First, the good news: The dog doesn’t die in John Wick: Chapter 2. This will come as a relief to some of us who adored the original, an action masterpiece about a retired hitman taking unholy revenge on the Russian scumbags who killed his pup and stole his car. The unbearable death of John Wick’s pooch — and yes, I know I’m being hypocritical about this, since the film also featured scads of humans being killed — was one reason why I could never recommend the first film to certain people in my life. Animal lovers can see this new one.
Now, the bad news: The dog doesn’t die in John Wick: Chapter 2. The thirst for bloody vengeance that fueled the original — that made us cheer our stone-faced hero on as he shot, strangled, sliced, stabbed, battered and blew up his way through armies of men — is less powerful this time. We knew very little about John Wick in the first movie, but he became real through his loss and his ensuing righteous bloodlust. Here, we care about him simply because we saw the first movie.
Without that crucial emotional element, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a somewhat more distanced affair. But it’s still an impressively dizzying symphony of carnage. Our hero (again played with stoic angst by Keanu Reeves) finds himself a pawn in the middle of a Mafia family rivalry, as he’s forced — thanks to an ironclad but somewhat awkwardly explained blood oath — by Camorra leader Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to assassinate the man’s own sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Wick still wants out of this life and is reluctant to take the job, but a couple of missiles aimed directly at his house convince him otherwise, so off to Rome he goes. The hit, however, makes him a target for fellow killer and old friend Cassian (Common), who runs Gianna’s massive security operation. What’s worse, Santino himself puts out a bounty on Wick, too — yes, the very man he hired — because he doesn’t want any loose ends.
So basically, everybody wants to kill John Wick. And they all try. The film has some fun with the sheer volume of these attacks: Its most striking sequence involves intercutting between three separate attempts on Wick’s life, each with its own rhythm and each requiring its own share of elaborate ass-kicking. By removing the least interesting element from these scenes — the question of whether John Wick will survive, because duh — director Chad Stahelski (who co-directed the original with David Leitch) turns them into pure studies in motion.
That actually holds true for most of the film. The first movie had an impressively formalist bent: Wick’s movement through different, seemingly color-coded spaces highlighted the fact that he was turning on the world that created him — he was breaking its boundaries. Besides taking on qualities of dance, Wick fighting and shooting his way through rampaging, anonymous henchmen in long takes suggested that this man, for all his attempts at a new life, was most in his element while killing. The long takes are still there; if anything, they’re even more protracted and impressively choreographed than before.
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The intense stylization now seems to contrast the clean, angular world of the proper and powerful with the subterranean world of the transgressor. Wick uses the catacombs beneath Rome to get around, and later turns to the highly organized beggar-army of an underworld leader called the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) to go into hiding in New York. Stahelski makes the most of the diversity of this palette, from ancient tunnels and crowded rooftops to futuristic train stations, from elegant baroque waiting rooms to vast gallery spaces filled with neoclassical sculptures. The John Wick movies are the coffee-table books of action cinema.
The film is at its least interesting when it tries to make sense. There’s a greater focus this time on fleshing out the details of Wick’s weird, fairy-tale world of assassins. In the original, the setting of the Continental Hotel — an all-powerful, seemingly ancient institution for hired killers run via an elaborate honor system — was treated not as universe-building mythology but as a fascinating grace note, a sign that none of this was meant to be taken very seriously. Here, we see a lot more of the Continental, as well as its counterpart in Rome. We also see more of its inner workings: When Santino puts his hit out on Wick, it goes through a switchboard in a massive office where tattooed women in business attire professionally type up the orders on a variety of outdated machines and then send them out in pneumatic tubes.
These scenes are amusing, but they also create a disconnect: The more details we get, the more questions we ask, and I’m not sure any of it really stands up to that sort of scrutiny. In the end, this much plot detail and world-building feels like a distraction from the cleverly coordinated scenes of slaughter. This new film doesn’t have the emotional grounding of the original, and it probably dwells too long explaining things we never cared about. But it’s still a visceral, cathartic and — most importantly — gorgeous two hours of kinetic, poetic bloodshed.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, and Ruby Rose. Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Rated R. 122 minutes. Opens Friday, February 10.