There is so much beautiful, beautiful killing in "John Wick: Chapter 2," you can hardly blame the movie for refusing to look away. Audiences will be forgiven for not mustering the same courage. The things that Keanu Reeves does here in the name of an evening's entertainment — shooting what seems like hundreds of human heads in rapid succession, or impaling a few of them on a very sharp pencil — are not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach or the moralistic of character.
But if the viewer is tempted to flinch, the camera never does. At a time when too many MPAA-constrained genre directors either avoid the sight of blood or muffle the moment of impact, Chad Stahelski — a veteran stuntman who also directed the first "John Wick" — films action scenes in much the same way Stanley Donen filmed dance sequences: in long, meticulously choreographed shots that allow us to savor the poetry of the human body in motion.
This isn't the only way to direct effective action. In his "Bourne" films, Paul Greengrass has pioneered a near-abstract, hyperkinetic style that many imitate but few comprehend. But "John Wick: Chapter 2," like its 2014 predecessor, offers a simultaneously thrilling and depressing reminder of the lost art of clarity in action filmmaking. The movie may look like disposable goods — it's a sequel, a shoot-'em-up, starring an actor too often treated as a punchline — but it is also a connoisseur's delight, a down-and-dirty B-picture with a lustrous A-picture soul.
The pleasures of connoisseurship are central to the ongoing story of John Wick (Reeves), a sad-eyed assassin who — even in a world that seems to consist entirely of assassins — commands such respect and fear that he's known as "the Boogeyman." In Rome on his latest mission, he visits a gun shop run by a "sommelier" (Peter Serafinowicz) and samples a "tasting" of his finest firearms, then drops in on a tailor (costume designer Luca Mosca) who specializes in impeccably stitched, bulletproof suits. These men take visible pride in the craftsmanship of their dark materials, and that pride is one with the filmmakers' own.
In the first movie (scripted, like the sequel, by Derek Kolstad), Wick was a grieving New Jersey widower who had retired from his lethal profession, only to find himself dragged back in by some very foolish Russian mobsters who beat him up and, worse, killed his beloved puppy dog. It was a blissfully straightforward tale of revenge, mechanical in its setup but primal in its satisfaction, with brief, tantalizing glimpses of a richly imagined criminal underworld.
There's a new pooch in Wick's life at the start of "Chapter 2," and it's no spoiler to reveal that this one mercifully survives (not every gimmick bears repeating). Human beings, however, remain as coolly expendable as ever in a movie that nearly doubles the first film's already high body count.
The carnage commences when Wick is forced to honor an old blood oath with an ambitious criminal, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who wants him to travel to Rome and eliminate his powerful sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Reluctantly pledging his obedience to an old tribal code, Wick soon finds himself trapped, suitably enough, in Rome's ancient catacombs, with an assailant behind every corner and no exit in sight.
Wick's motivations aren't as clean or easy to read this time around, especially when there's no animal cruelty to grant him the moral high ground. (His house gets burned down, but it's just not the same.) If the guilt-free killing spree in "John Wick" had the quality of a ritual purification, then "Chapter 2" is the episode that drags him back down to the lower depths, forcing him to negotiate with old friends and make a few new enemies — among them Gianna's bodyguard, Cassian (Common), one of his toughest adversaries.
In the words of Winston (Ian McShane), a world-weary pillar of this killer community: "Rules — without them, we live with the animals." And even more than the first film, "John Wick: Chapter 2" reveals itself as a movie obsessed with rules of every kind, which are vital to maintaining some semblance of law and order in a knowingly lawless world. Rules are what enable contract killers to enjoy the pleasures of Winston's sleek, gorgeous, assassins-only luxury hotel, the Continental, where "business" of any kind is strictly forbidden.
And of course, it is Stahelski's strict adherence to the rules of combat — which is to say, his rigorous sense of cinematic discipline — that gives "John Wick: Chapter 2" its thrilling integrity. At every moment, the actors and the filmmakers show the utmost respect for the laws of physics, from the impact of every punch and parry to the mechanics of loading, handling and firing a weapon. And that respect is more than matched by their regard for the basics of cinematic grammar — for clear, precise framing and seamless editing, without which even the most meticulous fight choreography could devolve into an indecipherable blur.
And Keanu Reeves? He remains a cinematic law unto himself, an avatar of soulful kick-assery who — mockery be damned — might just be the most watchable movie star of his generation. Whether he's driving a classic 1969 Mustang into the ground or moving stealthily through an "Enter the Dragon"-esque maze of mirrors, Reeves is, like the movie around him, a stunning object of contemplation. You can never tell what depths (if any) lurk behind those slick bangs, that slashed face and that perfectly chiseled come-at-me-bro glare, but you're more than happy to lose yourself in the effort.
It's the sheer force of Reeves' persona — his ability to exude gravitas and goofiness in the same moment — that seems to motivate some of the movie's weirder flourishes (such as the occasional giant, colorful dialogue subtitles). The weirdest of the lot is a character called the Bowery King, a sort of pigeon whisperer who oversees an elaborate network of street-rat spies from his Brooklyn perch, and who is played by Laurence Fishburne in a clear nod to his and Reeves' earlier collaboration.
Like "John Wick," "The Matrix" straddled two different worlds and cast Reeves as a fighter trying to leave one of them behind. It also told a perfectly self-contained story that was forced, by the usual Hollywood commercial imperatives, to spawn two commercially successful but critically derided sequels. (Stahelski served as a stunt coordinator on all three "Matrix" films.) While the bracing final scenes of "John Wick: Chapter 2" duly lay the groundwork for a follow-up, Stahelski's franchise so far seems destined for a happier fate. It may not bend a spoon or the laws of physics, but that doesn't mean it isn't capable of blowing your mind.
'John Wick: Chapter 2'
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In general release