"John Wick: Chapter 2" provides a wild and captivating ride while staying true to -- and happily expanding -- the world established in 2014's "John Wick."
The first film was a grotty and dour revenge thriller about an assassin who just wants to be left alone, graced with a witty notion of an ornate criminal underworld but allowing only a minimum of fun. Reassembling the same creative team of director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, "Chapter 2" makes the case for the "Wick" franchise as a kind of bizarro James Bond. Instead of "shaken not stirred" martinis, Wick's poison is straight bourbon. But the two share a taste for well-tailored suits (in Wick's case, life-saving ones) and lethal weaponry doled out by attentive armorers. As Ian McShane's hotelier Winston puts it, "John Wick is a man of focus, commitment and sheer [expletive deleted will."
This antihero may not be licensed to kill, but now he lives in a similarly slick universe of action fantasy and exotic settings. The stylistic pivot doesn't renounce the first film, but rather amplifies its best qualities while allowing for a broader entertainment. So there will be "gun fu" and demolition derbies. Wick and his dog with no name ostensibly want a peaceful retirement, but that darn criminal code keeps roping him in, this time by way of a nasty Italian mobster (Riccardo Scamarcio), who still holds a blood-oath marker demanding Wick's services.
The grim mission takes Wick to Rome, where we learn that the first film's Continental (Winston's New York domain) is only one of a chain of hotels catering to criminals. Soon, Wick's on the run with a $7 million bounty on his head, and Wick's desired peace -- if indeed it's achievable at all, given his emotional baggage (most notably his late wife) -- looking like it's a long, long way off. That's especially apparent in the way "Chapter Two" tees up a foregone "Chapter Three" (and if Summit Entertainment has its way, there will be no stopping there).
Though essentially empty, the never-dull "John Wick: Chapter Two" makes for a satisfying action movie, propelled along with expertly choreographed ballets of death that nod to John Woo in their virtuosity. The sky-high body count (disconcertingly attended by audience guffaws and cheers) piles up with brutal efficiency: even more so than three years ago, the action here is slickly filmed and edited to spin heads. Reeves sells these fights brilliantly, and offers a magnetic, subtle performance in repose. Granted, a man of few words suits Reeves's skill set, but he's earned this late-career franchise by putting in smart, hard work at its center.