Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Lots of stylish action highlight this sequel that reteams Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne

John Wick: Chapter 2
Directed by Chad Stahelski
With Keanu Reeves, Common. Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick

Almost everyone has a daydream of what it would be like to live a stylish and fashionable life among the elite. The John Wick series, now on its second film but with more sure to come, delves deep into a fantasy world of international assassins and their code of conduct.

Keanu Reeves returns in the title role of John Wick: Chapter 2, which takes place just days after the events of the first film from 2014. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad worked on both films.

If you somehow missed the first film, don't worry. There is little that needs explanation. The sequel is basically one protracted fight with a few lines of dialogue to explain why the shooting is moving from one venue to another. John Wick, a retired hitman, is seeking revenge over his stolen car and dead puppy. This somehow leads to him having to take on powerful and well-protected organized crime leaders in New York and Rome.

There are gun battles in museums, but none of the artwork gets damaged. There are shootouts in crowds, but no bystanders seem to get hit. Nobody seems to be a good shot, as hundreds of rounds seem to hit nothing at all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is notable for the first onscreen teaming of Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne since the Matrix films. Model and actress Ruby Rose appears in John Wick: Chapter 2 as a mute assassin with a butch haircut, trying hard to channel the image of the Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss. The John Wick series and the Matrix series have similar aspirations, to create an alternative reality that somewhat resembles our own but is a bit more thrilling and fashionable. The Matrix was much more successful, but the John Wick films have a surreal appeal that may eventually wear the viewer down into numb acceptance. In the end though, it seems like a pale copy with some of the stars, style and action but not the depth or complexity.

In the John Wick films, all of the top assassins use one international chain of hotels, on the agreement that no violence takes place there. Wick goes to one and asks to see the sommelier. He buys and arsenal of weapons using wine-related terms. Both characters speak in that slightly distanced manner that you hear butlers use in British drama. The hotel in New York is managed by a man named Winston, played by Ian McShane. He also brings that high-class aloofness to his role, being above all of the violence and mayhem while he actively facilitates it.

The hotel chain has a retro style, and there is a recurring gimmick of important information coming in over dial phones, followed by entries made by hand in a ledger and being typed up on paper to be put in a pneumatic tube — similar to Terry Gilliam's film 1985 film Brazil.

Then messages are sent out via text message to the vast network of assassins, which seems to include everyone from homeless people on up. When someone gets on the wrong side of the group, there is danger on every corner and in every subway tunnel.

In this chapter, John Wick is caught having to fulfill a favor because someone has his bloody thumb print in a silver locket. This sort of promise has a bunch of special rules that John Wick has to obey or else, another one of those bizarre hitman fantasy elements that permeate the story.

The film tries to evoke the style of the Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and '90s, with a few quick nods to other films. There are references to John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai and the James Bond films, among others.

The eye on style and fashion is well done, with notable exceptions like Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, a leader of the lower classes. But aside from the noisy shootouts in a variety of settings, the film has little to offer.

The direction is crisp, with little time wasted between the action scenes. The story has its own internal logic, but may leave many viewers a bit cold. Keanu Reeves is well cast, as he is meant to be the silent type that stares blankly much of the time. The few scenes where he actually has to deliver some feeling in his lines are a bit awkward. Laurence Fishburne and John Leguizamo are in the film all too briefly, as they are actually decent performers.

Fans of well-orchestrated violence will love the film, and it scores highly for that. Those who want a meaningful drama will be a little bit at sea.

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