When it comes to choreography, the spunky dreamers of La La Land have nothing on the death dances Keanu Reeves leads in John Wick: Chapter 2. This movie's balletic brutality, its relentless pacing and practical stunt work are breathtaking. Or maybe that's just a No. 2 pencil shoved in my throat.
That's one of the killing techniques on display in this ultra-violent and equally entertaining sequel to 2014's cult fave. Chad Stahelski's follow-up is further proof of his talent, and that the actor he stunt-doubled for in The Matrix trilogy paid attention.
Reeves may be the most physically-involved action star working today, Tom Cruise's wire stunts be damned. The poundings are faked but his martial arts parries and thrusts, often in extended single takes, are remarkably staged, framed and carried out. John Wick: Chapter 2 is so relentless that it's exhausting; not a bad problem to have.
There's a movie's worth of action before the opening credits, starting with a silent film calamity over a street chase soundtrack. John's angry, tying up loose ends minutes after the first film ended. Then it's yellow cabs stuffed with heroin, bundles of cash in mahogany boxes, Russian mobsters (Peter Stormare!) with expendable goons, only one of whom gets an upper hand on John. Nothing a couple of bullets to the kneecaps can't solve.
John takes back his Mustang, smashing it to metal pulp during the getaway. Doesn't drive as well but it's the principle of the matter. Honor, both personal and collective, are at the heart of John's saga. His first chapter vengeance for a murdered dog was rash but understandable. John's determination to grieve in peace for his dead wife (Michelle Moynahan in flashback glimpses) is admirably in vain.
But this last burst of gunfire and knife gashing doesn't sit well with Winston (Ian McShane), leader of the Continental, a secret society of assassins. Winston manages a plush hotel sanctuary for Continental members, where bad blood can't be spilled. Like everyone else, he warns John that getting out of the death game is impossible.
No sooner has John buried his weapons and gold coin nest egg than Savatino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a blood oath, a "marker" that according to Continental rules can't be declined. Savatino wants John to murder his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), giving him a seat at "the big table" of international crime lords. John refuses the hit and gets a rocket launcher home remodeling, changing his mind.
John heads to Rome, where Gianna lives in a catacombs palace, so he goes shopping for boutique weaponry and Italian suits with body armor lining that'll come in handy. Especially when Gianna's bodyguard Cassian (Common) seeks revenge. Two brawls with John and Cassian end violently amusing, as murderous, courteous professionals.
Stahelski often plays old action tropes in new keys: No matter where John's stalking, there's a secret passage through a sweat shop or soup kitchen with surprises. Hall of mirrors showdowns aren't quite as clichéd outside carnivals. The general bonhomie among Continental clientele adds wit to vendettas.
Mostly there's a buoyant ruthlessness at work here, beyond the genre's typical urging to gasp-laugh at point-blank brain splatter. Here, pink mists are practically a running gag. John Wick: Chapter 2 feels video gamey at times yet always follows with something right, like a terrifically paranoid finale. Bring on chapter 3.
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