How do you top something as outrageous and awesome as the 2014 action epic “John Wick”? You don’t. Props to star Keanu Reeves, director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad for returning for the fray with “John Wick: Chapter 2.” But while this sequel is slick, sick and sensational, it just can’t shock and awe like the original. Still, fans have plenty of reason to thrill, because this sequel is still a hell of a ride.
Having wrought vengeance for his beloved pup, the titular hitman (Reeves) returns to retirement. But no sooner has the cement dried above the burial plot of his guns, gold and signature suit, that his doorbell rings, inviting a new challenge, forcing Wick back into the assassination game. But when his “last job” goes awry, Wick becomes a target for a wide world of killers and tight-knit lunacy.
Reintroducing audiences to Wick’s world of violence and delicious madness, “Chapter 2” kicks off with wave after wave of weapon-wielding cronies laid to waste by the expertly lethal hero, who employs guns, hand-to-hand fighting and his own car with ruthless efficiency. Meanwhile — through an over-the-top accent, a greasy goatee and a slathering of camp — the charismatically creepy character actor Peter Stormare lays out the legend of the feared Bogeyman, John Wick. Reeves is once more a force to be reckoned, and happily, this sequel is juicy with swagger and almost comical machismo from supporting players.
Reprising his role as the unflappable manager of assassination-free hotel The Continental, “Deadwood” vet Ian McShane brings his trademark growl and a smile so edged that it draws blood. Spaghetti Western icon Franco Nero (“Django Unchained”) glides in with a cool danger as the manager of the Continental’s luxurious Rome location. British comedian (and star of Amazon’s “The Tick”) Peter Serafinowicz brings a vicious wit to a small part as a strange sommelier (“Dessert!”). And Reeves’s “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne bursts into the “John Wick” universe as a pauper king, whose menacing monologue of threats is so bombastic its delivery seems plucked from a roof-rattling Shakespeare production. Yet here, it’s pitch-perfect. And lucky for us, Wick’s world is wide enough to allow for even more eccentric characters.
My favorite element of the first film was the exploration of this imaginative realm of underground assassins. “John Wick” used slight details to suggest an expansive world of idiosyncratic and unexpected killers. Likewise, its sequel is at its best when it plays in that sprawling sandbox. Kolstad’s script folds in fun montages of a plucky busker, stoic sanitation workers and a sumo-sized tourist, all taking on Wick for a hefty bounty. But the most thrilling new editions to this universe are Italian leading lady Claudia Gerini as a bold and sultry mob boss, and rising action icon Ruby Rose (fresh from “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage”) as a relentless assassin who never utters a word, but uses sign language to get her threats through loud and clear.
Gerini struts onto the scene in a sequined gown that seems spun from lightning. With a soft yet sharp voice, she cuts to the heart of matters, be it forcing a rival to surrender his territory, or spelling out the impossible dilemma Wick has bumbled into. Her screentime is brief. But Gerini owns every frame of it, exuding a heady power and unrepentant sexuality. When she makes a chilling choice, a stung Wick asks why, with all the willowy sadness Reeves can muster. And Gerini’s portrayal is so alive with vivacity, we know what she’ll say. She will have nothing but her way.
Meanwhile, Rose plays one of Wick’s more persistent antagonists. Her sexy smirk and androgynous look make her a spectacular foil to the brooding badass in a bespoke suit. Their final battle amid a museum installation of mirrors plays like a gonzo and grisly twist of the classic climax of the 1941 noir, “The Lady From Shanghai.” And while Wick has to cut down scores to get to her, it’s this petite killer who proves one of his roughest battles. But his best comes with Common.
Cool and devastatingly dapper, the rapper/actor returns as Wick’s rival, Cassian. Though Reeves fights small armies of nameless killers in “Chaper Two,” it’s his recurring battles with Common that are the most exhilarating. It’s a showdown of star power that’s positively intoxicating. Whether in a crowded concert in the heart of Rome, a nearly empty subway car, or firing across Lincoln Center’s iconic Revson Fountain, these titans perform a ballet of violence that is jaw-dropping in its brutality and beauty.
The action sequences in “John Wick: Chapter 2” are plentiful and often satisfyingly bonkers. But when it becomes John fighting one indistinct, easily shot-to-death baddie after another, even an escape through catacombs amid hails of gunfire can feel dull. This outlandish and violent series is at its best when its fight scenes are both savage and inventive. Like the wicked whimsy of Wick waiting for the waters of a fountain to fall so he can take a shot at Cassian. It’s more deranged and more fun to watch Wick slay a pair of killer twins with a pencil (“a fucking pencil!”) than it is to watch a bunch of randos get gunned down, over and over. Its sheer absurdity is its joy. While, these underwhelming onslaughts dampen the verve, they don’t spoil the fun. And thankfully, this weaving plot of betrayals, bounties and bevies of baddies paves a clear path for another “John Wick” entry that promises to grow this wild and wondrous world even more.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” is in theaters now.