John Wick II is Keanu Reeves’ “Dark Knight.” I thought I would start with a big thesis statement then press on to prove my case but this is what I truly believe. The tendency to go with more is more with sequels is often the case and to negative effect. With JW II however, there is more…much more. The film skates over trope-ish waters and does so with aplomb.
JW II opens shortly after 2014’s sleeper action hit, “John Wick”. We see him in “Baba Yaga” (Boogeyman) form making his way through a criminal hot spot, smashing through a broad array of Russian gangsters. Playing the brother of Viggo from the last film is Peter Stromare as Abram Tarasov. Stromare is awesome in this brief appearance, illustrating comedically what Michael Nyqvist’s “Viggo” managed in more serious fashion. The movie could easily have taken the franchise culling dip taken by “Taken II” but instead makes a quick parody of the trope. Abram bemoaning John’s arrival as “he killed three men in a bar with a pencil…who does that?” is played for laughs and delivers solidly. The quest for the return of John’s 69 charger plays like a standard revenge actioner but a tender moment afterward again informs what truly motivates JW in his quest to retire from the life of an assassin.
There are many returning characters from the first run, including Aurelio (John Leguizamo) who plays John’s mechanic/chop shop friend. The moments between the two are organic and the banter arises accordingly.
Aurelio – John, I thought you loved this car? (citing the catastrophic damage done to it in his effort to get it back)
John – “So, can you fix it?”
Aurelio – “Sure, I can fix it.”
John – “So you’ll call me when its ready.”
Aurelio- “Sure, expect a call in December of 2030.”
Officer Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski) returns for a less playful moment, again offering John both understanding and and excuse for what occurred to him moments before. “Gas leak?” “Yeah, gas leak…” Though not dialogue heavy, the simple verbal exchanges resonate appropriately. “Sure”, John’s go to can mean a host of things. He has got lots to do and sitting down discussing his motivations and feeling are not among them.
The plot is that a marker is called in by Santini D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who reveals that he is the man who enabled John to accomplish the “impossible task” (alluded to in the first movie) which got him out of his life of crime, allowing him one of normalcy with his late wife, Helen (Bridget Moynaghan). When the offer is initially refused outright, we know unpleasantness will follow. Inevitably JW is drawn back into the life he wishes to escape and again he is charged with an impossible task, the elimination of Santini’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerrini). No good will come from the accomplishment of this task and that’s kind of the point. John is an assassin. At one point, he made a choice to be so. Escaping such a path when every avenue is perilous and labyrinthine is equally impossible. The task given to John brings to light the “high table” in which all the major crime lords sit. The Continental which was pretty much a cast member in the first film expands to include a center in Rome. Here again, humor is used to cut the edge as Julius (Franco Nero), the manager of this branch asks him only if he is here to kill the Pope…probably the only act the manager would find objectionable.
Winston (Ian McShane) has a more expanded role in this run as well he should. McShane is gold wherever he might appear and as “General/Uber” manager of the Continental he is both neutral and on occasion, fatherly with his advice. His understanding of John’s plight and counsel give way ultimately to his service to criminality. We know this as viewers of both this movie and the genre. “Charon’s” (Lance Reddick) role as dog sitter presents a more human side to the literal keeper of the gates and his later moment with John show genuine pathos for the situation JW finds himself in. New characters such as the tailor and the “sommelier” played with wry humor by Peter Serafinowicz add a touch of refinement to the exceedingly polite underworld populated by super assassins. Cassius (Common) presented John with his most formidable adversary thus far. The fight sequences between the two were brutally balletic including their end moments. Ruby Rose’s aptly named “Ares”(maintaining the mythic nomenclature), Santini’s mute assassin and major domo, brought a different flavor and panache, making the role more than merely a femme fatale assassin. Laurence Fishburne’s “Bowery King” broke no new ground but did give fans a cool shout out to Reeve’s “Matrix” franchise.
The background of Rome with its grand architecture and elaborate settings becomes microcosmic with the gun fight and battle sequences beneath the city’s catacombs. Visually, JW II is stunning. Action wise, it sets the bar high. With John’s attempt to “finish things” and the open ending, the assurance of a third chapter is indisputable. JW II is simply outstanding and well worth your time.