Three years ago, Keanu Reeves burst back onto the action scene with John Wick, an intelligent and original action thriller about a hitman on a quest to avenge the murder of his dog that defied expectation to become a box office hit. Opening shortly after the events of its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 immediately sets the stage for an even bigger dose of the intricately choreographed action sequences that catapulted the original film to a worldwide gross of more than four times its budget.
Hot on the trail of the thugs who stole his 1969 Mustang, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) tracks the vehicle to a taxi warehouse owned by the Russian mafia, then immediately destroys the pristine automobile by using it as a weapon to take down a small army of enforcers. To call this sequence a car chase would be something of a misnomer, as it bears more resemblance to a demolition derby than anything else, with vehicles (and bodies) smashing into other vehicles (and bodies) and sending them flying.
By the time John returns home the next day, the Mustang is little more than a pile of scrap metal, but the once-retired hitman seems oddly satisfied with the results. Returning his weapons, passports and emergency cash to the hollow space beneath his basement floor, John once again settles in for some peace and quiet – until trouble arrives in the form of Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a ghost from John’s past to whom a debt is owed. Santino wants his old pal to carry out a particular dangerous assassination, and his method of persuasion turns out to be… effective.
John’s new assignment finds him reluctantly bound for Rome, where he check’s into the Italian counterpart of The Continental, the assassins-only hotel from the original film where all manner of contract killing business is conducted. Armed with a new suit and a small arsenal, John enters the catacombs below some of Rome’s most iconic landmarks to carry out his mission, but success paints a target on his back as Santino sends his mute bodyguard (Ruby Rose) to tie up loose ends, leading to a wildly entertaining gun battle that works its way from the pulsing strobes of a rock concert to the shadowy tunnels beneath the city.
And that’s just the first hour. Before the film comes to a close, John will also find himself squaring off against Cassian (Common), an equally skilled executioner with a personal vendetta, and a seemingly endless army of international hitmen (and women) who come out of the woodwork when Santino places a $7 million bounty on John’s head. The gunplay is even more exciting and varied this time around, with a healthy portion of hand-to-hand combat (influenced by action flicks like The Raid) thrown in for good measure, and director Chad Stahelski – one half of the duo behind the previous film – sets the balletic violence against gorgeous neon-drenched backdrops and smartly crafted setpieces, such as a hall-of-mirrors art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.”
Obviously relishing his return to the title role, Reeves steps back into Wick’s shoes with plenty of enthusiasm and gusto, and the months of weapons and martial arts training he endured pay off in a big way. Unlike many modern action directors, Stahelski is a big fan of long, unbroken takes during his fight sequences, and he clearly wants the audience to notice that it’s almost always Reeves in the mix – rapidly changing mags, switching weapons, and dispatching the film’s nameless henchmen with a level of marksmanship rarely seen outside of videogames.
Amid the carnage, John Wick: Chapter 2 finds time to expand on the underworld organization to which John and his fellow assassins belong. One of the film’s high points is John’s meeting with a sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz) who pairs knives and firearms instead of wines and entrees, and The Continental’s mysterious and enigmatic Winston (Ian McShane) turns up at key moments to provide context on the assassin hierarchy – not to mention laying the foundation for the inevitable third installment, which promises a significant change to the formula that should introduce a host of new possibilities.
John Wick: Chapter 2 can’t quite match the frenetic pace of the original film, thanks partly to its 2-hour running time, and Reeves is still a bit wooden in his delivery, but everything else is firing on all cylinders. Fans looking forward to an even bigger helping of eye-popping, jaw-dropping action certainly won’t come away disappointed – except perhaps by the somewhat lackluster final showdown – and Stahelski and Reeves prove that not only can lightning be bottled more than once, they make it look effortless.