How bad a dude is John Wick? "He killed a dozen of my men over a car and a puppy," says a still-jittery mob boss at the beginning of John Wick: Chapter 2. "He once killed three men in a bar with a fucking pencil!"
He's pretty darn bad. But anyone who saw the first Wick movie will know that already. What's new in this second installment is a measured enlargement of the secret world of international assassins from which John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been trying to retire. There's more detail here, more pulp fun. Maybe more dead bodies, too, but who can keep track of that?
Last time out, you'll recall, Wick was dragged back into action by some bad guys who stole his car—a sweet '69 Mustang—and killed his dog. Those guys are no longer around to regret having done those things. But now there's a new annoyance: an old associate named Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) turns up at Wick's house to call in a hitman favor that can't be refused. When Wick refuses it anyway ("I'm not that guy anymore"), Santino does something that makes Wick very angry—never a wise move.
Soon we're checking back into the Continental Hotel—that deluxe Manhattan hostelry that caters exclusively to assassins and other elite criminals—and consulting with its manager (Ian McShane), who tells Wick that the assassin's code compels him to accept Santino's assignment or be excommunicated from the hitman fraternity—which couldn't be a very good thing. So Wick hops a plane to Rome to do the hit.
But wait a minute—I'm being too linear here. Wick doesn't just check into a hotel or hop on a plane. That would be boring. No, at every turn—at virtually every moment—the man is wreaking havoc. (This is a movie that kicks off in the middle of a scorching automotive chase.) Especially after he arrives in Rome and pays a visit to a tailor shop that specializes in bulletproof suits, and then to a weapons boutique for serious armaments ("I need something robust," he tells the armorer), the mayhem rarely lets up. Many, many bad guys are shot—very often right in the face, with cranial matter spraying out the back of their heads. There's a lot of bone-snapping kung-fu (director Chad Stahelski met Reeves while working as his stunt double on The Matrix, nearly 20 years ago), and some wild body-slamming down a long flight of stone steps. There are also a few jolts of genital trauma that may set a new standard in cinematic excruciation.
When the movie does occasionally pause to let us look around, there's always cool stuff to see. One lethal assault is carried out in an amusingly huge candlelit bathroom with a big black-marble tub. The switchboard at the Continental Hotel is staffed by tattooed ladies busily dispatching kill-on-sight announcements to the worldwide assassin network. And the devious Santino lives in what appears to be a private art museum, complete with towering Kali statue and a hall of mirrors that affords the opportunity for a bullet-riddled tribute to Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai. Also worth keeping an eye on (for safety's sake, one would imagine) is Santino's scary, suit-and-tied terminator Ares, played by the icy Ruby Rose, of Orange Is the New Black.
The movie is a rousing salute to a hundred bloody old Hong Kong action films, and easily claims an equal place among them. Reeves, as always, dominates and shapes the proceedings without seeming to try. He makes us feel something for John Wick (who's still mourning the loss of his late wife) while at the same time making most everybody else on hand feel nothing but pain. Will he be back? Toward the end of the movie, an angry assassin from whom Wick is walking away says, "Be seeing you." So, yeah.