“John Wick: Chapter 2” is not a smart movie. The basic premise is that John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a legend in the underground world of assassination for being really great at punching and shooting people. Wick is attempting to once again leave that life behind him after the events of the first movie until a former associate calls in a blood debt. As a result, Wick is dragged back into the life once again. From there, the movie plays out just as you would expect it to, but while John Wick’s second outing is not exactly Shakespearean, it is brilliantly executed in everything from its action scenes to the surprisingly detailed world of assassination it creates.
What earns “John Wick 2” its first gold star is that it is not nauseating to watch. The action scenes, which make up a good majority of the movie’s two hour runtime, are shot wide with none of the constant shaking or quick cuts that plague other action movies. Because of this clear camerawork, the movie has a remarkable sense of space. So as Mr. Wick murders his way through scores of nameless goons from the streets of New York to catacombs in Rome, it is always clear to the audience who is doing what, where and why.
Many of the more extended fight sequences play out in a similar fashion, with John Wick’s presence becoming known to entire legions of fodder as he shoots them, kicks them, throws them and so on, making his way in or out of wherever the movie needs him to be. It is easy for scenes like these to feel as though they have overstayed their welcome, but they remain enjoyable throughout as “John Wick 2” knows how to break these moments up, between some more focused one-on-one fight scenes and some neat glimpses into the world Wick lives in.
The blood debt mentioned earlier is actually signed with a bloody thumbprint and kept in a locket emblazoned with skulls. Information and contracts are sent via carrier pigeons and switchboard operators and pneumatic tubes. It is a world where tailors and sommeliers sell bulletproof suits and guns if you know how to ask. It is another thin line “John Wick 2” walks with surprising grace, introducing these elements without wasting time explaining why and trusting the audience to follow along without the movie holding its hand.
All of this comes courtesy of director Chad Stahelski, who broke into directing with the first John Wick after a career of stunt work including several occasions doubling for Mr. Reeves for the Matrix films.
As far as performances go Reeves does what he can with the minimal lines he has, though more often than not he is simply sitting stoically across from actors like Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo and Laurence Fishburne as they give vibrant, though brief, performances. Overall, the characters in the movie are to the action scenes what a well-cooked side of asparagus is to a steak, commendable and important for the structure of the meal as a whole, but not what anyone is ordering the dish for.
While the movie lacks the emotional core of the first one, “John Wick: Chapter 2” offers enough coherent action, world building, humor and interesting visuals to more than make up for it. Perhaps the strongest praise that can be given to the movie is that even as it clocks in at over two hours in length it feels like half that, managing to engage and exhilarate throughout.