hardening, a warrior preparing for battle, like this explosive taunt was what he has been waiting for, like Alvy Singer just having to rip up the parking ticket. John Wick just had to decline this blood oath so he could on a rampage.
So John accepts Santino’s offer, which involves a trip to the Rome version of the Continental where rather than simply mimicking what the first movie did, Stahelski and Kolstad dream up a weapons sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz). Nice. This Italian trip inevitably yields further complications and extra layers of vengeance with John eventually coming back after Santino as Santino unleashes his own version of “Kill Bill’s” Crazy 88s which John Wick fights his way through in a quasi-non-stop, multi-sequence ballet of gun fu, with lengthy bullet riddled martial showdowns unfolding against eye-popping backdrops, such as a subway interior lit up like a discotheque. The movie attempts to turn the Australian DJ Ruby Rose into Reeve’s most formidable gun fu foe, and while Rose does have a charismatic countenance in bringing to life the rare deaf hitwoman, their trash talk communicated via sign language, ultimately it is Common, playing Cassian, the bodyguard of the target John Wick is tasked by Santino with offing in the first place, who stands out most.
The two men are made to exchange all manner of kicks, strikes and chokeholds as well as gunfire, sure, but their battles are best when they get out of that comfort zone, like a brief parked car variation of that shooting-through-the-conference-table scene in “Die Hard” and a rugged brawl sans soundtrack that finds the men rolling down cobblestone stairs, one set after another, each ensuing staircase and the painful thuds that go along with it like laugh tracks. And the scene ends not with a pop but a purposeful release of air, concluding with a drink where in one of the movie’s best deadpan moments Reeves is made to comically growl with just the right pause “Gin, wasn’t it?”
Their best scene, though, comes just a little bit later, a squaring off on a packed subway car. It’s not gun fu at all; it’s like a dance scene. It takes two to tango, right, and the way these two men casually but menacingly move toward one another as the crowd gradually dissipates plays like the “Beat It” video remixed for “John Wick: Chapter 2.” It made me laugh out loud, which I mean as a compliment.
The scene on the subway is made doubly interesting by the people surrounding them, all of whom quickly move out of the way. Films of this nature often dabble in collateral damage, innocents being mowed down to further the action, but all innocents are spared in “John Wick.” This might be attributed to the skill of John Wick and cronies, though it principally speaks to how the movie keeps its worlds apart and keeping those worlds apart is precisely why John Wick can’t ever seem to land in the other one. He belongs here. And here becomes a beautiful thing to see, from a vast network of bums that are apparently playing all of us to hitmen contracts that are wonderfully literalized in an accounts receivable department. The further “John Wick: Chapter 2” progresses, the more this alternate world comes into focus, bound tightly and maintained by rules.
Those rules ultimately make for the movie’s biggest joke. After all, since not playing by the rules is often a prerequisite for movie heroism, it’s really funny to see rule-breaking do the movie hero in.