Really, the literary pretensions of the appended subtitle – a simple John Wick 2 will not do for director Chad Stahelski when the medium of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky may be invoked – tell us everything we need to know about the regal aspirations of John Wick: Chapter 2. Although, in point of fact, it is not literature that is the guiding light of Chapter 2. The most overt antecedent is actually dance, especially if you solder the performance to the dexterous, lustrous lighting of an interactive art showpiece, leading to a film that is not unlike a work of immersive theater. Provided that it is immersing you into buckets of the red stuff of course. A good hundred or so people meet the nasty end of Keanu Reeves’ gun. And knives. And pencil. But it has the florid resplendence of Swan Lake. Somewhere, Wagner is probably smiling.
Stahelski registers a disarming mixture of combustible cinematic heat – motion, most obviously – and reptilian, cold-blooded chill. It turns out, the only thing cooler than cool is having Keanu Reeves perform a less melodramatic – and, frankly, more harrowing – version of the Joker’s infamous disappearing pencil trick from The Dark Knight. For his part, the once A-lister sharpens his resolve and his ten-thousand-yard stare and moves through the film with a brutally efficient, pulverizing sangfroid. He radiates a stoic, negative-energy charisma. But, with apologies, Staheski’s team are the real stars of Chapter 2, radiating the effusive energy of their influences. The director imports lighting from Dario Argento, blocking from Jean-Pierre Melville (by way of John Woo), an overall sensibility from Continental European theater, and, of course, arterial sequin décor from the inimitable Jackson Pollock.
Staheski also radiates an inimitably precise skill – almost dictatorially so – with the syntax of the camera and the grammar of murder, choreographing his set-pieces with a tightly-limned focus and perfectionism that suggests he would made a killer Concierge (pun not intended) if his directorial career ever fizzles out. Thankfully, judging from John Wick: Chapter 2, I don’t foresee that happening any time soon. Working with writer Derek Kolstad – also a veteran of the prior production – they spin a yarn that is merely a canvas for the tensile-strength of their compositions and their poetry of interlocking human bodies in the throes of mortal combat. But the story is lubricant enough for the lacerating visual skill on display. Charged with murdering Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini) by her brother Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) – she is his only competition for a seat at a criminal-assassin governing roundtable – Reeves’ inescapably talented but recently retired hitman John Wick has no choice but to agree. Apparently, Wick had entered into a kind of literal blood pact with Santino in order to retire before the first movie began, and now he is bound to aid Santino lest the entire assassin community be turned on him.
Which is what happens anyway when the conniving Santino turns his back on Wick post-kill, putting a bounty on his head in order to avenge his sister’s death and mask his own complicity in it. With Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) on his tail and head-of-the-assassin-society Winston (Ian McShane) able to do little but provide Wick sage advice, Wick is naturally thrown further into the midst of the society he wants out of. But the script, thankfully, has no time for the brooding machismo that has befallen so many male-soul-in-agony pictures before Wick. Style, not substance, is Wick’s game, or rather, style as substance if one is on-board with the substance of maximally poetic death-dealing in a film replete with enough bespoke visual armaments to supply a flotilla of films from Hong Kong.
That said, the film’s self-imposed narrative also takes The Raid 2’s path of not simply tightening the screws of the first film but opening itself up considerably, and not always for the better. In this case, the script for John Wick: Chapter 2 provides a full Neighborhood Watch Association’s worth of rules for the Continental Hotel, the central hub of the assassin’s organization. In doing so, the film expands its breadth, nearly concocting a sub-sci-fi underground obviously primed for salivating film geeks who seem to adore anything that engages in that perennial favorite known as “cinematic world-building”. However, this world-building is the lone area where the film’s pretensions – which are legion – get the better of it, subjecting the wonderfully minimalistic characterizations of the first film to a style that blows them out of proportion.
2014’s John Wick was an eminently self-contained feature debut, nodding in its periphery toward the larger assassin society and acknowledging – befitting Wick’s disinterest in the assassin community at the time – that the film had better things to do than lose itself in the milieu of a culture its protagonist wanted nothing to do with. The minimalist narrative grammar of the earlier production was deployed to suggest the spare life of the man at its center – laser-focused on one goal, unable to see the world around him, more a walking corpse than a human.
This new production plunges the murderous minimalism into a labyrinth of narrative complication for little reason beyond the unspoken doctrine that a sequel must enhance the girth of its predecessor. This leads to a slightly stentorian production that, rather than introducing a showman’s baroque flair for complication to this three-ring-circus of violence, only distracts from the punchy simplicity of the prior film. The more we know about the assassins in this world, the more arbitrary and over-baked the whole affair seems.
I have to admit, then, that this sequel’s more expansive gestures weren’t always to my tastes, and whether this rhapsodically aesthetic sequel actually expands on its predecessor in meaningful ways is equivocal to me. Compared to the ferociously trim, violently cramped worldview of the original film, which really felt like a critique of Wick’s single-minded violence and his inability to imagine life outside of his chosen idiom, the sequel’s clear fascination with the high-brow “appreciation of the craft” aspects of assassin culture not limned to Wick’s perspective feel more needlessly infatuated with the possibilities of visualizing this culture without seriously critiquing it. Even if the script once or twice feigns more “overt” critiques of Wick, everything about the visual style, so palpably energized by its death-dealing, contradicts this.
But Chapter 2 is never so garish to display its wares out in the open. Despite saying too much, it always preserves at least a half-presence of the minimalist mystique so central to the first film. It’s not like the script stops dead for the maltreatment of thirty minute exposition dumps, a la whatever Michael Bay film is being released this summer. In particular, Laurence Fishburne’s presence as the king of an underground homeless network in the Bowery is kept gleefully at a remove from us. It sounds like something Johnny Ramone would pen if he took to science fiction writing as an outlet for mid-life crisis, and the film’s willingness to tip its hand without showing all of its cards reintroduces the first film’s sly, cunning nonchalance about introducing rather silly asides about assassin culture without caving to the impulse to explain it all. It’s not diamond cut and singed off excess like its predecessor, but it’ll do.
Besides, to some extent, that is neither here nor there is such an openly, feverishly aestheticized creature, a portmanteau of high and low art brought to a devilish boil before being steeped down to its near-purest form. There are copious formal flourishes around every corner. Every location is repurposable – reimaginable, more accurately – as a hall of death, from Roman catacombs to a modernist art show replete with bountiful mirrors, leading to a scene that feels like the last revenge of Enter the Dragon. And the technical credentials are not merely perfect but buoyant, experimental, exultant. Even slightly compromised by how enamored with its own aesthetic the film is, John Wick: Chapter 2 still boasts that mercurial mixture of hot-blooded brio and cool-customer frigidity that made the first film such a potent venom.