Remember how the original John Wick snuck up and wowed us in 2014? Now he's back and better than ever. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the real deal in action-movie fireworks – it's pure cinema, an adrenaline rocket of image and sound that explodes on contact.
Wait, say the skeptics, isn't it just Keanu Reeves, as the titular character, shooting, stabbing, kicking and punching bad guys when he's not using assorted vehicles to go Mad Max on his enemies? Well, yes, it's that too. And yet this sequel – with the star at his absolute best as the so-called Boogeyman who once killed three men with a pencil – crashes beyond the borders of typical B-movie nihilism. Chapter 2 finds something excitingly existential in this tale of a loner looking to take a stand in a world gone batshit crazy. Deliriously fast and funny, this wild thing is set in perpetual motion by director Chad Stahelski with a choreographic skill to rival La La Land, if that Oscar-bound musical had a body count.
The plot is cleverly engineered by screenwriter Derek Kolstad to go full throttle. Last time, Wick tried to retire from the assassin business and settle down with the missus. Then she died, a bummer made worse when Russian thugs steal Wick's prize 1969 Mustang and kill his puppy, a gift from his late wife. What's a dude to do? Go on a rampage, of course. Chapter Two picks up with Wick settling in again at his sleekly modern Long Island home, this time with a new pup. But the past pulls him back in, this time via the lethal Italian gangster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Santino wants Wick to fly to Rome and execute his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can take her place at the "High Table," a secret gathering spot for the criminal elite. Wick makes his frowny face. But mobster has his marker and in the hitman biz, you don't welsh on a marker.
The code of honor among scum is one of the movie's wittiest conceits, along with the concept of underworld syndicates hiding in plain sight. It's house policy at the Continental, a chic Manhattan hotel for hitmen and women run with elegant dispatch by Winston (a delicious Ian McShane). There is to be no violence on the premises, ever; you break the rule at your peril. Otherwise, all bets are off in Rome where Wick tangles with Cassian (a stellar Common), Gianna's security honcho, and Ares (Ruby Rose), the mute head of Santino's goon squad.
A "gun-fu" battle at the ancient Baths of Caracalla, is spectacular; ditto a shootout at a hall of mirrors that echoes Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai. And it's jaw-dropping when Wick and Cassian go at it back in New York, where Santino has put out a global contract on our one-man army, bringing every killer out of the shadows. For help, Wick turns reluctantly to an old enemy, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) – yup, Neo and Morpheus reunite. It's a setup for Wick's climactic duel at the World Trade Center subway hub.
To call these thunderous sequences thrilling is to understate the case. Reeves trained for weeks in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and it shows. Stahelski, who started as Reeves' stunt double on the Matrix films, has a keen eye for how action defines character. Working with the gifted cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak), whose neon lighting is perversely seductive, the director fills every inch of his dazzling widescreen compositions. No hollow digital dazzle, green-screen trickery or caffeinated editing, just long takes of actors moving with artful precision and grace. Reeves, a throwback to the great Hong Kong action stars, is poetry in bruising motion. He's a cowboy. He's a samurai. He's rock and roll. What are you waiting for? And when do we get Chapter 3?