“The man. The myth. The legend.”
Whatever luster that phrase once held faded long ago — now a go-to mantra for beer-chugging champions, words to fill space in a toast you’re definitely botching, shorthand for bored screenwriters.
The platitude gets an unexpectedly gleaming spit-shine in John Wick: Chapter Two as Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King speaks — nay, booms from his belly — these words to describe Keanu Reeves’ titular character. As he does, the weight lands, like buckshot to the gut, of all that pushes Wick toward palpable existential panic and what will (one can hope) thematically drive a franchise trilogy.
A retired assassin and full-time widower, Wick was drawn back into a world of violence to avenge his murdered beagle and retrieve his stolen Mustang in the 2014 original. Amid its John Woo-inspired ballet of gunfire and grapples, the film rudely clapped Wick awake from his foolish dream of milquetoast middle-aged muddling. By killing … well, everyone, Wick also killed “the man” he believed he could become. Chapter Two represents a vigil for the violent myth he perpetuated for years before as the babayega, Russian for “boogeyman.” Writer Derek Kolstad questions how, and if, Wick can separate the persona of this fearfully immortal specter from the modest, and very mortal, human he seeks to be and tempers the icily efficient coolness of his violence with themes of inescapable, ink-blotted blackness. We root for Wick’s kill shots while realizing he’ll never reload his way to redemption. There’s always another Faustian bargain, bounty to evade or foe to face. At the end, what price delivery? Madness? Death? Legends, after all, often forge posthumously.
Does this all sound too highfalutin? Fret not. One can easily enjoy John Wick: Chapter Two as little more than a movie in which a man mows down a militia of man-bun mopes using blades, bullets and improvisational weapons – something joyfully apolitical and free of any social subtext. Yet it’s tacky and distinguished, luxuriating in its literary allusions and bodacious lacerations like someone chasing a 10-year scotch with PBR.
The prologue perfectly closes the book on Wick’s first mission while establishing cinematic and theatrical surprises that amplify the original’s austerity without simply tossing in a buttload of explosions. Most sequels sling more of the same; Chapter Two expands in intriguing ways. An establishing shot positions New York as a huffing, puffing entity powered by infinite arteries of acceleration and aggression. The numerous cars off which the stunt team caroms are like scenery wagons rigged to attack stage actors in a garage that morphs into the city’s largest black-box theater. A bad guy sequesters in his office, listening to the audible carnage as if the walls are rumbling one auditorium over. An ironic detachment from, and sincere appreciation for, action rarely coexist so harmoniously. (Be warned, classic vehicle aficionados: There is as much violence to Wick’s Pony here as to his pooch in Part One. Perhaps next time, he should kill everyone first and then get his car back.)
The sequel’s story concerns Wick’s marker of debt — stamped in blood and called in by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the fellow killer who brokered Wick’s escape from the assassin’s trade. Part of D’Antonio’s deal, we learn, was that Wick stay retired, and D’Antonio presumes Wick’s revenge revival means he’s back in business. If Wick refuses, runs or retaliates, he’s dead. So he begrudgingly accepts D’Antonio’s mission – for murder, of course – on a promise of absolution for further obligations.
Saying too much more would ruin quietly awesome ways in which Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski build out the world — established in the original and pitched at levels subterranean and subconscious to our own — in which these assassins work. To plan the hit, Wick returns to both New York and Rome locations of the Continental, a hotel doubling as neutral ground for feuding killers. (They don’t take pets, though, so his new best friend is sidelined to doggie daycare.) We learn of an Arthurian / Shogunate High Table, a governing body of the assassin brotherhood caught in an inner-city New York power-grab more persuasively established in 10 minutes here than in 10 episodes of most Netflix Marvel series. Occasional cutaways to switchboards — staffed by pink-bloused, tattooed clerks filing the paperwork on the group’s many murder contracts — cross Terry Gilliam’s busywork bustle, J.K. Rowling’s fantastical hidden realms and the Suicide Girls’ brash aesthetic.
As the guy swept up in this mess, Reeves feels a tad less emotionally persuasive than before (but still physically aces) until you realize that Wick’s reputation — and eventual raison d’etre — is the one foe he cannot put down with pistols or punches. So high are his hackles that even a welcoming gesture could precede a chop strike, and Reeves infuses cheesy laugh lines with inescapable, insatiable bloodlust.
If the first film sent Wick into the underworld like Orpheus, here’s he’s a perpetually beset Poe protagonist – echoes of “The Telltale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Raven” reverberating in his brain. Shoji screen architecture in his home casts shadows of rain on his wall — pain aestheticized as interior decor. As Wick futilely buries his weapons, this “Telltale” passage comes to mind: “Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily, how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
In its back half — essentially a citywide public art exhibition, from subway platforms and cars to Lincoln Center and, finally, a hall of mirrors marrying M.C. Escher and Enter the Dragon — Chapter Two also examines violence’s performative appeal. Many of us rubberneck to glimpse it in real life. Stahelski goes even bigger with long, confident, full-tilt displays of muscular physicality.
Beautifully staged and shot, each relentless sequence embodies brutal bone-crunching and a European elegance often co-opted by studios but rarely given such sensate room to breathe. (The finale features the best crowd-pleasing collapse into spatial abstraction and self-reflection in a mainstream movie since Inside Out.) These bits also pummel home character details like as the professional courtesy Wick affords to Cassian (Common), with whom he indulges hardcore fights befitting the Octagon and quiet late-night drinks. A bit where they discreetly exchange public gunfire, like brothers flicking each other’s ears, is a sly grace note.Chapter Two is not without miscues. Alongside the gothic gloom it generates, it struggles to infuse more situational cheeky humor as in the original; a gun sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz) particularly seems ported in from a sketch-comedy sendup of Kingsman: The Secret Service. And a moment where a crowd of fans cheers one kill shot onstage at a concert feels briefly distasteful after the Bataclan terrorist attack.
But overall, at 122 minutes, this longer Wick still burns clean — all the way to flickers of a third chapter that will be most welcome, provided the creative team can once again rustle up such revelry of refined rambunctiousness.