John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t waste anytime letting the audience know that they’re going to get what they came for. An aerial view of the city floats past the streets and rooftops at night while the roar and whine of a crotch rocket echoes below. Eventually, the camera tracks down past a video wall that shows an old-time motorcycle wipeout. Moments later, the all-black crotch rocket slides into an intersection as its rider tumbles after it. A 1970 Chevelle SS rocks around the corner, and nothing stands still for the next two hours.
In 2014, John Wick broke out of the Hollywood action doldrums with a stylish blend of homage, dark humor, and a Keanu Reeves much meaner than we’d gotten used to as the title character. It was so intensely constructed that initially, sequel talk was rightly considered to be the usual Hollywood cash-in machine shifting into high gear—how could anyone recreate the breathlessness and charged filmmaking of the first film? Happily, director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad from the original film chose not to recreate the world of John Wick but instead expand it while ratcheting up the body count. Both are schooled enough in the lore of action filmmaking to let audiences think they are winding things down when they are just giving them a chance to catch their breath. Audiences who come to this film not prepared for a marathon ballet of violence may find their nerve endings frayed by the time they leave their popcorn buckets behind.
You can’t make a movie like this and play it completely straight, of course, and there are plenty of chuckles to be had as well as a few moments that brought full outbursts of laughter in the theater. The actors are in on the joke, too, and nearly every line is delivered with an awareness of genre that many will find endearing and some might find pretentious. When the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) demands that they “get this man a gun,” a twinkle in his eye lets us know he is in on the joke. You won’t find great performances in between the camp like you might in a Tarantino film, but the enthusiasm is infectious. Italian cult cinema star Franco Nero (who appeared in Tarantino’s Django Unchained) also gets a few scenes to add cred to the film.
The Matrix (1999) is a ghost felt all throughout the movie. There are plenty of cinematic references, including Laurence Fishburne’s cameo, the Continental’s very Wachowksi-esque environs, and Ares (Ruby Rose), a deaf assassin who is not short on echoes of The Matrix’s Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Beyond that, there is a critical reference to video games in both films that is impossible to ignore: while The Matrix was one of the first films to fully embrace video-game reality, John Wick: Chapter 2 is zeroed in on the first-person-shooter Call of Duty set. One of the genius moments of the film is when the camera follows Wick through a very video-gamey catacomb shootout—featuring reloads and something like weapon boosts—only to have him emerge into an action sequence that is totally cinematic and beyond anything the most ardent gamer could broadcast on Twitch. John Wick doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your kill/death ratio.
Technically speaking, the film is flashy but stays true to the low-budget genre films that the filmmakers love so much. The visual direction hardly ever hits a wrong frame, and the digital gore is wisely kept in the shadows for most of the many exit wounds that flash across the screen. Happily, there are no slow-motion shots or other cheap tricks of the trendy action film; it’s just all choreographed and captured on film as-is. There is some green-screen work that isn’t quite up to big-screen standards, but that falls within the legacy of “low budget,” so it could just as well be a decision and not an error. The sound design is remarkable, with the symphony of gunfire, flesh hits, and crushed Detroit steel rendered loud and clear throughout the film. Happily, the filmmakers chose to not use the same gunshot sound over and over again like some of their favorite films did in their time.
The film ends in such way that the transition to John Wick: Chapter 3 (already in development) will be pretty seamless. Based on the premise hinted at in the final moments of the film, Stahelski, Kolstad, and Reeves have no intention of pulling back on the throttle for the next one. If they are gunning for a trilogy, this could be one of the most insane climaxes to an action series in recent memory. They’ve spent two films building up a world and odds are they are going to spend the next one blowing it all to smithereens. Given the spiritual overtones of this installment (the constant allusions to Hell should make the theme clear to even the most stubborn or naïve viewers), someone prone to prophecy might expect the next film to be apocalyptic in scope.
As they say: burn, baby, burn.