The funny thing about John Wick: Chapter 2 is that it’s the exact same movie as John Wick: Chapter 1—and yet somehow manages to work almost as well. If anything, this film has less plot than the original, which was about the baddest assassin of them all being pulled back in, despite his best efforts. The best thing about that film, besides the steely coolness of Keanu Reeves, was the elaborate underground world it created, filled with secret networks and codes of honor and one very sinister-yet-decorous hotel called The Continental. John Wick 2 is literally more of the same, except the world expands—John goes to Italy, where we find there’s a Continental Rome, and the film’s ongoing joke is that this underground network of assassins is a lot bigger than you thought. The homeless guys in the New York subways? Mostly assassins. The janitors? Assassins. Cab drivers. Yeah, them, too. And have you ever wondered why violin cases look so much like gun cases?
In this installment, John has a new dog—a giant pit bull he hasn’t named (lest he get too attached, although it doesn’t seem to be working)—and enough optimism that his retirement is going to stick this time to reseal his at-home arsenal with concrete (poor, deluded lad). But an old acquaintance named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up, looking to cash in on a “marker” John gave him in exchange for a favor. John tries to refuse—bucking the assassin’s code—and Santino blows up his house, including that arsenal, but, more importantly, John’s photos of his beloved dead wife. Uh oh.
John goes to the Continental, nameless dog in tow, hoping that the Manager (Ian McShane giving us the Full McShane) will give him a pass on fulfilling his marker. No such luck: Fulfill the marker or he’ll be “excommunicado,” i.e., kicked out of the Continental and stripped of all of its membership privileges. Still boiling with rage, John accepts his assignment. But both he and Santino know that Santino’s a dead man as soon as John carries out the job.
From there, we have the film’s best sequence, as John gets suited up for the job—literally and figuratively. He goes the Continental Rome where, once it’s firmly established he hasn’t come to kill the Pope, he’s given a room. He goes to a “sommelier” who gives him a “tasting” of guns: a light pistol to start, a “robust” glock for the main course; a penetrating blade for dessert. The tailor in Rome fits him with two black, two-button, bullet-proof suits. A librarian type gives him blueprints to the castles and catacombs of Rome.
All around, Wick is known and revered—he’s called, alternately, a “ghost,” “a bogeyman,” and the “emissary of death.” High praise in his world.
There are some colorful supporting characters: Lance Reddick is back as the unflappable concierge at the Continental (who’s kind enough to take in the Dog With No Name). Androgynous beauty Ruby Rose plays a deaf mute assassin who seems to be everywhere. (One of the ongoing jokes of the film is that John is fluent in virtually every language—so it comes as no surprise when he converses with her easily in sign language.) And Keanu is reunited with his old Matrix buddy Laurence Fishburne, here playing a rag-wearing pigeon keeper who is actually, you guessed, a slick underground leader of assassins (he changes into an expensive silk robe once he’s out of plain sight).
And honestly, that’s it. The body count, once again, is ludicrously high. The director, Chad Staheski, fetishizes weapons and the various ways they are wielded and the dude positively loves to kill people: through mirrors and waterfalls, with pencils and blades and guns, super fast and in slow-motion. Death is his art, to paraphrase something Spike once said to Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And damn is he good at it. As with the first John Wick, this is the fast-paced, cheeky, absurdly blood-splattered assassin movie I never knew I needed. Bring on Chapter Three.