John Wick was a rain-drenched, neon-soaked tonic for the Hollywood action movie. It borrowed elements of French neo-noir, Hong Kong revenge drama and grind-house cinema, packaging it all into a taut, minimalist blockbuster that instantly became every cinephile’s popcorn movie du jour (at least until Fury Road came along a year later).
The premise was deliciously simple, the reductio ad absurdum of an action movie: retired assassin John Wick was out to avenge his dog and retrieve his stolen car. This one begins with him finding that car and immediately reducing it to scrap in a seat-shaking thrill-ride of an opening salvo.
Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix, returns to direct without his erstwhile partner David Leitch, but if anything the fight sequences surpass the original: a section shot in the catacombs beneath Rome is breathtaking, and a finale set inside a mirrored art installation might just be the apotheosis of this nascent franchise (it no doubt still has the cinematographer waking up in cold sweats).
This is violence as ballet, Swan Lake with added testosterone; Wick pinning a goon to a wall with the barrel of his shotgun while he reloads before blasting him point blank is greeted with the same appreciative coos you might give to a particularly complex pirouette.
Chapter 2 inevitably delves further into the implied mythology of the first movie, expanding on those mysterious gold coins, fleshing out Ian McShane’s hotelier for the criminally-minded, introducing more facets of the Illuminati-esque organisation that rules Wick’s world. And the film is inevitably poorer for it. This is not a universe that stands up to scrutiny, more a backdrop against which Reeves can pull limbs out of sockets and reduce craniums to red mist.
It also makes some unnecessarily convoluted diversions, not least in a sub-plot that involves New York City’s beggars being part of an improbable crime syndicate. The run-time is two hours dead, and at least 30 minutes of that should have been killed in the edit. Even when the concept is this much fun, you can give the people too much of what they want.
But all is forgiven when the carousel of ultra-violence starts to spin. There’s a scene set inside the MOMA in which crimson blood is splashed on the white walls, to be admired alongside the greats of contemporary art. There’s another where Wick is chased onto a stage where a DJ is playing some squelchy techno – he shoots a man in the head and the crowd goes wild.
We’re that crowd, baying for blood, appreciating the art.
First published in City A.M.