“John Wick: Chapter Two” does almost everything a good sequel should. It quickly differentiates itself from the first chapter, yet still recalls what made the original film such an exhilarating ride. It’s darker and more complex than its predecessor, and it uses the larger budget granted to it by the previous film’s box office and critical success to expand its story and bring it to new locales that, of course, make for spectacular stages for the bread and butter of the film: the action.
And on that account, “John Wick: Chapter Two” delivers. Oh, does it deliver. Each action scene, from beginning to end, is distinct and memorable all on its own — though they are still better viewed in sequence, the better to appreciate the sense of escalation from one to the next both in terms of scale and the sheer luridness of it all. It’s hard to choose a favorite simply because they're all made to the same breathtaking degree of excellence, though the many fights between Wick (Keanu Reeves, “The Matrix”) and bodyguard Cassian (Common, “Selma”) earn points for brutality, creativity and perfectly displayed dry wit.
As he did with the original “John Wick,” stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski uses his training to turn action into an art form. Again utilizing the “Gun-Fu” approach to shootouts that the original pioneered, each action scene is a meticulously choreographed marvel that keeps the level of excitement high for the entire film. They are cut and shot so perfectly that it would be shocking if the film as a whole isn’t remembered as one of the best action films of the year.
Of course, even when bullets aren’t being traded by the dozen, “John Wick: Chapter Two” is engaging due to the simple pleasure of time spent in this cinematic world. The original constructed a world of respectable assassins bound by a strange set of bylaws and manners, and proved that nothing beats two men in immaculate suits buying each other drinks and talking about how they’ll kill each other. Here, audiences are given more of a look into how this world is governed with a trip to Rome that dominates much of the first half. The wider scale that results makes “Chapter Two” more enjoyable than its predecessor, even as it occasionally loses track of its plot.
Within the geopolitical thrills and networks of homeless assassins, the script from Derek Kolstad (“The Package”) never loses sight of its characters. John’s struggle to move beyond his past and prove to himself he can be more than a killer is familiar, but Reeves’ alternatingly desperate and dead-eyed performance — as well as the character’s humanizing love of dogs — conveys it in a unique and relatable way. Ian McShane (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) returns as one of the most spinoff-able characters in modern action films, the delightfully genteel manager of a ritzy hotel for assassins, and he is thankfully given more to do than in the original, including a part in the most emotionally intense scene of the film.
There’s a sense while watching both “John Wick” films, that the character has a franchise future waiting for him — that Wick could hypothetically live on through the years and even outstay Reeves in the role, like an American James Bond raised to the power of Jason Bourne. Every corner of the neon-tinged, testosterone-fueled world feels as if it conceals more stories to tell, more characters to unfurl, more action set pieces to unleash. A third film has already been announced, with more potentially to follow, and if they are to the standard the first two films have set, we should all consider ourselves very lucky.