- DEATH BY GUNSHOT, DEATH BY PENCIL: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is back, and he's landed squarely in the middle of the sort of stylized gunplay that made its 2014 predecessor an unexpected hit.
Since the first "John Wick" bum-rushed everyone's senses at the end of 2014, no similar shoot-'em-up gangland noir has managed to capture its flavor: frantic yet dark, wry yet hyperbolic. The plot — a retired hitman single-handedly wipes out an entire New York mafia after one of its members kills his dog and steals his car — was like a monster movie where you root for the monster. "The boogeyman," the doomed Russian thugs called him, and with Keanu Reeves in the title role, there wasn't anything remotely warm to offset the moniker. This was a stone-cold killer hell-bent on avenging his puppy. It was the stuff of a campy cult classic that blew up into a stealthy blockbuster, and a sequel was inevitable.
Alas, there was almost no way "John Wick: Chapter 2" could match the zany bleakness of the first, simply because, like the poor mafiosos in the first installment, we now could see the monster coming. Yet the second installment is eager to play crowd-pleaser. It plumbs deeper into the parts of Wick's underworld we wanted to see more of; namely, the illuminati-esque criminal network that supported Ian McShane's comically genteel Continental hotel in Manhattan, and a hint more of Wick's backstory without getting too talky. We get nastier gunplay, more fisticuffs that end in stabbings, more gold coins. Also, he has a new dog. It is cute, and it lives.
What he doesn't have yet is an out. The moment he finishes entombing his guns and gold under a fresh layer of cement in his basement, a fellow hitman named Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, very Italianly) arrives at his house and asks him to return a blood oath favor. Wick, knowing better, declines. So Santino blows up his house. Wick relents, and is sent to Rome on a mission that winds up making him the target of every contract assassin in New York. Wick being Wick, he stomps through would-be killers like Godzilla, stopping only to reload and to not quite die.
The challenge stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski faces is how to keep all of this carnage feeling distinct and relevant within the story — because there is a ton of killing in this movie. In the placement of the camera and the pace of the fighting, Wick often feels less like a protagonist and more like an avatar in a first-person shooter, a live-action "Call of Duty" installment. In close quarters, the monotony does get a break, as when Wick has to fight a bodyguard (Common) on a subway car, or when he memorably employs a single pencil to thwart a pair of assassins, or plays cat-and-mouse in a neon-lit, hall-of-mirrors museum installment called "Reflections of the Soul." The action, though, can slump toward the rote. Wave after wave of minions rush at Wick headlong, as if he were not snapping necks and shooting holes in them by the dozens.
More exciting by half are the stylish glimpses of this underworld network that Wick is trying to escape. The Continental's decorum remains a source of deadpan humor, especially in its newly revealed Rome outpost and in its throwback phone room, where a staff of heavily tattooed rockabilly secretaries in matching pink outfits disseminate contracts via switchboards and early-'80s computers. Touches like these are why "John Wick" is budding into a franchise that's promising a long run (as well as video game and VR adaptations). We got through an entire sequel without learning much new about Wick as a character. But somehow that doesn't make the certainty of a "John Wick: Chapter 3" any less attractive.