You would not expect a sequel to a Keanu Reeves shoot-em-up to be one of the more engrossing and beautiful films of the year, but hey, it's 2017 – there have been a lot of surprises. (It is also, I realize, still early in the year, but let's try to focus on the bright spots where we can.)
When the first John Wick debuted in 2014, it was received as a perfectly passable addition to the B-level action canon – a bloody jolt of gun-fetishizing violence and a fine enough showcase for a star whose career was at risk of falling into a VOD rabbit hole. (Aside from his spectacular studio bomb 47 Ronin, Reeves's filmography for the past decade consists of half-remembered dramas and completely forgotten thrillers. Unless, that is, you're a die-hard Knock Knock fan, in which case, I sincerely apologize to you, Mr. Eli Roth.)
Following the killing spree of an assassin lured back from retirement after thugs steal his car and murder his puppy (yes, the villains were capital-E Evil), John Wick was as serviceable as its title character: Sharp, to the point and with a glimmer of wink-wink, nudge-nudge fun. I didn't think about it once after the end credits rolled.
But John Wick: Chapter 2 comes stocked with a different arsenal altogether. Not only does it nearly double the already ludicrous body count of the original – 141 victims here, up from 84 – it has also improbably matured into a bold, visually mesmerizing treatise on high-low aesthetics. Wick shoots, stabs and strangles his way to victory in another quest for vengeance, but he does so via the most artfully arranged shots in recent cinematic memory, or at least when it comes to films in which henchmen get No. 2 pencils shoved through their ears.
Almost every frame captured by returning director Chad Stahelski is a tableaux that whisper-screams contradiction – blood-flecked killers surrounded by the neoclassical masterpieces of Rome's Galleria Nazionale, for instance, or corpses lit by a wild colour palette of indigo, ultraviolet and deep crimson red that's as much Mario Bava as Michael Mann. Contrasted against the extreme violence – itself a wild mix of jiu-jitsu, judo and something called gun-fu – you're never sure when to turn away from the screen in disgust or when to stare, deep in awe.
This surreal mix of high-gloss style and on-screen savagery even extends to the costume design, with Reeves's debonair mercenary perpetually outfitted in slim, natty suits, all monochromatic colours and intimidating high collars, care of costume designer Luca Mosca. It's as if Wick's wardrobe is a weapon in itself, contoured to the steely shape of a semi-automatic. (There hasn't been an action movie this obsessed with bespoke tailoring since Kingsman: The Secret Service, and that film was British, so it's more understandable.)
The film's delightful collision of the poetic and the profane is illustrated perfectly about midway through Chapter 2, as Wick and a new nemesis (played by sometime rapper Common) engage in a whisper-quiet gun fight in architect Santiago Calatrava's imposing Oculus, the transit terminal underneath the World Trade Center. As the two engage in a gun-silencer-aided battle amid oblivious commuters, the camera takes care to position the blood-thirsty men in Calatrava's eye-popping, alien landscape (one that will feel especially foreign to any moviegoer who has not visited New York recently; Chapter 2 is the first feature that's been allowed to shoot there, so to speak).
The scene is as extravagant as it is absurd, a sensibility that the rest of the film leans so heavily toward that it risks tipping over into complete nonsense. Except, it doesn't – and that's even with the narrative doubling down on the first entry's outlandish Masonic elements (in which seemingly every other person in the world is an assassin, and a member of the same secret organization that comes equipped with boutique-hotel privileges).
It is unclear just what cinematic re-education Stahelski embarked upon to so completely flip his first film's visuals, though it's a good bet that cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, Silent Hill) can take some credit. Whereas Jonathan Sela's camera work on the original John Wick was blunt and repetitive, with little to distinguish it from other action-for-dummies exploits like Max Payne or Law Abiding Citizen (both Sela films), Chapter 2 is an eye-popping feast that defies genre expectations. Granted, it would be hard to misuse the film's great locations, including Oculus but also Rome's haunting Baths of Caracalla, but Stahelski and Laustsen ensure that every shot is a careful study in refined excess.
So much so that by the time the film rolls around to an ending that is really no ending at all – John Wick 3 is surely already in development – it doesn't matter one bit. As long as Wick's world continues to look as gorgeous as this time around, let the blood flow.