“You’re not very good at retiring,” observes a crime lord played by Laurence Fishburne in John Wick: Chapter 2. “I’m workin’ on it,” responds Wick, the laconic hit man reprised by Keanu Reeves. This reunion of Neo and Morpheus is apropos, as Reeves was very much workin’ on his de facto retirement following the end of the Matrix trilogy in 2003. Forgettable parts in forgettable films were suddenly and rather inexplicably interrupted in 2014, when the original John Wick, an unheralded neo-noir, become an instant cult classic and resuscitated Reeves’s career.
Director Chad Stahelski’s viscera-strewn John Wick: Chapter 2 runs on muscle cars and muscle memory. Gone is the disarming simplicity of the first film's narrative, a revenge quest wrapped up during Chapter 2’s cold open that started, we’re conspicuously reminded, because some knuckleheads stole Wick’s car and killed his dog. Also missing is the original’s sense of discovery, with its hit man code and peculiar assassins’ society, and its revelation that Keanu Reeves can still star in a good action movie.
Once again, Wick wants to wall off his violent past and live out his days in peace with his new pooch. Trouble quickly comes knocking when fellow assassin Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) decides to cash in on Wick’s broken blood oath to leave the hit man business. D’Antonio holds a "marker" over Wick and demands that he knock off D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so D’Antonio can assume her place on the assassin's council and take control over the New York City crime syndicate.
Wick is caught in a catch-22: refusing to comply with D’Antonio’s demand is punishable by death under the rules of the Continental Hotel, the assassin's safe haven, now expanded into a worldwide regulatory agency. Killing Gianna will prompt D'Antonio to tie up loose ends under the guise of demanding satisfaction for the death of his sister.
That’s the long route to John Wick.Chapter 2’s ultimate destination is a bevy of bullets and bloody action, as Wick’s Wile E. Coyote must run a gauntlet of guns and contract killers, starting with the formidable Cassian (Common), Gianna’s bodyguard, and culminating with a mute enforcer (Ruby Rose) who communicates solely in sign language.
Wick remains equal parts Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. Chapter 2 plunges him into a stylized iteration of Dante’s Inferno that skews close to Gareth Evans’s The Raid. The action vignettes run from the catacombs of Rome to a gleaming white NYC subway station to a hall of mirrors sequence—inspired, in part, by The Lady from Shanghai and Enter the Dragon—inside a modern-art exhibit appropriately titled “Reflections of the Soul.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 reinforces the idea that even mindless violence can and should be smartly made, and its open-ended denouement is a testament to the series’s now-bankable popularity and inevitable third act. It looks like John Wick, and Keanu Reeves, will have to put off that retirement a little while longer.