Riddle me this: How is John Wick: Chapter 2 not a violent film?

It is, rest assured, absolutely chock-full of close-quarters pistol murders: Keanu Reeves’s titular assassin dispatches literally dozens of dandy-suited thugs with staccato double-taps and swift, brutal headshots. Brain bits fly. Rarely has any film felled a forest of extras with such unrepentant vim. So, what gives? Why is it not, really, that violent?

What gives is that in John Wick’s world, the violence would never touch us.

The sequel to 2014’s surprise delight John Wick again situates Hurricane Keanu and his bottomless pistol mags securely within an alternate universe of secret assassins’ guilds, old debts, gold coins, silk robes, and cabals. There’s a sexed-up New York and a dreamlike Rome, but nary a cop (or consequence) in sight. This is a world where the boss sips brandy while mayhem unfolds, and can stop a brutal duel with a single word — like bringing snarling guard dogs sharply to heel. This is violence, but civilized. Compartmentalized. Safe.

Among the many, many deaths in this film, I counted not one slain bystander. (And unlike in the first one, there are plenty milling around.) Wick’s kills are savage and his aim is true, but everyone who dies had it coming. Set against our own world of mall shooters and terrorist panic, this is the comforting fiction of the John Wick universe. Every last victim opted in.

Buying into this central dogma will unshackle you from any default aversion you may harbor to on-screen homicide, thereby enabling this film to do something I didn’t know was possible: To use murder as ballet, as an art form. Death here is fast, shiny, honorable, expertly dealt. It’s riveting to witness.

This is a fantastic movie and an even better sequel. It plays a bit like a tale from antiquity, some ruddy Greco-Roman yarn extolling the battle-exploits of a fierce warrior. Wide-eyed juniors, gather round to hear tell of the many kills your hero made, and how! This is a propaganda piece for a military nation, a riff on the fundamental gun-love of America. Visually, the vivid palette is thick with reds, whites, and blues. Yep. A modern hymn to the gunfighter.

Alright. Lest you think someone popped a roofie in my snifter, let’s tack back to the plot.

So John Wick: Chapter Two picks up more or less where the first film left off, with reluctant “boogeyman” Wick cleaning up Russian loose ends and still jonesing for his Boss 429 (which, in a nice touch, still has a 2014 registration sticker). A face from his past pops up to call in a debt. Before long, Wick is off to Rome to do some killing, then back to New York to do some more.

Director Chad Stahelsky (a kickboxer and longtime stuntman) clearly understands what made his original film so great. Here again we have the spare and campy dialogue, delivered with Keanu’s flat earnest stare. We’ve got flashy subtitles, crisp costumes, opulent set design, hidden bullion hoards, and the aforementioned steady jet of baddies to bag. The stunts are slick (natch) and the gunplay is choice. (I suspect Mr. Reeves trained with some top-shelf, real-life doorkickers for this.) Every kill is a coup de grâce, a thing of beauty.

Downsides are few: Stahelsky jumps right in with pre-credits action, which cheapens things a tad; there’s not as much righteous buildup this time around; and I found one leisurely death scene (!) tough to watch. On the plus side, Keanu flat out nails it to the wall. Supporting talent is also strong: Notable are Ruby Rose, suitably cool as an assassin who speaks in American Sign; Ian McShane’s reprise of the wry guild boss; and a long-overdue onscreen reunion.

If you’re wondering how to sell your softbelly pals on this particular night at the pictures, try this: Human history is peppered with slaughter. This is a movie that recasts this oft-overlooked truth as full-on performance art.

To be fair, if you’re at all on the fence about cinematic gun-butchery, you’ll need a come-to-Jesus moment before you strap in for this film. But if you can handle a drumbeat of homicide, you’ll soon find that murder is just the brush with which Stahelsky paints; scowling heavies are his canvas, and his world is one in which the violence, though brutal, always plays by old rules.

Haus Verdict: A lavish and (yes) beautiful symphony of slaughter, and a near-flawless sequel.

John Wick: Chapter 2 opens Friday, February 10. 

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