After a campy opening action sequence that must have been ordered up by a studio boob looking for something more “lite,” Chad Stahelski’s shoot-’em-up, hack-’em-up John Wick: Chapter 2 settles into one of the bleakest bloodbaths you’ll see outside an actual war movie. It’s both crazy-violent and funereal, too grim for guiltless kicks, but in its way, quite beautiful. The carnage is abstract, ritualized, like something out of Kabuki theater, where even the most senseless brutality has firm rules of order.
The first John Wick had its champions (I wasn’t among them), but next to its sequel it seems cartoonishly thin. It began, you’ll recall, with the eponymous ex-super-assassin (Keanu Reeves) mourning his wife, who has just died from natural causes. Wick is relit after a psychotic bully — the son of a Slavic kingpin — steals his vintage automobile and kills the puppy that had been his wife’s last (posthumous) gift. Action-movie premises don’t come much more elemental.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is built on something comparatively complicated. To resign from a club that does not let its members go lightly, Wick apparently gave his “marker” (a fancy coin) to a sleek Italian hood named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). As the movie proper begins, Santino shows up at John’s secluded modernist house in the New York suburbs. (Wick is daring the gods by moving into a place with so many floor-to-ceiling windows: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t fire CA-415 assault rifles.) He wants John to murder his mob-boss sister. (Santino’s mob-boss sister, not John’s: John doesn’t appear to have any family except his new dog and his wife in flashbacks.) Wick abhors the task, but to refuse would mean death. To accept would likely mean death, too, but Wick would at least have righteousness on his side. Keanu is most excellent when he’s righteous.
The movie instantly improves when Wick strides into the tony Continental Hotel, which caters to the most violent people on Earth but where violence is verboten. It’s presided over by a charmingly fatalistic Ian McShane as Winston, a man who has seen and done many brutal things but whose sense of decorum is matchless. (He calls John “Jonathan,” which threw me since the diminutive of Jonathan is “Jon.” Perhaps John Wick was originally Jonathan Wickstein.) Lance Reddick with an Afro-Caribbean accent plays the elaborately formal desk clerk, Charon, who welcomes “Mr. Wick” with what seems like a glimmer of actual affection — a passing nod from one River Styx pure soul to another. In the hotel’s Rome branch (run by Franco Nero as “Julius”), Wick acquires his elegant bulletproof wardrobe and yummy array of weapons, the latter from the great Peter Serafinowicz as “the Sommelier.” Then he heads for Rome to meet his prey — and his destiny.
What follows has little logic and less credibility, but that’s a minor quibble. The ancient Catacombs are a mythic setting for a battle between a demigod and a wave of phantoms — near-anonymous figures that rush from the blue mist and are promptly sent back into it, pinwheeling gore. The body count of John Wick: Chapter 2 is stratospheric, but the assailants aren’t weightless and interchangeable, as in a video game. Stahelski is a former stunt double, and he choreographs the action in breathtaking long takes, as if to create a Rite of Spring for gore-hounds, each kill more convulsive than the last, each attacker a nastier gag sprung by sonofabitch gods. And Stahelski tops himself in the final battle sequence, in which practically every Manhattan denizen — homeless or high-toned — turns out to be an assassin in search of the $7 million dollar bounty on Wick’s head. The third act begins astride the fountain at Lincoln Center, continues into the new Calatrava PATH station’s pretentious white subterranean passageways, and reaches its climax in a geographically absurd and graphically mesmerizing odyssey through the subway system, dead-ending in a museum hall of mirrors in which the mirrors also spin to spit out even more bad tidings. It’s such a tour de force that when the voice of Santino starts taunting the mirrored Wick about his dual nature, you don’t laugh at the movie, you laugh with it.
For a movie so visual (how many shades of blue can you count?), John Wick: Chapter 2 has quite a clever script. Derek Kolstad anchors that abstract action with good, spiky passages of dialogue. Winston’s lines are loaded with portent. Santino’s grinning deaf-mute sidekick Ares (Ruby Rose) conveys pleasantries in sign language that seem positively diabolical. (She fights superbly, too.) Reeves’s old Matrix mentor Laurence Fishburne has a juicy scene as the wily “Bowery King,” the Lord of the Bums. Some of the best exchanges are between rival warriors John and Cassian (Common), the latter a thoroughly decent fellow compelled by protocol to kill the man who killed his “ward” — and also compelled to sip a drink with him civilly in the confines of the Continental.
It’s worth asking if John Wick: Chapter 2 finally transcends its dreck-y genre. Maybe just — but it’s still dreck-adjacent. I’d be a hypocrite, though, if I moralized about the evils of spending two hours watching dudes get royally wasted when many times I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and turn on the TV in search of something violent, no matter how shitty, no matter if it stars Steven Seagal or Sylvester Stallone. (I save Ozu and Bresson for early evenings.) John Wick: Chapter 2 is the apotheosis of a 3 a.m. cable wallow. And loving it doesn’t corrupt you. Near the end, there’s a shoot-out in a fancy art museum where the white walls are splattered with blood. But the paintings remain untouched. The movie says that even in hell, there’s such a thing as decorum.