“You wanted me back. I’m back.”
Keanu Reeves has enjoyed somewhat of a career renaissance thanks in no small part to the success of John Wick in 2014. There he teamed up with some stunt friends of his going back to The Matrix, and together they brought a new action hero to the screen that was as much graphic novel as it was action film. It would become the directing debut of the stunt team of Stahelsky and David Leitch. Along with their action star, everyone stuck to what they knew and refused to overcomplicate the whole thing. That led to a box office haul of $86 million worldwide and a respectful enough budget to make a sequel seem like a good possibility. It took three years, but that possibility has turned into John Wick: Chapter 2.
The first couple of minutes works as closure for the first film as Wick gets his car back. It gives you that quick introduction of the character and a reminder of what he can do and the legendary reputation he has earned. A few of the first film’s beats are reproduced here strictly for nostalgia. That includes a pretty nice performance by Peter Stormare as another Russian mobster family member of last film’s kid. He gets to deliver the quiet warning about Wick, and there are some pretty sweet cuts to his facial expressions while he listens to the carnage of Wick taking out his thugs. It’s a wonderful chance for the filmmakers to wink at the audience and remind us that we’re all in it for the fun of it all. A couple of hundred dead bad guys later we get to the sequel’s real story.
John Wick has been trying to retire to the quiet life. To do that he had given a marker to Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio). Now Santino wants to cash in the marker, and the rules of the organization require Wick to honor the promise. Of course, Wick attempts to turn the job down, which leaves to disastrous results to his life. Reluctant though he might be, he takes on the marker. Santino wants his sister’s seat at an international “board of directors” of sorts. He wants Wick to travel to Rome and take her out, which isn’t going to be easy, because she’s protected by folks just like him, including rival hitman Cassian, played by Common. Then there’s the problem that Santino has to avenge his sister’s death, for appearances, naturally. Suddenly there’s a $7 million contract on his head, and every assassin in the world is looking to collect. He ends up violating the rules to get his revenge and ends the movie on the outs and a hunted man. You knew they were going to set up Chapter 3, didn’t you?
There’s little question that Reeves has learned to step up his acting game here just enough to allow for a few emotional beats in the story. He’s in no danger of setting the awards community on fire, but he’s pretty much the perfect guy for this film. Wick is dangerous because he can be singly focused and more of an automotron than a human being. The action occurs at breakneck speed with Wick moving from one kill to another, all with laser-sharp focus on the endgame. This is pretty much like watching a video game character. The kills happen with quick precision, and each of Wick’s rampages is another level leading to some boss level that doesn’t really come in this film. I suspect there are a few other levels to play before we get there. There’s very little dialog here, and most of the supporting cast is really there to round out the background. There are exceptions, of course. The filmmakers actually played it smart by casting a pretty weak actor to play the lead bad guy. This isn’t any Bond larger-than-life arch-nemesis. He’s a weak character that is crafted carefully to avoid anything or anyone drawing attentions to Reeves as a somewhat flawed performer. He’s a one-trick dog and pony show, but this happens to be that one trick.
Lance Reddick returns as the hotel service specialist Caron, and Ian McShane gets an expanded role as Winston this time. The sweet supporting role isn’t a crucial moment of the film. It’s a character named The Bowery King, who is far more flash than substance. He’s merely a way for Wick to get from point D to point E. He could very well be a complete throwaway if it were not for the fact he’s played by Laurence Fishburne, and the reunion of these two Matrix leads is a little bit emotional in a film-nostalgia kind of way. It’s a grand gesture to provide some candy for the fans. It’s just another example of Reeves and company winking at the audience. And we don’t mind at all.
There is a collection of scenes that show Wick preparing for his assignment. It’s a rather enjoyable romp through the world of this underground association. It’s pretty much a parody of every James Bond film we saw, but I have to admit that ride was some of the most fun I had here. For most fans it’s going to be all about the outlandish violence. If you liked the first film, there’s plenty of that here, and I suspect there is plenty more where that came from. In Chapter 3 I expect “The man. The myth. The legend. John Wick.”