John Wick, as fans of the eponymous 2014 hit about a ruthlessly efficient assassin already know, once killed three people in a bar, using only a pencil. That legend gets repeated in the new, deliciously stylish and hyperviolent sequel to the live-action comic book, “John Wick: Chapter 2” – but with a twist.
If anything, the legend has probably been “watered down” from reality, as one bad guy ruefully notes. Later, the title character, played by a brooding, laconic Keanu Reeves, proves his lethal facility with that same writing implement, in a scene that is sublimely silly, jaw-droppingly brutal and irrationally satisfying.
There was something compulsively watchable about the first “Wick,” which had a mesmerizing intensity – at once noirish and cartoonish – despite the superficial monotony of its plot: a supremely single-minded revenge mission by a retired hit man (Reeves) against the Russian mobster (Alfie Allen) who had killed his dog and stolen his beloved 1969 Ford Mustang. As “Chapter 2” opens, John has a new pup, but his car is still missing. In the first 15 minutes, he gets it back, immediately proceeding to trash it in the process of killing a parade of goons, with the same kind of creativity demonstrated by his flair for the Faber-Castell No. 2.
John Leguizamo also returns in a cameo as John’s mechanic. So does the plot from the first film, essentially: Instead of a Russian mobster, John is pitted against an Italian killer (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has once again forced the film’s antihero out of retirement.
Franchise director Chad Stahelski is a former movie stuntman and stunt coordinator, who worked with Reeves on “The Matrix” and its sequels. He has a real genius for action, but not much else. That’s where his screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, comes in.
As he did with the first “Wick,” Kolstad has created a fictional universe in “Chapter 2” that is just recognizable enough to be persuasive. In the mythology of “John Wick,” for example, elite assassins lurk everywhere – in the guise of street people and subway musicians, as well as the ninja-like executioners in bespoke suits who roam the streets.
Most deliciously, there is an underground hotel network, called the Continental, that caters exclusively to killers. Conducting “business” is forbidden on the premises, of course, which leads to a comical scene between John and one of his new enemies, played by the rapper-actor Common. After a pitched battle sends them tumbling through the plate glass windows of the posh hotel – where tabs are settled with gold coins – the combatants brush themselves off and retire to the lounge for a stiff drink, glaring at each other with murderous wrath.
It’s a small, artificial world – on one level, it can be read as a metaphor for the precariousness of life – but it’s a fun-filled one, too. It isn’t easy to explain the appeal of the “John Wick” movies, and they are inarguably not for every taste, but there is a purity to them that transcends their barbarity and has something to do with the central character.
Why does he steal back his own car, for instance, only to total it in his effort to get away? For John Wick, a man who otherwise seems amoral, it’s the principle of the thing. Like the movie itself, his goals may not be lofty, but his work ethic – an uncompromising determination and attention to detail – is admirable.