If carefully-choreographed, slickly-shot ballets of violence are all you demand in a movie, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is the picture for you. The sequel to the surprise hit from 2014, about a retired hit-man (Keanu Reeves) who, like Michael Corleone, was dragged back into action against his will (when a mobster’s nasty son stole his car and killed his doggy) to wreak vengeance on the malefactors, is pretty much a repeat of its predecessor, adding little to it beyond some background information on the shadowy cult of assassins Wick belongs to. But it’s done up on a larger canvas, and more spectacularly. The result is a thoroughly brainless orgy of fights, shoot-outs, foot pursuits and car chases that should dazzle fans of such fare while leaving anyone who’d like a bit of steak to go with the sizzle cold.
The movie starts up where the first one left off, with Wick invading the headquarters of the Tarasov crime clan to retrieve his 1969 Mustang. Since he’s already killed Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) and his son Josef (Alfie Allen), the only one left is Viggo’s brother Abram (Peter Stormare), whose reaction shots as mayhem explodes in the distance provide the saving grace of the sequence; the action, on the other hand is solidly staged but actually quite rote. (A question: the sequence opens with a car-motorcycle chase through streets crammed with traffic until the cyclist is downed on a street conveniently devoid of any other vehicles. Why did they all suddenly disappear to?)
Anyway, after finishing off his mission of revenge at the Tarasov firm, Wick goes home (having replaced his dead pet), arranges for his pal Aurelio (John Leguizamo) to haul off the Mustang for a major repair job, and begins restoring order to his weapons room when he’s suddenly visited by an old colleague, smarmy Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio), who holds Wick’s “marker”—a promise to do whatever task the owner requires, just one of the revelations about the internal operations of the criminal cartel to which both belong. He wants John to kill Santino’s own sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who has inherited their family’s seat at the group’s “High Table” that Santino desires for himself. When Wick pleads disinterest, D’Antonio blows up his house, which persuades John that he’d better do what he’s asked.
There follows another elaborate sequence of mayhem in Rome, where Gianna’s investiture is to occur. Wick confronts her, but in one of the picture’s strangest twists she actually kills herself. Nonetheless her death is taken very hard by another of John’s old colleagues, Cassian (Common), who has been serving as her bodyguard and now puts Wick in his sights.
That’s the least of our antihero’s concerns, however, since the thoroughly treacherous Santino has now put out a general hit on him, inviting all the assassins—and they seem to be everywhere, in all possible guises—to earn a cool $7 million by snuffing Wick out. Wick has to run a gauntlet of them—including Cassian—before tracking down Santino to an art gallery where, amid hundreds of mirrors, windows and multi-colored strobe lights (which, despite all the flamboyance, still can’t hold a candle to the closing sequence from “The Lady from Shanghai”), he must annihilate yet another small army of opponents with guns and martial-arts moves, including D’Antonio’s chief enforcer, a mute named Ares (Ruby Rose), who is presented as something special but proves, in the final analysis, to be both inept and totally incapable of matching John blow for blow.
Of course, that’s true of all John’s opposites, who appear for all their practice to be rather poor marksmen and knife-wielders. Happily, they also follow the old chopsocky convention of never attacking en masse, but in small groups (two or three at the most), considerately waiting offstage to rush into the fray until Wick has finished off the preceding bunch. It takes no crystal ball to know that Wick will emerge not unscathed but, if the worse for wear, at least not dead, like everyone he’s left behind in his hail of carnage. (It also helps that he seems able to recover from stab wounds and bullet holes in mere minutes.)
It must be admitted that director Stahelski, the former stunt man who co-directed the first film with David Leitch and goes solo here, is proficient at staging the action sequences, even if most of them overstay their welcome, and editor Evan Schiff don’t cut cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s glistening widescreen images so hysterically that they turn into jagged bits of mush. Their work is made easier by the fact that Reeves continues to do many of the stunts himself, and quite convincingly. It’s in the expository scenes between the bursts of action that the star is weak, evincing little more than a generalized moroseness over the death of his beloved wife (Bridget Moynahan, in what amounts to a few flashbacks and photos) that feels more like simple lethargy.
More pleasing is the supporting work of returnees Ian McShane as Wilson, the manager of the New York branch of the Continental Hotel, the “safe area” for all the cartel’s assassins, and Lance Reddick as Charon, the establishment’s unflappable concierge. Both carry off their duties with practiced elegance and enjoyment of the few nuggets of wit that screenwriter Derek Kolstad has come up with. There are also nice turns by Franco Nero, as the manager of the Rome branch of the Continental, and Peter Serafinowitz, as a weapons dealer who offers up guns and knives as though they were delectable items on a restaurant menu. It’s fun, as well, to have Laurence Fishburne show up as a character called the Bowery King, who helps Wick get to D’Antonio toward the close. A pity that Scamarcio makes such a pallid villain, and that as his henchwoman Rose is no better. A hit-man version of James Bond—which is what the “John Wick” series obviously aspires to become—needs strong villains, just like its model; and neither Scamarcio nor Rose fill the bill.
Essentially “John Wick: Chapter 2” follows the old Joe Bob Briggs rule for sequels—just make the same movie over again. It also sets the stage for a third installment, which frankly doesn’t look to be much different from the first two. Given that, one has to wonder what familiarity will eventually breed among the audience.