Hollywood makes out two types of sequels. First, those sequels that aren’t as good as their forerunners. Second, those sequels that surpass their predecessors. Basically, sequels are either better or worse than what spawned them. “John Wick: Chapter 2” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) belongs to the second category. Stunt double Chad Stahelski and scenarist Derek Kolstad respectively return as director and writer for the bullet-riddled bloodbath “John Wick 2,” and Keanu Reeves reprises his role as the invincible, sharp-shooting assassin who doesn’t aim to please. No, Wick’s new pet pooch doesn’t die in this installment. Moreover, no other animals are harmed. Anybody who saw the original “John Wick” knows the villains spoke in awe about John Wick’s lethal use of pencils. Appropriately enough, Stahelski stages a pencil scene for the sequel, and you will have an entirely new respect for yellow number two pencils. We’ll have to see if something like this doesn’t ultimately winds up as merchandise to advertise the franchise. This unbreakable pencil preserves its point throughout a slam-bang combat encounter that would shatter a regular pencil. Audaciously preposterous, hopelessly predictable, but thoroughly captivating nonsense, “John Wick 2” pushes everything to the limit except the number of lines uttered by Keanu Reeves. Tired of gun shy, shoot’em ups that confine their mortality rates to single digits? “John Wick 2” boasts a triple-digit body count with an alarming number of head shots. Typically, our bruised and battered hero pumps two slugs into an adversary’s torso and then polishes them off with one in the noggin. When he exhausts his ammo, he resorts to battlefield salvage and appropriates another man’s weapon so he can keep on killing. Meaning, if you require discretion in the depiction of violence, you may have complaints about this exciting, atmospheric, and elegantly lensed action thriller with lots of colorfully illuminated settings. Incidentally, “John Wick 2” reunites Reeves and “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne for a couple of scenes. Were it little more than the original, “John Wick 2” wouldn’t be as memorable, but it is something more with some imaginative tweaks that its predecessor lacked.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” picks up where the previous epic ended. Since Wick has acquired a new dog, he searches now for the car that his enemies stole, and the film opens with an over-the-top, car-smashing, body-crashing encounter in a rival mobster’s garage with our hero relying on wits, fists, and martial arts. Like a respectable sequel, “John Wick 2” reminds us what was at stake in the first film as well as the character of our hero. A relative of the mobsters who shot Wick’s puppy dog and then beat him senseless, Abram (Peter Stormare of “22 Jump Street”) is preparing to clear out since he fears Wick is coming after him next. While Wick dispatches Abram’s army of thugs and mechanics, Abram’s eyes bulge with abject terror, and Stormare gives a great performance by his reactions to the arrival of his adversary. When they finally meet after our hero has cleared a gauntlet of killers, Wick pours Abram a drink and proposes peace with a toast. The two gulp their liquor and forge an armistice. Abram bids Wick a happy retirement. Naturally, however, nothing of the sort is going to happen either for Wick or the audience. In a bit of backstory, we learn that John Wick indebted himself to a treacherous, high-ranking mobster, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio of “Loose Cannons”), with a blood oath marker so he could retire and live peacefully with his wife Helen. Now, after wrapping up his revenge, Wick discovers to his chagrin that Santino is calling in that marker! Although Wick is in no position to refuse an assignment from Santino, he refuses to accommodate Santino because he is weary of all the shooting and killing. A disappointed Santino leaves Wick’s house and then shoulders an awesome incendiary weapon and fire-bombs our hero’s house, blasting Wick off the premises but not killing his dog. Resigned to his fate, Wick sits down with Santino and agrees to carry out one final mission. The evil Santino wants the seat on an international crime council that his late father willed to his older sister, Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini of “Deceit”), and he stipulates that our hero must ice her. Off to Rome flies Wick where he acquires an arsenal that James Bond would envy, a dark tailor-made, bullet-proof suit, and the blueprints to infiltrate Gianna’s inner sanctum and surprise her. What Wick doesn’t plan for adequately is Gianna’s steadfast bodyguard Cassian (Common of “American Gangster”), and these two titans tangle in a blood and guts tango that ends abruptly after they crash into the sacred Continental Hotel in Rome, run by Julius (Franco Nero of “Django”), where mobsters must cease and desist because it represents the equivalent of a gangland church that grants amnesty. At this point, Wick realizes that the scheming Santino has double-crossed him. Santino points out he wouldn’t be much of a brother if he didn’t avenge the murder of his sister. When his own gunmen cannot liquidate Wick, Santino offers a $7-million-dollar bounty, and hitmen from every corner of the globe swarm after our resilient hero.
Aside from Keanu Reeves’ typically stoic performance, “John Wick: Chapter Two” features a sturdy cast, with Ian McShane reprising his role as Winston, the manager of the New York City Continental Hotel–where mobsters are prohibited from fighting with their adversaries, and Lance Reddick as the accommodating desk clerk Charon. John Leguizamo appears briefly as the body shop repairman who helped Wick locate his Mustang, and Bridget Moynahan appears in a flashback as Wick’s late wife Helen. Director Chad Stahelski, who once earned his living as Keanu Reeve’s stunt double, need never look back. Slated to helm the new “Highlander” reboot, Stahelski keeps things thumping throughout this two-hour plus neo-noir thriller. The hall of mirrors scene where Wick stalks Santino rivals the original scene in Orson Welles’ iconic thriller “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947).