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Keanu versus everyone – again

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“John Wick: Chapter 2” a smart, sharp action outing

“John Wick” was one of the biggest surprises of 2014. The Keanu Reeves-starring action flick turned out to be an unexpected blend of sophisticated nuance and bats—t insanity, one of the most inspired and creative genre films to come along in years. So of course, Hollywood needed to make another one.

However, succumbing to the siren song of the sequel isn’t always ideal. Action films are particularly susceptible to the sorts of diminishing returns that we often get when studios return to the well. It would be a shame to see that happen to something as interesting as “John Wick.”

Happily, that isn’t the case here. “John Wick: Chapter 2” might not have quite the same impact as its predecessor, this is still a frenetic, kinetic, high-octane action offering that digs deeper into the world that it has created and takes full advantage of that skewed universe.

Reeves is back as the titular force-of-nature hitman. Despite his best efforts to once again go into retirement, he is forced to return to the game thanks to the calling in of a marker by criminal sleaze Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, “Dalida”). Wick is forced to kill so that Santino might be able to advance to the High Table, the ruling council of the criminal underworld.

Wick is forced to go on the run, pursued not only by fellow hitmen like Cassian (Common, “Barbershop: The Next Cut”) but also Santino’s forces – led by the mute Ares (Ruby Rose, “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter”) – who seek to tie up this particular loose end. Wick works his way through the elaborate subsurface parallel universe of criminality in an effort to properly prepare himself for the battles to come.

Left with very few people he can trust, Wick must fight his way through wave after wave of enemies as he tries to track down the person (or persons) he has to kill to make this all go away so that he can finally find some peace.

As you might guess, it doesn’t necessarily work out the way he might have wanted (although it should be noted – spoiler alert – that this time, the dog comes out of it all OK).

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a terrifically fun movie. The narrative is detailed and driven, while the cinematography is top-notch. The action sequences are especially good; like the original, this film captures a unique and wildly energetic style in an unerringly watchable way. Despite the rapidity with which it all plays out, nothing is lost. We see it all.

A huge part of what made the first film so interesting were the occasional glimpses at the world in which these characters exist - this vast, kind-of-secretive-kind-of-not, old-fashioned and stylized subculture operating just beneath the surface of real life. The sequel doubles down, letting the audience see even more of the various workings of this world, with its intricate rules of operation and colorful characters.

It’s a whole different universe operating just out of sight, meticulously detailed and richly realized. In a lot of ways, it could be compared to a grown-up “Harry Potter” situation - one where you simply replace wizardry with organized crime. That sense of askew otherness goes a long way toward – pardon the pun – making the magic happen with these movies.

Reeves is excellent again as John Wick; he exploits his weirdly charismatic lack of affect to full effect with this character, one that he seems to genuinely enjoy playing (and one that might well cement his status as a Pantheon-level action star; seriously, question it if you will, but he’s got a sneaky-solid case). His radiant calm allows even the most over-the-top, ludicrous set pieces to somehow feel grounded. I’d never argue that he’s a great actor, but he’s great here.

Scamarcio gives good villain, combining charm with extreme evil. Common and Rose are both solid in their own action-heavy ways – Common is underrated as an actor, while Rose appears to be making a career out of working in sequels packed with outlandish action. Ian McShane (“The Hollow Point”) is straight-up awesome as Hotel Continental manager Winston, as is Lance Reddick (TV’s “Bosch”) as front desk clerk Charon, but the truth is that every single character – no matter how brief their appearance – contributes mightily to the world being built (note: Peter Serafinowicz (“Sing”) has a scene as a “sommelier” that nicely encapsulates that particular vibe).

It all comes together thanks to director Chad Stahelski – whose only previous directorial effort was the original “John Wick” – and screenwriter Derek Kolstad; they are clearly in sync with regards to how these movies should play out, which allows for a very clear rendition of their shared vision. Considering Stahelski’s extensive background as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, it’s no surprise that the set pieces are well-crafted. However, his storytelling gifts extend beyond jiu-jitsu and gun kata and parkour – leading to a narrative that is detailed and compelling and fun as hell.

While “John Wick: Chapter 2” has plenty of engaging action, it’s the layering of nuance and detail that really elevates it. It’s a well-explored world that is worth the exploration. It’s intense, intelligent and surprisingly funny – an excellent action offering that largely avoids any sort of sophomore slump.

[5 out of 5]

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