There is no honor among thieves. But there is among professional assassins.
That’s the hook behind 2014’s “John Wick,” a savage revenge thriller that found a fresh take on the Hollywood shoot-’em-up. The tenacious movie wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, but it did stellar business in the home market, prompting this larger, busier and even more eccentric sequel.
In “Chapter 2,” Wick (the innately stony Keanu Reeves) operates within an underground network where assassins have their own government, currency, hotels and rules. And these are not the type of rules you break without extreme consequences.
So even though Wick retired after surviving the mayhem of the first film, he’s compelled to return to his slaying ways when Italian crime lord D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) collects on a blood oath the hit man pledged years prior. This debt will be paid upon killing D’Antonio’s sister (Claudia Gerini) so he can take over “her seat on the council” — whatever that is.
Wick wants no part of it.
“I’m not that guy anymore,” he warns.
D’Antonio replies, “You’re always that guy, John.”
Yet the deal comes with its share of double crosses. This leaves Wick beset with an “open contract” of $7 million that allows any of these linked-in assassins to collect if they murder him.
“Chapter 2” is basically two movies. The first half finds Wick preparing and executing a thorny assassination in the catacombs beneath Rome. The second follows his return to New York, fending off repeated attempts on his life while also pursuing D’Antonio.
Some of the best moments come via crosscutting, as when Wick prepares for his mission by shopping at various specialized high-end stores: a sommelier who pairs fine wines with automatic weapons and a tailor who knows exactly how to dress Wick in a suit that complements his dark beard, slicked-back hair and business habits.
“Occasion?” the tailor asks.
“Social,” Wick replies.
The main question viewers might ask is how high can a film’s body count go? The answer: too high.
The fight scenes envisioned by director (and longtime stunt coordinator) Chad Stahelski are both exquisitely staged and absolutely ridiculous. They also grow numbing. The hand-to-hand combat benefits from a visceral sense that the 52-year-old Reeves learned the flashy MMA moves and doesn’t just rely on stunt doubles. But there are only so many close-range handgun blasts and digital blood spatters that the mind can process before a flick loses even its video game appeal.
Fortunately, the fringe details save the project from degenerating into homicidal overkill. There’s rarely a scene that doesn’t feature some form of visual delight: an exotic location, elaborate set piece, vibrant lighting scheme or knowingly antiquated production design.
Stahelski (who returns with writer Derek Kolstad from the original movie) also finds plum slots for character actors who seem to be enjoying their oddball roles. Ian McShane reappears as Winston, the genial operator of the Continental Hotel, where assassins enjoy a luxurious retreat in which killing is strictly forbidden. Reeves’ “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne is introduced as the jocund Bowery King, whose Manhattan operatives disguise themselves as homeless subterranean dwellers.
So think again the next time a disheveled dude camped in the subway asks for a quarter. He might be wearing an impeccably tailored bulletproof suit underneath all those rags.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘John Wick: Chapter 2”
Rated R. Time: 2:02.