Life through death

Sequels: The No. 1 reason for assassins cutting their retirement short.

Sequels: The No. 1 reason for assassins cutting their retirement short.

Rated 4.0

Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad reteam with star/whirling dervish of angst-ridden revenge Keanu Reeves for John Wick: Chapter 2, a surprisingly necessary sequel to their left-field 2014 action success John Wick. That first film began with a Straw Dogs-style setup—meek widower gets his car stolen and his puppy killed by snarling scumbags—but quickly transformed into a sleek, dark and funny revenge film with a fascinating mythology, as we find that Reeves’ terse and tortured Wick is actually a legendarily prolific hit man, part of a shadow society of assassins with a strict set of rules.

It’s a tired and inappropriate cliché to assume that Reeves is simply a bad actor. In the mid-1990s, it became a widespread cultural punchline when Reeves played the role of Hamlet onstage in Canada, and it’s generally accepted that he’s at his best in roles that are more physical than verbal. The role of John Wick certainly sits in that silent but deadly wheelhouse, but Reeves deserves more credit for his performance than merely being right for the part. Good acting is good acting, however you get there, and Reeves is flat-out great in John Wick: Chapter 2.

Every line of dialogue gets strangled in his throat, every life-loathing emotion scars his face, every gesture suggests a ghost who doesn’t realize he’s dead yet. Reeves acts in several scenes here opposite Ian McShane, a classically trained actor who reprises his role as the manager of The Continental, the neutral territory hotel where assassins congregate. Although ostensibly the superior actor, McShane couldn’t play the existential boogeyman part any more than Reeves could play the elegantly desiccated hotel manager.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up right where the first film ended, with Wick mowing down the final few sleazy gangsters (led by a scenery-gnashing Peter Stormare, of course) who are holding on to his car. Wick proceeds to wield his precious automobile like a samurai sword, single-mindedly chopping through henchmen until he reaches the boss level, at which point he backs off in exchange for a life of peace. After that final kill-crazy bender of an opening scene, Wick buries his old life in the basement, but immediately an old contact comes carrying a marker, forcing Wick back into a life of ultraviolence.

While the first John Wick leaned heavily on the theme of grief, with Wick’s corpse-strewn revenge mission serving as cathartic therapy, the sequel focuses more on the theme of addiction. Whether by blackmail or bloodlust, Wick can’t escape his old life, and he isn’t the only person in John Wick: Chapter 2 who feels trapped by this life of hired murder and unforgiving moral codes.

A furious paranoia slowly accumulates, crescendoing in a spectacular final half-hour of audacious action, with a tremendous sequence set inside of an art installation. At a time of the year when Hollywood celebrates life-affirming films that are dead inside, it’s great to see a death-obsessed film that is so full of life.