Imagine if “The Matrix Reloaded” had actually delivered on its promise to build on Keanu Reeves’s trippy world from the opening installment. Picture a sequel that pulled us even further down the rabbit hole rather than giving us a widened landscape that felt dispiritingly like warmed-over Syfy programming.
It might not be “Matrix” territory, exactly, but with “John Wick: Chapter 2,” genre fans finally get the sort of expanded Keanuverse they were craving. For audiences with an extremely high tolerance for brutally fetishized shootouts and bloodletting, this continuation of Reeves’s potential-filled reluctant hit man saga is electrifying, both visually and in its cracked narrative ambitions. Heck, Laurence Fishburne even gets in on the insanity for old times’ sake.
A characteristically sly opener finds Wick tying up a loose end from last time, reclaiming his stolen vintage Mustang with all the extreme prejudice that he exercised in avenging his dead dog. He’s just getting back to retirement and quietly grieving his late, cancer-felled wife (Bridget Moynahan) when Italian nasty Santino D’Antonio (suavely menacing Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a forgotten debt. Santino wants his syndicate-topping sister (arresting, underused Claudia Gerini) assassinated, and he and his car-trunk rocket launcher aren’t taking no for an answer.
Cue Wick’s latest reentry into the contract-killer shadow world that was such a crazily inspired surprise last time. Ian McShane is back as the bemused proprietor of Manhattan’s only (we’ll assume?) hit man hotel. But returning director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad definitely have a broader vision to lay on us — and while this means largely abandoning the first film’s solid pathos, we’re OK with the tradeoff. Welcome to the hotel’s elegant satellite in Rome, complete with weapons sommelier. Welcome to a worldwide web of assassins where everyone from Common’s iceman to a Lincoln Center busker targets Wick, and where kill orders are relayed through an old Ma Bell office hooked on tattoo culture. And welcome to the turf of the Bowery King (Fishburne), who’s got his own who-knew network of lethal operatives.
What also keeps surprising us is just how outrageously far Reeves and Stahelski, his onetime stunt double, are willing to push the movie’s violence. There’s a hint of Peckinpah in their commitment to simulated shootings and stabbings as spattery ballet. We’d call Stahelski desensitized, but his action direction is far too fresh to be coming from someone not giving it much thought. And we’d call ourselves desensitized, but we’re too appreciative that the filmmakers include so many crackpot elements to stress the “play” in gunplay.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2
Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Starring Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Common, Laurence Fishburne. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 122 minutes. R (strong violence throughout, some language, brief nudity).