We expect certain filmmakers to fill the screen with artworks that reinforce their own striking visual aesthetics. Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty). Fashion maven Tom Ford. Chad Stahelski, former kickboxer, veteran stuntman, and director of the 2014 action flick John Wick and its sequel?
Yes, actually. This is a movie in which the villain (Riccardo Scamarcio) owns a prominent New York museum and delivers sneering ultimatums in front of masterworks such as Antonio Canova's "Hercules and Lichas." (The scenes were actually shot in Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna.) Most American action films would use that fine-art motif solely to establish their bad guy as an effete product of European decadence. But John Wick: Chapter 2 is a different breed. From its scenes backdropped by New York's great bridges to its gunfight in the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the movie is as much in love with art and architecture as it is with ass kicking. Rest assured, there is plenty of both.
There's also a healthy sense of the absurd — the element that helped turn John Wick into a cult hit. The title character (Keanu Reeves), a laconic former assassin, might as well be named Archetype, and his blank, placeholder quality is a joke unto itself.
In the first film, Wick decimated an entire criminal organization to avenge the death of a puppy. In this one, he has a new dog, which he makes sure to board safely before embarking on that other staple of action-film plots: One Last Job. In his former life, you see, Wick belonged to an international network of assassins governed by a byzantine code of conduct. So, he has little choice when Scamarcia's character, a Camorra magnate, calls in a long-overdue favor: He wants his own sister dead.
After an action-packed opening, the film takes its time with this setup. Wick does so much brooding in his mood-lit modernist home that one may be reminded of Nocturnal Animals. Then — boom! — the home goes up in smoke, and the movie ignites.
In set piece after set piece, Stahelski combines an eye for lofty visual spectacle with a love for down-and-dirty fight choreography. John kills people with guns, with knives, with his hands; on subways, on sidewalks, in catacombs, in a mirror-ridden art installation that (a recording amusingly informs us) is designed to make viewers reflect on "the nature of self." Each time, the director alternates between long shots that effectively situate the combatants in space and sustained medium shots that render their clashes both artful and brutal. No frenzies of fast cutting here.
There's little in the way of character development, either, but plenty of color. The film goes to ludicrous and delicious lengths to flesh out its baroque criminal underworld, from the sanctuary hotel (no killing allowed) presided over by Ian McShane to the beggar army led by the unctuous Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). It's jam-packed with comic-book conceits presented with the brisk drollness of Terry Gilliam.
Moving through this rogues' gallery, Reeves doesn't take Wick's characterization much further than "pissed off" and "tired." But he sells those qualities, a rarity in a genre increasingly populated by super-powered man mountains.
For all its cultured bric-a-brac, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a film of allusions, not of ideas; viewers expecting an actual meditation on "the nature of self" will be disappointed. But for action fans, it's a bright spot in the winter-movie doldrums, a violent fantasia that keeps the eyes riveted even when the mind wanders.