The sight of Keanu Reeves’ impossibly cool, impossibly deadly and even more impossibly indestructible assassin blithely dispatching dozens of foes made 2014’s John Wick a brazenly entertaining, guilty-pleasure treat.
His lone avenger is still pulling off the inconceivable in sequel John Wick: Chapter 2 – he puts his vintage 1969 Mustang through what appears to be a mid-air handbrake turn in the opening minutes alone. The hyper-stylised criminal underworld in which the story takes place is even more exquisitely surreal. And the body count is even bigger – 128 over 78, by some accounts.
True, the movie doesn’t carry quite the same charge this time. The element of surprise is missing, for a start. And the scenes of mayhem, in places, go on a tad too long. But the film’s thrills still put most other action movies to shame.
On his last outing, Reeves’ retired hitman went on the rampage because a Russian Mafia brat stole his car and killed his puppy. This time, he is pulled back into the homicidal fray thanks to a blood oath that obliges him to carry out an assassination for Riccardo Scarmacio’s Machiavellian Italian mafioso, Santino, who is scheming to take over the crime world’s ‘High Table’ of top mob bosses.
Sure enough, the mission soon finds Wick with a giant bounty on his head, battling all-comers, including a Mafia queen’s doggedly loyal bodyguard Cassian, played by American rapper Common, and Santino’s mute but deadly enforcer Ares, played by Orange Is the New Black‘s Ruby Rose.
To be honest, the plot isn’t John Wick: Chapter 2‘s strongest suit. Here, the story is all too obviously the bridge between the first and third chapters of a trilogy. Instead, the movie’s trump cards are the elegant brutality of its fight scenes and the audacious wit of its bizarre world.
Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad stuffed their original movie with gleefully absurd details; here they add further baroque embellishments. Take the Continental Hotel, the sumptuous Art Deco hangout for off-duty hitmen we encountered in the first film. It turns out to be part of a chain. Previously, in New York, Wick availed himself of the Continental’s laundry service (corpse disposal); in Rome in Chapter 2, he calls on its sommelier (a drily amusing Peter Serafinowicz), whose recommended varietals are not wines but a lethal array of weapons.
Not all the new details work. Laurence Fishburne pops up as the Bowery King, leader of New York’s beggar gang, but his appearance is ponderously self-important, with overly winking nods to his and Reeves’ shared screen past in The Matrix movies. Former stuntman Stahelski is on much surer footing, however, when it comes to the fight scenes.
From a gigantic gun battle amid the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and a bruising face off between Wick and Cassian on a New York subway to the film’s climactic showdown in a dazzling hall of mirrors, the fights are choreographed with stunning grace. And, as Reeves’ remorseless avenger cuts a swathe through his enemies, there isn’t the zoomed-in quick cutting that action movies so often deploy to whip up a sense of excitement. Instead, the camera simply hangs back to let us see Wick in full flow and admire his fatal handiwork.
Certificate 15. Runtime 122 mins. Director Chad Stahelski