If you die at the hands of John Wick, the reluctant contract killer Keanu Reeves plays in the burgeoning franchise of the same name, there are basically two ways things could go down. The first way—and the one you want, if you get a choice—is operatic: Wick lets one of his victims cut her own wrists, then recline in a bathtub the size of a small apartment for some amicable conversation while her outspread arms emit billows of blood like wings. The other way is much more likely as a matter of probability, not that that makes it any less humiliating: Again and again throughout the new film, Wick kills unlucky gangsters by wounding or otherwise incapacitating them, grabbing their gun arm, making them shoot their co-henchmen with their own weapon, then throwing them to the ground for a kill shot to the head (ideally with the same gun). Your reaction to John Wick: Chapter 2 will depend on whether you find that sort of “why are you hitting yourself?” thing funny or not—and how many times in a row you find it funny.
The sequel—which, like its surprisingly enjoyable predecessor, was written by Derek Kolstad and helmed by stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski—begins immediately after the events of John Wick. In his first outing, Wick wreaked a bloody vengeance against the Russian mobsters who killed his dog and stole his car. To extend Wick into a franchise, Kolstad and Stahelski borrow a structural tic from another long-running series: a pre-title standalone action sequence. In this case, Wick recovers his stolen Mustang from a Russian mob boss (a cigar- and scenery-chewing Peter Stormare) and a bunch of anonymous corpses-to-be. As often happens in Bond films, this cold open is more impressive than anything that follows, mostly because of the exquisite reaction shots of Stormare as his empire collapses around him. Unfortunately, the main plot, a complicated contraption whereby Wick is forced back into work as an assassin by Italian Mafioso Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), never lives up to the opening’s promise.
Which is not to say it doesn’t have plenty to recommend it. Orange is the New Black’s Ruby Rose, as D’Antonio’s mute head of security, gives an entertainingly deranged performance, and Ian McShane, reprising his role as Winston, the owner of the all-assassin Hotel Continental, is as devilish as usual. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s crisp compositions capturing production designer Kevin Kavanaugh’s sets and locations are striking, especially the interiors of Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, here relocated to New York to serve as D’Antonio’s hideout and the location of one of the film’s extended gunfights. And if the action set pieces aren’t entirely original—the film’s hall of mirrors shootout could be seen as a lift from either Orson Welles or Roger Moore, depending on the audience—they’re extraordinarily well-executed, at least until the monotony of a headshot per minute sets in.
Most of all, Kolstad and Stahelski get a lot of mileage from the intricate details of the secret society of assassins Wick belongs to. We know from the first film that Wick stays at Winston’s Continental in New York, where a concierge named Charon (The Wire’s Lance Reddick) sees him on his journey back to the contract-killer underground. In John Wick: Chapter 2 we discover that in Rome, Wick stays at Il Continentale, run by a proprietor named Julius (played by Italian Ian McShane analog Franco Nero) and concierged by Lucia (played by gender-swapped Lance Reddick analog Youma Diakite). (In the film’s best joke, Julius agrees to let Wick stay there only after ascertaining that he’s not in Rome to assassinate the Pope.)
But nothing is more enjoyably, needlessly ornate than the film’s attention to assassination contracts. Here’s how a basic customer service interaction there goes. The client calls the organization’s main switchboard and asks the heavily tattooed operator for Accounts Payable, where an equally tattooed clerk enters the contract details on a typewriter. (Both departments seem to be staffed by the pink-shirted telephone operators from Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, except with more ink.) The completed typewritten order travels, via pneumatic tube, to a different department where it is entered into a computer system on VT100-era terminals. From there, the contract is sent via text message to the company’s network of contract killers, all of whom seem to favor Nokias from about 15 years ago.
How many hit men receive these Amber Alerts? Well, in a simple subway ride, Wick runs into at least seven hit men and women who weren’t even hunting him, exactly, but just happened to cross paths around the time they got the text message. And that doesn’t even get into the band of professional marksmen who go incognito as the city’s entire homeless population. (In one of the movie’s balder gestures at pastiche, this network of trash bag–wearing hired guns is played by Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne.) Low murder rate or no, most of Manhattan seems to make its living in the assassination business or, like the switchboard operators, in its auxiliary industries.
Which I guess makes it OK that Wick repeatedly opens fire in crowds (at a concert, at a public fountain, in a crowded subway station) since most of those people are probably hitmen anyway. In an age of mass shootings, it’s hard to take much pleasure in watching civilians scream and run as bullets ricochet around them. But, as John Wick: Chapter 2 continually assures us, Wick’s precision and professionalism (seemingly mirrored by everyone else in his industry) ensure that only the right people will get hurt.
There’s always been an appeal to movies like this that posit a secret order behind all the world’s chaos—and perhaps especially right now, when we’re starving for images of competent, well-dressed people making rational decisions. In that sense, Chapter 2’s vision of a universe in which the powerful are bound by rules, by honor, by a code is comforting. But those rules are a lie just as pernicious as the myth of the good guy with a gun, the foundation of the whole shoot-’em-up genre. More often, the story of those who use force to gain control is a different one, one Chapter 2 quietly repeats over and over again, to the point of numbness. You know how it goes: You’re bleeding out on the floor, having long since surrendered, watching someone slowly turn your own gun against your forehead.