If you didn’t catch 2014’s surprise action hit “John Wick,” it’s OK. Peter Stormare is here to explain “John Wick” to you at the beginning of “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Playing a Russian gangster, he serves as a connection to the prior film, wherein retired assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves) killed everyone in sight while avenging his dog. “He killed three men in a bar with a pencil!” Stormare exclaims. And in the way that every character recognizes him on sight, uttering “John Wick,” it’s like they all saw the first movie too.
Writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski are back for the sequel alongside Reeves. The screenplay is once again taciturn, nearly wordless; Wick speaks infrequently, in monosyllables, and new co-star Ruby Rose doesn’t utter a word. But the film is noisy, speaking in the whine of motorcycles, rumbling engines, gunfire, knife swipes and text message alerts announcing a bounty on John Wick’s head.
Like its predecessor, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a symphony of violence, a ballet even, and the visuals are surreal. In long takes, the camera methodically follows Wick as he works, smashing and stabbing and shooting. It is work he detests; he’s compelled by his reputation and his skill set into action. Reeves plays the autopilot assassin with a haunted despondency. His skills are remarkable (you’ve got to see him with that pencil), but he limps and heaves and bleeds. His hurt is all over his face.
He’s a simple man, with a simple life. All he needs are his house, car and dog. Mess with that, mess with him. In the first film, he avenged his dog; now, it’s his house, filled with the memories of his late wife. It’s a fascinating role for Reeves’ resurgence, and Stahelski and Kolstad play perfectly to his strengths: his quiet, Zen-like power, his just-deadpan-enough line readings that have inspired unintentional giggles throughout his career.
The stylized orgy of violence reaches its climax in a deliciously meta art exhibit, a hall of mirrors, making for a self-reflective wink at the notion of the mediated image. John Wick’s murderous actions are reflected and refracted at him, and our pleasure in this carnage, our culpability, is reflected on ourselves. The moments where it isn’t pleasurable are when it escapes the fantasy world and shows us something too real.
Where “Chapter 2” stumbles is in its plotting. The beauty of the first film was in the simplicity of story married to Reeves’ quiet persona This film involves sibling rivalries, long cons, pawns, bounties and double-crosses. It ends, then ends, and ends again, extending the exercise far beyond its welcome. It should have taken a note from its star and kept it simple, stupid.