John Wick: Chapter 2 (2016) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity
Running Time: 122 min.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini, John Leguizamo
Small role: Bridget Moynahan, Franco Nero, Peter Stormare
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenplay: Derek Kolstad

Review published February 13, 2017

Stunt guy Chad Stahelski (who worked with John Wick: Chapter 2 star Keanu Reeves (The Neon Demon, Man of Tai Chi) and bit player Laurence Fishburne (Batman v Superman) in The Matrix) returns to the help for his highly anticipated follow-up to cult hit John Wick with an entry that will likely please those who enjoyed the ballet of bullets and blood the first time around, but will gain few new converts who didn't much care for the superficial thrills of the 2014 release.  In other words, those who are titillated by well-choreographed scenes full of gratuitous kill shots and CG blood will find something to sate their bloodlust, while those who prefer interesting stories and characters with dimension will be left in the lurch yet again.

John Wick, better known to his enemies as "the Boogeyman", tries to go back into retirement after getting his revenge from those who've done him wrong.  It would work, except that one particular party, an Italian crime boss named Santino D'Antonio (Scamarcio, Burnt), means to cash in on a marker, a favor he did for Wick some time back, that must be repaid, pulling him in to do another job in the form of an assassination of his sister (Gerini, The Passion of the Christ) so that he can take her place in the super-secret organization.  Alas, the further Wick gets in, the more enemies out to snuff him out, to the point where they are like the proverbial hydra, sprouting two new enemies for every one he takes down.

While most of the aesthetic pleasures are the same this time out, Chapter 2 (odd secondary title, as this threadbare idea for a film is anything but drawn from literary origins) does draw us in a little deeper into the criminal underworld organizations that reside beyond the casual eye of non-criminals the world over, expanding from Wick's base of operations in New York City to Rome, where his latest mark is based.  In many ways, the John Wick films echo the Blade series, substituting assassins for vampires, showing us how their stylized world exists in the underground network that flourishes within bustling cities, with their own hierarchies and codes of conduct the slavishly follow.  It's also very stylized in a suprficial way, with storylines developed mostly to service the prolonged and graphic action sequences, with the hero taking down a host of bad guys in minimal time, usually in clever ways. The extended battle in a museum exhibit to represent Wick's descent into hell, with fiery LCD displays and rooms full of mirrors (a la The Lady from Shanghai, or, more fittingly for homage purposes, Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon)  to make each killing a challenge, it certainly ups the aesthetic appeal of the gun-fu carnage, as well as dabbles into its sole thematic element, whereby revenge only begets revenge, which means the assassin's trade is a hell-hole that's never truly done.

Still, it's overlong (nearly a half-hour longer than its predecessor and not any more substantial) and underdeveloped in its story.  John Wick: Chapter 2 also suffers from a relatively uninvolving first hour before finally generating some good action for its second half, enough to leave its fans feeling like they've gotten their money's worth, and perhaps a reason to come back for the obligatory Chapter 3.  For those who lack emotional or intellectual investment in the material, it feels a great deal like watching an ultraviolent videogame in demo mode, as we watch Wick come up with newer, bloodier ways to dispatch a group of nameless/faceless henchmen who don't bother hiding in surprise, or screaming in agony, most of them one-shot fatalities, until he gets to the boss battles, which are snazzy-dressed henchmen who talk and usually have a personality tic that sets them apart (such as Ruby Rose's mute assassin who communicates through sign language). 

That it does have a somewhat an endearing sense of humor about its own absurdity (shopping for guns in The Continental hotel boutique  is akin to buying expensive wine) is one saving grace.  Violence-porn aficionados may eat it up, but for the rest, the John Wick saga still offers paltry goods beyond the action choreography worth celebrating.

 Qwipster's rating:

2017 Vince Leo