When John Wick burst into theaters in 2014, it was immediately hailed as one of the best, most tightly made action films of the decade, and for good reason. Its combination of standard genre elements with an unusually sleek and confident stylization made it an irresistible gem, especially when factoring in a surprisingly strong element of world-building in its construction of a world filled with assassins and a perfectly attuned Keanu Reeves as the eponymous master assassin. John Wick: Chapter 2 adopts at once a similar and entirely different approach, expanding the first film’s relatively narrow scope and dialing the violence up to an even more absurd degree, without sacrificing much the original’s sense of weight and yes, bliss.
John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up almost immediately after the first, complete with a directly connected prologue, featuring an amusingly louche gangster played by Peter Stormare and full of escalating car crashes and fistfights (the trademark gun fu of the series is purposely delayed for maximal effect until the end of the scene). After this vehicular mayhem, the film mostly settles down for its first act, as John Wick attempts to retire again, only to be thrust back into the world by a blood oath he had previously made. Said oath requires him to go to Rome to carry out a contract on a high-ranking crime lord, which leads John down a rabbit hole full of conspiracy and betrayal.
All of this is fairly standard, but what sets John Wick: Chapter 2 apart from its own predecessor, let alone the standard action film, is how willing it is to follow John into what becomes something approaching a maximal amount of aestheticized violence. For whatever reason, returning director Chad Stahelski decides to considerably ramp up the explicitness of the action scenes from the first installment, and this has the effect of making the deaths seem more and less impactful. There might not be the tightness of John Wick, with its sequestered four setpieces, but the continual action allows the latter two acts to continually set John in situations of imminent danger. There is of course no doubt that he will survive, but much of the pleasure is in seeing his varying methods, ranging from knives to a Benelli M4 shotgun (resulting in some truly awe-inspiring carnage) to a silenced pistol (with which he has a laughably amazing shootout with an assassin played by Common in a public space) to yes, a pencil.
And equally entertaining is seeing the innovations in narrative and setting; the Continental hotel (exclusively for assassins) is shown to have a sister location in Rome, there is a secret physical registry of assassins complete with women operating switchboards, and John has a run in with an underground network of assassins masquerading as homeless people, led by The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). All of these do a great deal to hint at even more, to celebrate the maximalism allowed by a sequel without sacrificing what makes the first film great. For at the end of the day, illustrated most clearly by the incredible climax set in a hall of mirrors art installation, John Wick: Chapter 2 is about its action, gloriously shot in crisp neon and anchored by an unwaveringly solid physical actor, and as a result it soars. And the dog lives.