When a sequel to 2014’s “John Wick” was announced, few thought there was any meat left on this revenge tale’s bones to pick from. Would his dog get killed again? Maybe he’ll have a goldfish someone steps on? These suppositions miss the point of the original film: “John Wick” wasn’t just about a man avenging the memory of his deceased pet, a Beagle puppy that represented the love of his dearly departed wife, it was about a violent man being forced to revisit a life he’d all but left behind. He may have killed 77 people in the first film and gotten a new dog, but he can’t just put the guns back into a cement hole in the basement and pretend he can be a regular guy again.
Though that’s exactly what Wick attempts. “John Wick: Chapter 2” picks up right after the last film’s ending, with a thrilling, brutal set piece involving John (Keanu Reeves) tying up loose ends and getting his signature ‘69 Mustang Cobra back before immediately totaling it. Once peace is made with the Russians, John goes home with his nameless pitbull, washes off all the blood and tries to shackle the beast of his past back to the box he sprang it from. But then the doorbell rings and we meet Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the powerful man who made it possible for John to leave the assassin’s life and settle down in the first place.
Santino has in his possession a marker—an arcane little trinket that houses John’s bloody fingerprint. It’s a physical manifestation of the favor Santino is owed. But John refuses Santino without even hearing what he wants done. Santino, without other recourse, burns John’s house to the fucking ground. It’s at this point that John and his dog must return to The Continental, the colorful assassin’s hotel from the first film, where the manager Winston (Ian McShane) reminds John of the duty to which he is bound: John has to kill whoever Santino wants killed, then he’s free of the marker and, in theory, free of this life. But the target and the job are just another tumble down the rabbit hole.
For anyone weirded out by the intricate mythology crammed into the gutters of the first film’s narrative, “John Wick: Chapter 2” might not be your cup of tea. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad clearly has an apartment full of densely filled composition books outlining the entire John Wick Universe and gleefully takes every opportunity to flesh out elements of the fancy, storied criminal underground John Wick must again inhabit. To break down any of the new concepts here would be a disservice to anyone actually planning to seek the film out. You’ve got to experience The High Table and The Continental’s sister establishment in Rome yourself. Few action films in recent memory are able to employ comic book-y world-building quite the way these two films have, and even at its hokiest, it’s difficult not to delight in the sheer, restless invention of it all. If, however, you’re here for unbridled, efficiently choreographed murder and gorgeously photographed violence, there’s nothing to worry about.
“Chapter 2” outdoes the original in every conceivable way in this regard, dialing up the intensity in the film’s many shootouts, hand-to-hand combat sequences, and car chases. There’s a purity of intent, a clarity of perspective here that’s impossible not to be enamored by. Seeing Keanu embody Headshot Papi is the most watchable an action hero has been in decades. There’s also a really pleasing stretch of film that is completely devoid of action, building up the preparation for John’s big hit with delicious anticipation, relishing every bit of preparation and savoring every detail. But once he’s back on the job, the action refuses to let up, as the second act’s complications turn the back half of the film into a bullet ballet take on “The Warriors”, with John running through New York with a target on his head from every assassin in the city.
Obviously, “Chapter 2” delivers as a rollicking action picture. It’s an aesthetic triumph and plays the audience’s expectations like a symphony, so it’s an easy film to discard as merely an expert exercise in mind-numbing escapism. In a year as perpetually depressing as 2017 has been thus far, who could be blamed for wanting to turn their brain off and watch Keanu shoot nameless, besuited goons in the head with startling accuracy? But the film isn’t just a brainless thrill ride. Even if the streamlined revenge story of the original has given way to an esoteric, R-rated James Bond pastiche, the pathos that made the first film resonate is still here.
Dilettantes will take easy potshots at Keanu’s acting style and pretend there’s some kind of irony in enjoying his performance as John Wick, but those jaundiced viewpoints miss the mark. John Wick is a man who is especially good at something remarkably bad, but few other performers would be as adept at imbuing this badass archetype with inherent tragedy. At times, Reeves seems ready to doze off, but that’s only because his life is a waking nightmare. The laconic demeanor, the wry sense of humor, and the peculiar rhythms of Reeves’ speech are all necessary to make John Wick more than your average tough guy.
Wick's byzantine world of markers and wards and allegiances and codes makes for great movie myth fodder, but in practice, it’s a depressing approximation of capitalist society made literal with video game mechanics and flashy carnage. To get the straight life he’s always wanted, John put himself into a hole he spends the entire film trying to crawl out of. When John initially rejects Santino’s request, Santino implies that he owns John’s house. His very humanity is in arrears, and every twist of the knife sees him bargaining with various power players and leveraging his unique craft to try to get even.
If “John Wick: Chapter 2” follows a man trying to work within a corrupted system by following the corrugated rules of that establishment, the finale leaves the door open for an even more fascinating follow-up. Perhaps the already greenlit “John Wick: Chapter 3” will show us a man who’s finally accepted the world he lives in is broken and sets to destroy it from the outside, blasting at its rickety walls with his fists and, if necessary, his guns.