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'John Wick: Chapter 2' is bigger, badder and maybe even better

‘John Wick: Chapter 2’
Director:
Chad Stahelski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

The finest parts of 2014’s super-hitman-gone-rogue romp “John Wick” were, of course, the action scenes. The second finest parts were the glimpses into an absurd assassins’ underworld — a secret society with its own Tribeca hotel, its own high-end restaurant, even its own currency. “John Wick: Chapter 2” is predictably bigger and badder, but it doesn’t only amp up the fights and shoot-outs. It also world-builds like a maniac, adding more and more business about a syndicate of killers that spans the globe, every last bit of it nutty and hilarious.

What it’s not is campy. The two “John Wick” films (plus a threatened threequel and TV prequel) walk a fine line between bringing real pain and cracking real jokes. What was funny (and fun) about the first wasn’t just that Reeves’ “boogeyman” murdered everyone only because some choad killed his puppy. It was that it played it straight. It never winked to the audience and it never let the air of deep, loopy amusement get in the way of dozens upon dozens of killer death blows.

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The only downside of “Chapter 2” is its lack of a ridiculous hook. Picking up right where the first left off, it finds the widowed Wick lured once more out of retirement, after a former colleague — Riccardo Scamarcio’s Santino, who seems to have some form of higher standing in this global ring — blows up his spacious country manse. Wick survives (as does, thankfully, his new dog). “He burned down my house,” he fumes.

It doesn’t have the same ring as “He killed my dog,” but “Chapter 2” is no mere repeat. Instead of taking Santino out, Wick winds up reluctantly accepting his dangerous mission: sneak off to Rome to snuff out his more powerful sister (Claudia Gerini), as though Wick suddenly found himself in some Jacobean bloodbath about a smirking cad ascending the throne. Only when this goes awry does our fuming hero get to kill everyone he didn’t kill the first time.

To be honest, the first “John Wick” sometimes coasted on the sheer silliness of its premise. The second storms from stem to stern with well-earned confidence. There are more fights and shoot-outs, but it’s not just the number that’s higher; it’s also the quality. Returning director Chad Stahelski (minus original collaborator David Leitch) is a longtime stunt coordinator, and once more it shows: The tussles and gunplay are meticulously, inventively staged and, even better, Stahelski actually wants you to see them. Most play out in long takes — not the kind where you notice the herculean camerawork but the kind where you thrill to the bodies in front of the lens. You can see every blow, every body flip, every (bloodless) headshot. (Reeves, by the way, is almost mid-50s, because life is unfair.)

But Stahelski is equally strong at choosing where to stage his action. The fights take place in a colosseum, inside catacombs, on Manhattan’s C train. (Cue a very funny use of the MTA’s “alert us to any suspicious activity” announcements.) “Chapter 2” is, among other things, a great New York movie, using the fountain at Lincoln Center for a witty chase and even staging a silencer shoot-out inside the newish Occulus at the World Trade Center hub — the joint’s very first movie appearance! Then there’s the climax: basically the storied mirror finale of “The Lady from Shanghai” fused with a neon-heavy art installation. Every inch of the frame is lit up; it’s not just the flying fists and smashed bodies that dazzle the eyes but everything around them as well.

This “use the whole pig” approach applies to the cutscenes, too. In between the action, “Chapter 2” doubles down on its weird world, which we now learn includes weapon salesmen, even tailors who sell exclusively to syndicate members, text alerts for hits and an old-timey assassins’ switchboard, complete with contracts sent out via pneumatic tubes. One assassin owns an art museum, whose latest exhibit is titled “Reflections of the Soul.” There’s something about a “blood oath,” as well “wards”: assassins who loyally protect (or avenge) other assassins, like one played by a steely and highly capable Common, who goes mano-e-mano with our star not once but thrice.

It would be a shame to give more away, though to be frank, it eventually goes too far; it would be amazing if there was any ludicrous bits left for “Chapter 3.” But we trust it. After all, in an age of increasingly tangled comic book movies that exist only to spawn more installments, this is the only current franchise worth a damn.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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