In case you’ve just joined the most straightforward franchise currently running, a brief recap: in the first movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a recently bereaved widower and master assassin, is flushed out of retirement when some young miscreants steal his car and kill his dog. He spends the next two hours implacably hunting his revenge, like a Komodo dragon patiently shadowing its bitten prey over the course of many days, waiting for the prey’s inevitable death from infection. (Any comparisons between the emotive powers of a Komodo dragon and those of Mr. Reeves are purely coincidental.) Along the way, we learn that criminals occupy a mannerly realm of social niceties that would confound Jane Austen—they all stay in the same chain of white-glove hotels, where violent confrontation is strictly forbidden, so they must settle for eyeballing each other in the bar. Off hotel property, garrotings and guttings and headshots abound. No middle ground exists.
The second movie presents a neat inversion of the first movie’s stakes: Wick fetches up against a hipsterish scion of an ancient crime family, who promptly demolishes Wick’s house, leaving him with his (retrieved) car, (new) dog, and a fresh gang of thugs to destroy. And he destroys with assembly-line efficiency—when confronted with three attackers at once, he grabs the first by the arm and flips him, dislocating the arm, then takes aim at the other two onrushers while pinning the disabled attacker to the floor beneath him. Once the other two have been dispatched, he shoots the first attacker in the skull at his leisure. The first few times we saw this trick in “John Wick”, it thrilled. Seeing a protagonist expend as little energy as possible to kill made the needlessly protracted fights of other franchises look shabby—compared to John Wick, every other hero looked like they’d forgotten how to use their gun. But the novelty of the maneuver wears off between the 14th and 30th time Wick uses it, which I’d place sometime in the first act of “Chapter 2”. Without new choreography, the film tries to eke novelty out of locations and side characters, but wastes both—a fight in a subway car stays off the seats and walls, and both Common and Ruby Rose are squandered as killers pitted against Wick. In the demilitarized hotel bar, Wick drinks with Common’s Cassian; their conversation teeters on the edge of partnership, then inexplicably backs away, and the two go on to fight as if no such detente had ever occurred. Even more unforgivably, Wick turns down a drink offered by Rose’s Ares—besides being a bafflingly pointless character interaction, it threatens our belief in Wick’s intelligence. When Ruby Rose offers to buy your drink, you say yes.
Still, a few elements sparkle: Ian McShane, as the imposing hotel manager Winston, who rules with a jaded eye and an iron fist; a light-hearted, jokey shootout (who knew that was possible?) in a train station. The movie sets up its sequel expertly, leaving us on a clever cliffhanger; we can only hope that by Chapter 3, that drink offer still stands.