If the idea of Keanu Reeves getting more headshots than the average Counter-Strike frag movie sounds like a good time, then you'll probably enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2.
Hitting Australian cinemas from next Thursday, the John Wick sequel focuses on Wick's (Keanu Reeves) life, after being dragged back into the world of assassins following the death of his wife. That's largely the underlying theme: Wick wants out of the business, having enjoyed the relative serenity of retirement. His wife might have passed away at the beginning of the original film, but for the most part he's content to move on - once a few odds and ends are squared off.
One of those odds and ends is Wick's vintage Ford Mustang Mach 1, a centrepiece of the original film. It's still in the hands of the mob when John Wick: Chapter 2 begins, although not for long: Wick enters a hub of the Mafia's operations, garrots most of the gangsters in sight before driving home. It's a glorious hand-to-hand combat sequence, and it sets the scene for precisely what fans what - Wick beating, shooting or stomping people left, right and centre, irrespective of how many bullets and bruises he takes.
It's a fantastic popcorn flick, regardless of whether you've seen the original. There are plenty of in-jokes and references to the original you won't get: the sequel doesn't offer any backstory or information about the Tarasov syndicate, Wick's history with them, or the fact that they killed his dog the bastards.
The only real glaring issue is a revelation in the opening act: to complete his impossible mission from the original film, Wick had given a blood oath in a golden medallion to Italian mobster Santino D'Antonio. That oath allowed Wick to retire as the Tarasov syndicate's chief hitman, giving him the freedom to marry his now-departed wife. But with her gone, and D'Antonio bent on improving his stocks in the criminal underworld, the conflict is obvious. D'Antonio asks Wick to complete a hit; Wick refuses.
A grenade launcher and a torched house later, Wick's back in business. That kicks off a nice long sequence where the audience gets reintroduced to the infrastructure of the criminal underworld, prompting some amusing quips about guns being compared to dinner and dessert. It's a solid, simple structure: start with long, gritty, visceral fights, and let the audience wind down with a few jokes, semi-awkward exchanges, and nice suits.
But everyone's in this for the action. And good God, do a lot of people get their heads blown off.
There's a section in the middle of the film where Wick tries to make his escape through a series of ancient catacombs. Having left a mini-arsenal behind previously, it's not a surprise to see him conveniently grab a shotgun or assault rifle out of nowhere. And it's not a surprise to see him slaughter through hordes of mercenaries, because it's John Wick. Hell, one of the earliest jokes is a retelling of Wick killing three people in a bar with a pencil.
But John Wick: Chapter Two's triumph is the way the film is shot. Wick spends a good chunk of time running or walking towards the camera, with foes often being shot just immediately before they appear on camera. Like the original, there's no handicam or heavy reliance on quick cuts. It's just a lot of blokes being shot squarely in the face, and occasionally in the knee (so Wick can shoot another guy in the head first).
It's the kind of film where the violence almost becomes comical. Sometimes it's because of the sheer frequency, and sometimes it's deliberate comic timing. There's a great recurring battle between Wick and a fellow professional that results in the pair literally taking cheeky pot shots at each other in a train station, shooting silenced pistols through their jackets.
It's funny in part because Reeves, and the rest of the cast, play their roles as steely-eyed assassins so well. But it also works because it plays on the notion the world of assassins lives beneath our very noses, between the monotony of our daily lives.
There are more memorable performances than you'd think. Ian McShane offers good grounding as the wearied veteran of the Continental, the chain of hotels and associated services where assassins unwind.
Ruby Rose has a decent turn as a deaf rival employed by D'Antonio, and her big action scene stands up well enough on its own. Laurence Fishburne has a small turn as the Bowery King, a Littlefinger-esque character once left at the brink of death by Wick. He doesn't add much to the film, and his role is only a few minutes long. But Fishburne has fun with the script he's given and it's enough for the audience to enjoy as well.
All in all, John Wick: Chapter Two is the Keanu Reeves show. Provided you don't have a longstanding beef with Neo, or the original John Wick, it's hard not to walk out of the cinema with a smile. It's gratuitous for sure, but it's also exactly what John Wick fans wanted.