‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ review: Vengeful hitman sequel delights in doing everything bigger

Image of a scene from the Lionsgate film John Wick Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves once again steps into the dapper duds of the titular character in “John Wick: Chapter 2.” PHOTO CREDIT: Niko Tavernise

“John Wick: Chapter 2” might have the most relentless action sequences since “The Raid: Redemption.” And as a follow-up to last year’s origin story, it takes all the joy of the no-holds-barred gun play and hand-to-hand combat, and doubles right down on it. Heck, when John Wick isn’t plowing through hired henchmen, he’s prepping to take on the next batch, securing weapons and getting fitted for bulletproof three-piece suits.  Seeing Keanu Reeves wield an automatic rifle again will bring to mind images from the iconic lobby scene in “The Matrix”, but here the gun battles don’t rely so much on visual effects.  They certainly aren’t slowed down, and they feel much more intense.

Writer Derek Kolstad continues crafting Wick’s narrative, and his sequel script wastes no time in getting down to business, as the film’s title cards give way to an immediate car chase, sans explanation. For a moment, the viewer is uncertain whether it is just another studio card, until a motorcycle comes skidding into the frame, upended on its side. Who has the time for exposition?

This second chapter finds our titular hero still cleaning up some loose ends. After dispatching some sweet vengeance in the first film, John is still on his way to retrieve the retro Mustang that was stolen from him, which explains the vehicular massacre from the outset.  This is much to the dismay of the original thief’s uncle, since the car is currently in his possession, and he has heard all the stories.  After all,  Wick did catch up with his nephew, so he definitely believes in the legend of the highly effective assassin. Peter Stormare plays the uncle, and once again manages to deliver a humorous, memorable character in a limited amount of screen time.

After all the eye-for-an-eye, John hopes to settle into retirement. But the concrete covering his weapons and money stash isn’t even dry when the doorbell starts ding-donging. Santino D’Antonio(Riccardo Scamarcio) has come to visit, but this is considerably heavier than just a social call.  When John wanted to escape the business and settle down with his wife many years ago, D’Antonio pulled some strings to get him there. They made a blood pact, and now he wants John to return that favor. When John refuses, the guy doesn’t blow his lid, but instead blows up John’s house. Fortunately, John is thrown out of the building by the initial blast before two more rounds have the entire structure ablaze.

Now homeless and needing advice, Wick seeks sanctuary at the Hotel.  After consulting with ‘The Manager'(Ian McShane), John learns he has no choice but to return D’Antonio’s favor and complete the blood pact.  D’Antonio wants John to travel to Rome and assassinate his sister, so he can take her place at the high table.  And his ambitions go much higher, as he’s looking to take over New York City once he gains a little bit of power.  John must take his unique skills global, without drawing the attention of an entire international circuit of payday-hungry contract killers.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” has just the right amount of story to counterbalance all the mayhem and gunplay. It airs on just the right side of logical, even if it all does feel a bit convenient(especially when D’Antonio appears so soon after John gets back home).  It’s almost an in-joke, as even the hotel concierge Charon(Lance Reddick) comments on Wick’s quick return to the fray.  Surely nothing is wrong with action for action’s sake, and director Chad Stahelski has proven himself more than worthy of delivering on that front(the stuntman-turned-director also helmed the original). But the myth and the lore building inside the “John Wick” universe ground it a little bit, which helps…especially when there are some laughably tongue-in-cheek fight scenarios.

A little meaning to the mayhem goes a long way, but viewers will still find themselves chuckling in delight at some outlandish action moments.  This is especially true when the camera takes certain angles to hint where the fight will move to next, as it does during a particular mano-e-mano between Wick and another of the firm’s assassins(Common).

Lionsgate(and its Summit distribution label) has the makings of a hit franchise on its hands, and “John Wick: Chapter 2” has the warmth of a summer action blockbuster in the cold, dark month of February.  Keanu Reeves doesn’t have to spend a lot of time emoting, but his performance is almost entirely physical: the studio claims that he performed 90 percent of his own stunts.  Fairly enough, there are a couple of scenes of quiet reflection where John reminisces about his late wife.  But like a shotgun butt-slam to the sternum, the story quickly tears John away from these moments to get him back to doing what he does best.  From the impressive car chase-slash-taxicab-demolition-derby opening sequence to the final showdown, this movie unapologetically lets the bullets, knives and pencils(yes, pencils) fly.

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