The first “John Wick” was a pleasant surprise that seemed to come out of nowhere in late 2014, simultaneously reviving the B-movie action flick and Keanu Reeves’ faltering career with its stylized, no-holds-barred violence. Though the film was admittedly flawed, it knew exactly what it wanted to be and made no apologies for it, and that’s an attitude that its sequel, helmed by one half of the original directing team, Chad Stahelski, proudly embraces again. Opening with not one but two action sequences to let you know that it means business, “John Wick: Chapter 2” doubles down on everything that made the first movie so enjoyable – including a higher body count and headshots galore – resulting in the rare sequel that’s bigger and better as well.
After settling his score with the Russian mobsters who killed his puppy and stole his car, John Wick (Reeves) wants nothing more than to return to his quiet, peaceful life of retirement alongside his new canine companion. However, it doesn’t take long before he’s once again dragged back into the baroque underground world of assassins by an old acquaintance named Santino Marchesi (Riccardo Scamarcio), a bratty Italian crime boss who’s come to collect a blood debt from Wick that he’s honor-bound to obey or be marked for death. Santino wants him to eliminate his sister so that he can take over her seat on the assassins guild’s high council, but after Wick is caught in the act and a $7 million bounty is placed on his head, every hitman in town – including a pair of bodyguards (Common and Ruby Rose) who work for opposing sides of the Marchesi family – comes gunning for him.
Though “Chapter 2” has higher stakes than its predecessor, it lacks the emotional throughline that drove that film’s narrative. In fact, the whole premise is a bit ridiculous, since Wick is screwed no matter which option he chooses (refuse Santino and be killed, or murder his sister and be killed), but people don’t go to see a John Wick movie for the story or the silly mythology, even if that’s part of its charm. Fortunately, none of that really matters, because Derek Kolstad’s script is merely a means to the high-energy action sequences that dominate the film. Stahelski and his stunt team don’t hold back either, delivering one great set piece after the other with ultra-slick precision, whether it’s Wick going toe-to-toe with a fellow assassin in Rome or shooting his way through a gang of hired thugs in the “Enter the Dragon”-inspired climax. (He also does things with a pencil that makes the Joker’s magic trick from “The Dark Knight” look tame in comparison.)
Reeves is just as essential to the movie’s success. In John Wick, he’s finally found a character that fits him as well as one of the titular hitman’s tailored black suits; he doesn’t need to do much other than look badass and utter cool one-liners, although the fact that he can perform most of the action for real elevates those sequences considerably by allowing Stahelski to employ wide shots and uninterrupted takes that showcase Reeves’ abilities and the awesome choreography. While the villains are pretty one-note and the reunion between Reeves and “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne is disappointing, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a well-paced and immensely entertaining second installment – an action movie with a sense of humor – that proves that the would-be franchise has legs. The countdown for “Chapter 3” has officially begun.