"John Wick: Chapter 2" Ups Stakes, Bloodletting

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a reasonable man, get off his case.

In 2014, the hitman emeritus emerged from retirement to avenge the death of his Beagle puppy, a posthumous gift from his late wife. Now, picking up where his first movie left off, he just wants his car back: a ’69 Ford Mustang that remains in the custody of the Tarasov crime family. To wit, Abram (Peter Stormare), the brother and uncle of the first film’s now deceased bad guys. “Chapter 2” begins with a long, wild prologue, that sees Wick raid a Tarasov warehouse to extricate his car, with amusingly little concern for its welfare. It’s the principle of the thing, after all.

The sequence immediately finds a better balance between serious and silly than the original film ever did, finding blustery beauty in a roaring cacophony of car engines. Wanton destruction has rarely seemed as poetic.

But just when the Francis Bacon of blood spatter, Jackson Pollock with a gun finally seems to have his once quiet life back in order, his past comes calling. A man named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a killer to whom Wick owes a debt, demands the assassination of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). After much arm-twisting on the part of D’Antonio, Wick leaves his new dog under the care of Continental “Hitman” Hotel concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) and heads off to Rome to do what he does best: slay.

Chad Stahelski’s return to the director’s chair without partner David Leitch gives “Chapter 2” a welcome sense of focus. Gone is the original’s overcooked color grading; mostly absent are the knowing winks at the audience. They’ve been swapped out for moodier setpieces and darker thrills, the highlight of which arrives in the form of what will forever been known as the open contract montage. A massive bounty is put on Wick’s head. Assassins wriggle out of the woodwork for a literal shot at Wick. Audiences are treated to a ten-minute murder mosaic that’s at once suspenseful, imaginative, and sneakily funny.

This stretch climaxes in a surprising subway shootout between Wick and an assassin named Cassian (rapper Common), finally delivering on the creative mayhem promised but undelivered by the first film.

This also means, of course, that everything else in “Chapter 2” must be measured by the same yardstick. Most of it doesn’t stack up. Derek Kolstad’s clunky writing is no match for Stahelski’s visual ingenuity, leading to long stretches of banal dialogue and meaningless bloodletting. Wick’s aforementioned hit on Gianna D’Antonio comes with some nice build-up (Peter Serafinowicz’s cameo as a sommelier-slash-munitions-expert is a highlight) but the upshot is both anticlimactic and needlessly graphic. It’s noteworthy that the film’s female characters are either expendable or mute (Ruby Rose plays a silent assassin named Ares), adding not a lick of substance to the narrative.

A late-film reunion between “Matrix” co-stars Reeves and Laurence Fishburne as a friendly ex-assassin is a welcome kick in the pants, though. Their polished rapport is fresh and funny, an ideal respite from some of the screenplay’s duller beats, ably ramping the movie up into its frenzied final showdown. It goes down inside a mirrored New York City art exhibit, beautifully choreographed and shot, deftly marrying head spinning to headshots. It doesn’t best the open contract montage but it comes admirably close, leading into an uncommonly satisfying denouement featuring Ian McShane’s all-knowing hitman czar Winston.

In total, “Chapter 2” is mostly a gas, its significant thrills covering over its patches of monotony. Stahelski makes a strong argument for himself as the better half of the original film’s Stahelski-Leitch partnership (a bad omen for the upcoming Leitch-helmed “Deadpool 2”). The movie’s exceptional second half closes in on establishing Wick as the defining action antihero of the decade. “Chapter 3” just might get him there.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 10, 2017
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Bridget Moynahan, Franco Nero, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Peter Serafinowicz
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity)