Toward the end of "John Wick: Chapter Two," a supporting character states that the hero, an emotionally tortured assassin, is addicted to vengeance. Well, yeah—now that you mention it; he’s only been killing people by the bushel for nearly four hours’ of screen time, first to avenge the murder of his dog and the theft of his car, then to redress a betrayal by a crime lord who helped him in the first film and now calls in a favor that Wick can’t refuse.
But the act of mentioning Wick’s revenge addiction makes it funny, and it turns what might've been a somewhat full-of-itself sequel into something faintly mysterious, at once kidding and not-kidding. That’s the Wick trick in a nutshell: making a combination drive-in exploitation flick and arthouse deconstruction of same, while handing academics literary and aesthetic cues like trays of canapes at one of those fancy parties that the hero always transforms into a bloodbath. This sequel to the sleeper hit "John Wick" is the kind of movie that turns subtext into text constantly, blatantly yet playfully, stopping just short of winking at the audience (although on at least one occasion a character actually does wink, at such an angle that the gesture nearly seems directed at us). As Wick gets drawn out of retirement again, coerced into taking one last job and then double crossed and set up as a target, others compare him to the Grim Reaper, describe him as the devil's emissary and the boogeyman, and contextualize him in mythology. At one point another retired assassin who now tends pigeons on a roof—a la Forest Whitaker in Jim Jarmusch's beguiling yet inexplicably almost-forgotten Zen action flick "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"—gives Wick a gun with exactly seven bullets before leading him to an “Angel Heart”-looking elevator and telling him he's starting his descent into hell. (The retired assassin is played by Sir Laurence Fishburne, star Keanu Reeves' mentor from the "Matrix" films, so of course he savors every line like brandy.)
Matt Zoller Seitz
Film critic and filmmaker.