John Wick: Chapter 2 ***

A great step forward for American action cinema that still doesn’t quite connect.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“John Wick: Chapter 2” has many ingredients for a successful action picture. Before continuing, I must profess my love of action movies. I’ll watch even the cheesiest ones to get my fix (though I draw the line at recent Steven Seagal, I’m not a masochist), even my student films all had an action bent to them, so this review is from the standpoint of a big fan of the genre. And “John Wick” has all of the requisite car chases, hand-to-hand combat, and gun battles a good action movie (and even my awful student films) require. But is it great? Not quite.

Former super assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gotten revenge on the people who killed his dog in the first film and returns to his solitude to mourn his wife. Mere moments after he buries the tools of his former trade, his doorbell rings; an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), has come to demand repayment for an old debt. He wants John to kill his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), whose seat on the high council of a criminal organization Santino covets. When John balks, Santino destroys his home and with it all of the pictures and remembrances of John’s wife. Wick wants revenge, but the rules of their criminal world are numerous and varied. John owes Santino a debt, so he can’t simply kill him, not until he pays off that debt. So John Wick sets out on a violent path to absolve his responsibilities and then get his revenge.

From the opening, the film makes its sense of humor clear. An establishing shot of New York City cuts to a building with a silent Buster Keaton film projected on it. But something’s a bit off. The Keaton film seems to have sound effects; then as the camera pans down to vehicles zooming past the building, you realize the sound is actually coming from a car chase nearby. You may not notice this joke, and you don’t need to; the humor throughout is unobtrusive. It’s there to be enjoyed if you notice it, but the film’s tongue is silently implanted in its cheek. It’s a nice trick that subtly elevates the movie from a simple brutal exercise in violence to something less sadistic and more self-aware. 

The movie is also clever. Two sequences stand out. One involves John and a rival assassin (Common) in a gun battle with a fountain between them, the bullets swishing through the wall of water. This segues into a covert shootout in a crowded subway as the assassins nonchalantly fire upon each other with silencers, successfully keeping their showdown unnoticed by the numerous passersby.

The action sequences are amazing. Filmed with clarity, favoring wide-shots over confusing close ups, the camera’s movements are free of the shakiness common to many modern action movies like the “Bourne” films, and the choreography is complicated and often impressive. But it’s repetitive. It’s intriguing the first time the hero shoots numerous foes in close quarter combat, but after a while it’s just the same thing over and over. For variety, Wick might shoot a villain, flip him around, shoot somebody else and then finish off the flippee. But even that’s repeated ad nauseam. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t really excited either, and that’s a problem for an action film.

But the story is well developed. True, John’s desire for revenge seems a little silly, and the film never rises above a villain who’s more of a nuisance than scary. But it’s all complicated nicely by the film’s fascinating criminal underworld. It’s this aspect that really keeps the movie compelling, even at an overly long two-hours. The weird world built by director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad feels like a more civilized version of “The Warriors.” It’s populated by strange factions that dress up in costumes, while the whole endeavor is governed by stringent rules: Hotels for assassins are safe grounds where killing is not allowed. There’s a group of hit men that dress like hobos, with underground locker rooms to change into their gear before heading up to “peddle.” Finally, there’s a switchboard control center that fields all of the hits and it looks like something from the 1940s with its monochromatic-browns, pneumatic tubes, and typewriters, staffed by women dressed era appropriately but covered in tattoos.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” has a lot going for it. I laughed out loud several times and jumped out of my seat more than once. I liked the movie. But I didn’t love it. It’s a technical marvel punctuated by some really clever touches, but it’s also a little empty.