The Russians call him “Baba Yaga, meaning “Boogeyman,” an assassin who moves in and out of the shadows, striking with terrible certainty. But that mythical language implies a ghostly immortality that doesn’t quite capture the essence of John Wick. John Wick isn’t a sniper who picks off targets from hundreds of yards away and he isn’t the type to slip into a room and twist a blade without anyone spotting him. His true modus operandi is shooting dozens upon dozens upon dozens of henchman in the head, usually at point blank range. He lives up to his mythical status, but his essence — and the chief appeal of the John Wick movies — lies in the brutality and viscera of up-close-and-personal violence. Guns roar, brains splatter, the crowd goes, “oooooooh.” The Boogeyman is loud.
The true ghostly presence in the middle of these films is Keanu Reeves, who plays Wick as an angel of vengeance that can’t quite shed its wings. In the first John Wick, he had succeeded in leaving the business and finding some measure of peace, though his wife’s recent death had left him in a vulnerable state. If the dipstick son of a Russian mob boss hadn’t decided to steal his Mustang and kill the beagle puppy his wife gifted him before she died, he would have never been roused to return to his old life. The fact that he’s never allowed to grieve, much less come to terms with the sins of his past, gives John Wick a surprising emotional resonance. When he smashes through his basement floor with a sledgehammer, unearthing the cache of weapons and gold coins he’d buried in concrete, he’s like an alcoholic cutting the locks on the liquor cabinet. He’s off the wagon for good.
The sequel, John Wick: Chapter Two, offers more of the same, only more. The original evoked the balletic kills and cinema-of-cool camerawork of Hong Kong action cinema of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat set the standard for Hollywood cinema to follow. If John Wick is director Chad Stahelski’s A Better Tomorrow, then its sequel is naturally A Better Tomorrow 2, a less surprising but crazily amplified tour through the slaughterhouse. The pretext for Wick’s killing spree is cruder than before, linked more to straightforward survival and revenge than a thwarted attempt to find solace in tastefully appointed exile. But it’s hard to knock a series built on ceaseless headshots for crudity, especially when the action is this relentless and elegantly choreographed.
Chapter Two doesn’t get much better than its opening sequence, which turns Wick stealing back his car from the Russian mob into a demolition derby of smashed-up cars, flying motorcycles, and mangled bodies. Through it all, Wick’s Mustang becomes an extension of him, a Christine-like beast that keeps revving back to life no matter how many times it’s hit. Not long after Wick pulls the car into the driveway, his past comes calling again. Through a blood oath offered years before, Wick owes a big favor to Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who wants him to assassinate his sister so he can take her place as head of the powerful Gomorrah crime syndicate. This brings Wick to Rome, where he works an underground network to get guns, maps, and tailored black suits, and makes his way through the city’s catacombs to reach his target.
There’s a video game quality to Wick gunning his way through waves of Italian goons in dark passageways; he even tucks guns and ammo in crevices throughout the maze, so he can reload when his supply is depleted. Rome also has its version of The Continental, the luxury hotel that serves as a safe space for hitmen and gangsters, who are forbidden from attacking each other on the premises. (The film exploits this rule frequently for comic relief.) But despite the first-person-shooter intimacy of Wick blasting away at close range, Stahelski and his crew turn the melees into pleasingly fluid symphony of violence, with Wick elegantly and efficiently shooting and kicking his way through all comers. At best, the staging in Chapter Two has a musicality that isn’t that far removed from La La Land, especially in a hall-of-mirrors finale that owes something to Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai.
Chapter Two introduces a couple of snarling adversaries for Wick in the form of a mob bodyguard (Common) and D’Antonio’s mute security enforcer (Ruby Rose), which at least give him somewhere close to an equal fight. They add to the too-muchness that makes the film, at a hair over two hours, feel a little bloated and enervating at times. Yet it’s hard to say which sequences the film might lose to tighten up a bit, because such care and craft has gone into giving each one its own distinct shape. For better or worse — though mostly for better — it’s a full-scale assault on the senses, constantly pushing itself to greater feats of excess. At this rate, a third John Wick might trigger the apocalypse.