‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ and the Graceful Ballet of Mass Bloodshed

The first person we see in John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t Keanu Reeves, or Ian McShane, or Laurence Fishburne. It’s Buster Keaton. A clip from one of his daredevil short comedies is projected onto a building in midtown Manhattan (as happens, y’know, all the time), its silence quickly broken by roaring engines and a breathless motorcycle and car chase, and we’re off and running.

But before we follow, pause a moment, and ruminate on that choice. Everything in a big production like this is intentional, and that little shout-out to the Great Stone Face is a clear, clean mission statement from director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad. That’s who their influence is, and you can see it in the comic precision of the stunts, fights, and kills (and the way both their cameras and their characters react to them). On the surface, the John Wick movies are pro-forma vengeance-based shoot-‘em-ups. Look closer.

Their sense of humor is likably self-aware – playing up the cool, iconic hero stuff, the gunplay and death, but winking at the audience. We know what they’re up to, and they know that we know, so when the pre-title sequence includes a clueless flunky asking of the title character, “Why can’t we just… eliminate him,” we all snicker. You can’t eliminate him. He’s John fucking Wick! (Peter Stormare plays the eventual target in this sequence, and his cutaways are worth the price of admission alone.)

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The first film told of how Wick, a ruthlessly efficient hitman, was brought back into action following the death of his beloved wife. He finally evens that score in the opening, but is asked, “Can a man like you know peace?” It’s a good question; he may go off the job, but he’s still wrestling with his grief. And no sooner has he reapplied the cement to the basement floor than his doorbell rings. “Just when I think I’m out,” etc. The ringer of that bell is Santino (Riccardo Scarmarico), there to call in a marker from John’s assassin days – a literal, physical marker. “I’m not that guy anymore,” he insists. “You’re always that guy, John,” Santino retorts.

And we’re off and running. That marker is a juicy new addition to the finely-honed Wick world, full of rules and codes (“Without them, we live with the animals,” shrugs Ian McShane’s Winston), jargon and rituals. Wick’s mission takes him to the Rome location of the Continental, the first film’s swanky New York hotel, run and populated by paid killers with the understanding that no business may be conducted on its grounds. The Roman Continental, in a touch so perfect your correspondent might have squealed, is run by Franco Nero. (“Are you here for the Pope?” he asks Wick, with concern.)

Wick, I’ve somehow neglected to mention, is played by Keanu Reeves, again surrounded by a cast of great character actors; in addition to McShane, John Leguizamo, and Lance Reddick (holdouts from the first film), this one’s got Nero, Stormare, and Reeves’s old Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne. Reeves does the heavy action lifting, his co-stars do the heavy acting lifting, and this is as it should be. Keanu isn’t trying to do Shakespeare or Stoker anymore, and hasn’t for a while, but here, the first time, he legitimately recalls Clint Eastwood. It’s not just manifested in his taciturn nature (as Santino puts it, he’s “never one to waste words”) – it’s how, with age, he’s embraced his limited range, which has in turn hardened into sheer presence and gravitas. He’s not a great actor, but when he’s taking out a room full of gangsters and baddies single-handedly, he’s never less than convincing.

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That’s thanks, in no small part, to the skill with which Stahelski stages and shoots that action. It is – in stark contrast to the typical, Bay-influenced action pic – not chopped all to shit. On a level of sheer physicality, it’s impressive (watch out for the brutal fistfight that rolls down several sets of steep, stone steps), but that’s not all that’s striking. There’s a choreographed elegance to the gun fighting (these guys clearly spent a lot of time watching John Woo movies) and physical brawls, and whenever possible, they keep the compositions medium-wide and the takes medium-length, so we may better appreciate not just individual actions, but the musicality of the whole. There’s an art to this; at times, the John Wick movies are less narratives than dance recitals.

Action movies may not be your cup of joe, which is fine, and John Wick will probably not transform your view. But like any genre, reputable or no, you can do these things lazily, or you can do them well – with imagination, ingenuity, wit, and skill. It pays off. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a blast.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is out Friday.