Efficiency was the mode of operation in 2014's John Wick, and it worked in the film's favor: Its hero was a man of few words and with a violent past that tied into a cult of sorts that left him with a particular set of skills. It also opened shortly after his wife's death, and then the men came and killed his dog, which was her final gift to him. It was a proficient sort of premise that Chad Stahelski and David Leitch approached with a sleek visual style. Stahelski has returned to direct John Wick, Chapter 2 alone this time, and here is a well-mounted sequel that attempts to get to the substance of the titular character. He has a new dog, which is thankfully spared this time around, although the opening act of Derek Kolstad's screenplay rids him of the home he shared with his wife and a car that has sentimental value in its own right.
John Wick is once again played with skillful determination by Keanu Reeves, a fine actor with his own tragic past involving loved ones (Google is your friend) that, in the earlier film, he clearly used to his advantage. The job is a bit easier here, where he must be reactive toward a lot of the narrative's new developments, but he is no less impressive than in a climax in which Wick is limping, a bloodied mess, through a tour of assassins to get to his mark. It's more than convincing as a physical performance, and that might be because of Reeves' commitment to it. Wick uses his various pistols (There are a lot of them here, too) as extensions of his own limbs, often aiming to kill flush with his own head. It's a neat trick, as framed by Stahelski, who manages to frame a lot of the action in a way that creates an instant iconography.
The plot this time around has Wick under threat of death from his own occultic group of assassins. Winston (Ian McShane), the leader, makes it plain that leaving a marker, on which Wick has imprinted his own blood, an unfulfilled promise is courting death. Wick's promise this time around is to Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian gangster, for the murder of the mobster's sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). She will inherit the seat at a table of underground royalty now that their father has died and she is the elder child. Santino wants that seat. That part of the plot works itself out in unexpected, fairly provocative ways that proceeds to place Wick within the sights of her head of security (Common), meaning that Wick is forced to go on the run from a group that seems omniscient.
This is certainly not a film about its plot, though. Instead, the film is a love letter to its own, cleverly conceived action setpieces, almost all of which involve shootouts to some degree. There is the opening sequence, an exception that involves an extended car chase in a confined space. There is a knock-down, drag-out fight in which its participants use guns with all the proficiency of close-contact knives (It is then interrupted by a manager who insists upon the two sharing a drink like men). There is the extended climax involving various assassins, in which Wick must "borrow" their guns, that features a clever reimagining of those hallways full of mirrors. The cleverest, though, is a "casual" shootout as Wick and an assassin walk along different levels of a train station that is the film's most genuine "Ha!" moment.
The plot mostly acts as a clothesline on which to hang these sequences, and as with the first film, emotional involvement is limited to the visceral variety of seeing Wick carry out his revenge. Some of the particulars of the plot become tired far before the final act doles out its weak stinger for another installment to come (although, to be fair, the scope of the film's action will have to increase exponentially from where it has already arrived), and the performances aren't always convincing (Ruby Rose shows up in her third franchise installment in four weeks to smirk-glare at everything and does none of it convincingly). But John Wick, Chapter 2 further aids in elevating the title hero into mythic stature, and it does so with more than a modicum of craft.
Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D'Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D'Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), Franco Nero (Julius), Tobias Segal (Earl), Thomas Sadoski (Jimmy), Peter Serafinowicz (Sommelier), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Bridget Moynahan (Helen).
Directed by Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad.
Rated R (violence throughout, language, brief nudity).
Released on February 10, 2017.