If you didn’t catch 2014’s action hit “John Wick,” launching Keanu Reeves into a career rebirth, it’s OK. Peter Stormare is here to explain “John Wick” to you at the beginning of “John Wick: Chapter 2.”
Playing a Russian gangster, he serves as a connection to the prior film, in which retired assassin Wick killed everyone in sight while avenging his dog. In fairness, the dog was really cute. “He killed three men in a bar with pencil!” Stormare exclaims. And in the way that every character recognizes him on sight, uttering “John Wick…,” it’s like they all saw the first movie, too.
Director Chad Stahelski is back for the sequel alongside Reeves, brewing up more of that Wickian magic. The screenplay is once again nearly wordless; Wick speaks in monosyllables (perfect for Reeves’ stoner intonation), and co-star Ruby Rose doesn’t utter a word. But the film is noisy, with whining motorcycles, rumbling engines, gunshots and text message alerts announcing a bounty on John Wick’s head.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a symphony of violence, a ballet even, and the visuals are abstracted to the surreal. The camera doesn’t cut often, eschewing the rapid-fire editing typical for this genre. In long takes, it methodically follows Wick as he works, smashing and stabbing and shooting. He is talented, but it is work he detests; he’s compelled by his reputation and his skill set into action. Reeves plays the autopilot assassin with a haunted despondency. His skills are remarkable (you have got to see him with a pencil), but his limps and heaves and bleeds. His hurt, inside and out, is all over his face.
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He’s a simple man, with a simple life. All he needs are his house, car and dog. Mess with that, mess with him. The film plays perfectly to his strengths: his quiet, Zen-like power, his deadpan line readings that have inspired unintentional giggles throughout his career.
The surreal, stylized orgy of violence climaxes in a meta art exhibit, a hall of mirrors, making for a self-reflective wink at the notion of the mediated image. John Wick’s murderous actions are reflected and refracted at him, and our pleasure in this carnage, our culpability, is reflected on ourselves.
Where “Chapter 2” stumbles is in its plotting. The beauty of the first film was the simplicity of story: avenge the dog. This film involves sibling rivalries, long cons, pawns, bounties and double-crosses. It ends, then ends, then ends again, extending the exercise far beyond its welcome. It should have taken a note from its star and kept it simple.
“John Wick: Chapter 2”
Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity. 2:02. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.