And they didn’t even kill his dog this time.
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a scene from a Buster Keaton film projected onto a building in New York City. It lasts just a few seconds before shots are fired and we’re whisked into the film’s first chase sequence, but the tribute is fitting. This may as well be a silent film for all the import words have here – assassin Wick takes several seconds and multiple syllables to grind out lines like “Yes.” One of his rivals, played by Ruby Rose, is mute; when another, Cassian (Common), says, “Consider this a professional courtesy”, it’s as if he were offering a line of verse.
Remember when Wick fell in love and left the whole assassin scene behind? Turns out his safe retirement was made possible through a blood debt – one he’s obliged to honour by the rules of whatever shadowy organization hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane) heads and Wick’s a member of. The dapper Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes to collect: he wants Wick to go to Rome and kill his sister, the head of the mafia. This sets up the film’s best joke; when Wick arrives in Italy, Julius (Franco Nero) inquires if he’s “working”. When Wick assents, Julius asks, “Is it the Pope?”
John Wick 2 doesn’t have the luxury of offering viewers quite so flimsy a storyline as the first film, but it tries its damnedest. The pleasure – and this is a deeply pleasurable film if you can wince your way through moments the extreme violence – isn’t in where the plot takes us but in the ingenuity of the settings where Reeves must do battle, the eccentricities of his opponents, the almost satirical fetishizing of weaponry, and the brutal efficiency of the action choreography. Director Chad Stahelski, who co-helmed the first film with David Leitch, is a former stuntman, which might explain his knack for presenting, coherently, bodies in violent motion.
The success of the first film has afforded Stahelski an expanded budget, which allows him to stage a long sequence in a dimly lit underground passageway underneath an old building hosting a party in Rome, and another in a dazzling hall of mirrors in a New York museum. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak) shoots the latter scene, with its echoes of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, like he’s trying to outdo Roger Deakins’ work in the Shanghai passage of Skyfall. And he does.
It’s strangely heartening to see the actors who made it out of the first film alive – McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Thomas Sadoski – turn up for cameos or slightly longer parts here. Rose continues the mini-tradition of lethal female assassins in John Wick films, and Scamarcio chews scenery very entertainingly as the petulant crime boss. Idiosyncratic performers turn up for a scene or two: Peter Stormare; Franco Nero, the original Django. I wouldn’t want to ruin one of the film’s better surprises; suffice to say there’s a meeting of two actors that should bring a fond smile to anyone who grew up watching films in the ‘90s.
Rather embarrassingly, for this is a deeply silly film, I had a fond smile on my face through long stretches of John Wick 2. I could have done without so many headshots, and I’m not sure seeing Wick actually kill men with a pencil is as much fun as hearing about it. But as far as precisely executed action is concerned, you won’t find much better coming out of Hollywood today. And then there’s Reeves, he of the halting delivery and one of the most classically beautiful countenances in cinema (in one scene, he’s enclosed within a gilt frame). To use a title usually reserved for Buster Keaton, he’s the Great Stone Face of his generation.