Keanu Reeves benefits from myth. Whether he's a goofy stoner projected across history ("Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure"), an everyman turned messianic figure ("The Matrix"), a classical action star ("Point Break," "Speed") or a Shakespearean character reinterpreted as a modern figure ("My Own Private Idaho," his greatest performance), Reeves is at his best when his Zen-like demeanor can be enhanced by a mythic world and storyline, his centered performances providing both a credible anchor and, often, a window into the loneliness that comes with greatness. That was the case with the surprise 2014 hit "John Wick," and it goes doubly for "John Wick: Chapter 2," an action film that improves and expands upon that earlier film's strengths and promises.
The film picks up where the first film left off, with ex-assassin Wick (Reeves) getting back the car stolen from him and ending the act of vengeance for the death of his dog, the last thing left to him by his wife. His peace with a new home and pup is short-lived, with crime lord Santino (a deliciously weaselly Riccardo Scamarchio) forces Wick to repay a blood oath by assassinating his powerful sister. Wick's troubles grow when Santino betrays him, putting a bounty on his head that every assassin comes to collect.
The first "John Wick" benefited from Derek Kolstad's intricately conceived underworld mythology, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's clean depiction of complicated action choreography, and Reeves' performance. "Chapter 2" takes these strengths further: where Kolstad offered peeks and hints at the vast world of the Continental (a hotel for assassins) and its guests, here he gives a greater sense of the protections and pitfalls offered by it.
In one exhilarating montage, Wick shops throughout Rome for new clothes, weapons and maps, with each shop opening up special compartments under their fronts (a sommelier for the gun man, a tailor who sews bulletproof material into suits). In a sequence with one of the most welcome cameos in recent memory, Wick confronts an old foe who utilizes fake homeless men as a way to keep eyes and ears on the streets at all times. More than giving a sense of a vast underworld, Kolstad depicts an inescapable one, a dark web that reaches to the ends of the world (including, in the film's mythic style, Roman ruins).
Stahelski, working on his own this time (Leitch's solo debut, "The Coldest City," is slated for July release), intuitively understands how to direct action. A longtime stuntman (including stunt double work for Reeves), he distinguishes himself with straight-ahead shooting of brutal but balletic martial arts and gun battles (and sometimes both at once), peeking around corners with Reeves and giving a tactile sense of the impact fists and bullets have on the human body. The stuntman-turned-director remembers where he came from, both personally and historically (the opening sequence sees one of cinema's great stunt stars, Buster Keaton, inexplicably but thrillingly projected onto the side of a Manhattan tower).
What was impressive the first time around has grown in complexity for the sequel, the set-pieces more elaborately conceived and staged. What's more, Stahelski has grown more expressive, both in his action (a "Lady from Shanghai"-inspired hall of mirrors sequence, dubbed "Reflections of the Soul") and in mundane scenes, editing certain scenes achronologically to give a sense of the inescapable to the proceedings.
Reeves has always been underrated as an actor, given more flak for his miscastings ("Bram Stoker's Dracula," "A Midsummer Night's Dream") than credit for his successes. Few actors are as capable of believably carrying out complex action (only Tom Cruise rivals him), but Reeves also lets the weight of the physical and spiritual violence seep into his performance.
He limps and winces like a man who's feeling more than just the power of punches on himself, and Reeves' sometimes deadpan, sometimes deadened demeanor shows someone whose brief period of bliss away from the criminal world couldn't take away the psychic toll of his actions. When another man accuses him of being addicted to vengeance, there's some truth to it; when Wick finds his way out, there's inevitably something pulling him back in, as the line goes. "John Wick: Chapter 2" suggests that despite your best efforts, you can't run away from who you are. But at least you can look spectacular trying.