Keanu Reeves, at the risk of being unkind, is not a world-class actor.
He’s a superlative action star all the same. He proved it with the “Matrix” trilogy. The 2014 sleeper hit “John Wick” merely reaffirmed the obvious. He’s never better than when he’s dishing out punishment.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is all punishment, all the time.
- Broken limbs.
- Death by pencil (redux).
- Bullets in the brain.
Get the picture?
Never mind the threadbare story or the clumsy attempts at mythologizing our antihero. “Chapter 2” is an orgy of violence, and Reeves is the consummate host.
Reeves once more plays John Wick, a retired hit man who keeps getting dragged back into the game. This time, he’s stolen back his beloved wheels, a delirious sequence which sets the stage for what’s to come.
John is soon visited by an old colleague who demands he pull off one final hit due to a delinquent blood oath. Our conflicted hero politely declines.
In the hit man business, that’s the equivalent of throwing yourself off the nearest bridge. So John must complete a new mission while extricating himself from his former profession.
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It’s a good rule of thumb that the less Reeves says on screen, the better. He often speaks like he’s trying to hard to make us forget Ted “Theodore” Logan ever existed. You know the tone. All too serious, as if he’s a kid playing make believe.
So he stays mostly quiet here, except for your occasional quip or a personal declaration of independence.
Remember, John just wants to hang out with his new dog and, most likely, Netflix and chill.
Reeves is surrounded by a solid troupe of character actors, the kind movies like this employ for instant gravitas. It’s the whole reason to cast the great Ian McShane in such a one-dimensional role as the head of the mysterious hit man club.
Laurence Fishburne gets too little screen time in a role we won’t divulge here. Suffice to say your average “Hannibal” episode put the actor to far better use.
That isn’t true with rapper turned actor Common. He’s a fellow member of John’s curious club, and he provides a fine foil for Wick. Just when you thought John couldn’t be stopped by anything other than a tank or battleship, along comes someone who can match him punch for punch.
It all begs the question — who is John Wick? What motivates him? The franchise doesn’t really care. He misses his late wife and loves the company of dogs. You want more? Go to Sundance and watch a sensitive indie about Millennials and their safe spaces.
The “John Wick” franchise is all about visceral shocks performed without a hint of artifice. No shaky cams, no “look at me” compositions meant to wow us. It’s blunt force trauma caught on screen, and it dares you to look away.
FAST FACT: The film’s “Matrix” reunion between Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne happened, in part, when Reeves bumped into his former co-star and the “Hannibal” actor quickly asked if there was a role for him to play in the “John Wick” sequel.
“Chapter 2” may be the closest we’ll get to a “new” ’80s action movie. The tropes are all here: the selecting your firearms scene treating the weapons with tenderness you’d reserve for an old flame. The complete lack of fear from our leading man. The violence without consequences or compromise.
And, of course, the occasional blip of humor to remind us these real people, not automatons.
Stallone, Schwarzenegger and co. must be very, very proud.
The film’s bravura opening is all about making John Wick much more than another action hero. He’s a legend, and you darn well better know it.
None of this is possible without a star who understands what an action film demands. Reeves isn’t just laconic on steroids. He looks freakishly comfortable handling a firearm. He’s as intense as any action film could demand, a furious blast of controlled rage that makes the most improbable sequences soar.
And virtually every sequence in this unbelievably violent sequel fits that description.
At times, the story seems to unfold on the fly, as if the fight choreographer and director needed something specific to nudge the story along and the screenwriter made it happen. The “Kill Bill” series looks introspective by comparison.
At it’s core, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is about vengeance and settling scores. They killed his dog and took his car. So he must kill dozens, nay, hundreds of people to balance the ledger.
That leaves even jaded movie goers slack-jawed or cowering in their movie seats. “Chapter 2” is a relentless assault on the senses. It leaves you wondering if there’ s a flicker of soul left within John.
Could you kill so effortlessly without that sort of emptiness within? It’s a question the film doesn’t care to answer.
The John Wick film series is officially here. The first film caught the culture by surprise. “Chapter 2” shows the series means business, down to a finale that says “John Wick 3” is a fait accompli.
Maybe next time Reeves will be given something to do besides rocking a black suit and pumping everyone around him full of lead.
Maybe it’s wise to leave it simply at that.
HiT or Miss: “John Wick: Chapter 2” is everything an action film junkie could ever want. Maybe more.