‘I’ ON CULTURE
Like the first film in the series, John Wick, Chapter 2 is an intense mix of choreographed violence combined with almost amusing stylistic exaggeration. The body count is enormous; another critic actually did a tally and came up with 141 dead. And that is a retail number; there are no huge explosions to kill dozens of folk.
Here, each and every death is done individually, most often by being pulled close to Wick and shot in the head. The best way to think about it is as an Americanized version of the James Bond films minus lighthearted touches from the hero.
The movie starts as Wick (Keanu Reeves), despite attempts at being retired, returns to get the car he left behind as he shattered much of the world of Russian gangster Abram (Peter Stormare). In an extended sequence, Wick drives over and through more than a dozen nasty people, then pulls them from their cars and executes them at close range. Just like many Bond opening sequences, it has nothing to do with the rest of the film. But it sets a great tone.
Wick is approached by gangster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has a marker given to him by Wick, to kill his sister. He destroys Wick’s home, and Wick is later informed by Winston (Ian McShane), one of the arbiters of the world of contract killers, that he must pay the marker back. So he goes to Italy where he completes the job in a rather joyless fashion and then must fight his way through dozens of contract killers. The killings go on and on and on. Finally, Wick commits what Winston considers an ultimate sin and, setting up what we can only hope is a final chapter, declares Wick “excommunicado,” which will make him a target for every contract killer in the world.
There is a remarkable contrast set up between the choreographed violence and the truly arcane world presented. In this universe, almost everyone is a possible hired assassin. Clerks, street musicians, homeless people, sanitation workers all are ready to forget their regular jobs to become killers.
The Continental Hotel and all the people who run the contract killers have many elegant rules: As a member of the club, Wick can get beautifully tailored clothing in Rome that just happens to have a bulletproof lining. A sommelier can provide exceptional weaponry. The rules are the rules. The setting is almost a reverse of “steampunk,” a form of science fiction where the 19th century has a wide variety of fantastical devices that do the work of our modern world.
Here, the central command uses old-fashioned computers, telephones and typewriters as well as pneumatic tubes to issue commands, which somehow translate into text messages. It is an amusing touch.
Reeves is mostly expressionless. I don’t remember a single smile along the way. He is simply relentless; that is the way the part is written. The other performers take up the slack, often chewing up the scenery as part of their character’s interactions with Wick. Laurence Fishburne as the leader of a huge group of street people is so overpowering that he dominates the few scenes he has.
McShane is charming and enigmatic as Winston, the New York head of the syndicate. While clearly favoring Wick in the battle, he is also a firm believer in rules. His is the best performance in the film. However, Lance Reddick as the concierge does an admirable job. Seemingly just a dry presence as the first barrier to his boss at the hotel, he is able to be both enigmatic and charming. Claudia Gerini was excellent in her one extended scene with Wick.
In terms of action, rap star Common stood out as a worthy opponent. There were several extended action sequences between his character and Wick. He might have been the only opponent that Wick respected. And Ruby Rose had a nice turn as the mute Ares. Her hand signals were both amusing and effective.
I enjoyed the film. It will not win any awards, except perhaps for body count, but I was never bored. Little touches helped prevent violence overload. This movie is not for everyone, but if you like the genre, this is one to see.