If you’ve seen “John Wick,” you know the legend: One time, the eponymous hitman (Keanu Reeves) killed three men in a bar with a pencil. “With a fucking pencil,” growls a Russian criminal played by Peter Stormare in the opening minutes of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” moments before the unstoppable killing machine nicknamed “The Boogeyman” bursts through the door. Before Stormare (an apt choice to play the brother to Michael Nyqvist’s character from the first chapter) can finish the anecdote, one of his lackeys interrupts him. “I know,” he says. “I’ve heard this one before.”
In the “John Wick” universe of action-movie pastiche, even the villains are fans of his work. And who could blame them? Overseen by the original “John Wick” team of director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad, the new movie contains the best ingredients of the 2014 original with a fresh set of outrageous showdowns, and even improves on its commitment to cartoonish mayhem in self-serious clothing. As relentless, eager-to-please genre filmmaking goes, it marks the rare occasion where too much of a good thing is just good enough.
“John Wick” never set the bar terribly high; it was largely a slick excuse for Reeves to kick ass and regain his dark movie-hero aura of “The Matrix,” with martial arts hijinks and bullet ballets set against various neon backdrops. Still, for what it is, “John Wick: Chapter 2” keeps that noble mission in play, picking up immediately after the first entry and hardly slowing down.
In “John Wick,” the character embarked on a gritty, revenge-fueled warpath to avenge the death of the puppy gifted to him by his late wife; “John Wick 2” finds him forced into more wild showdowns for less precise reasons, but motivation matters less than the pileup of excuses for Reeves to unleash his skills. The extended gimmick of the first movie has become a franchise, and anyone who appreciated the original will find that its charms haven’t diminished.
John thought he’d retired at the start of the first movie; now all he wants to do is mope around his empty home with a new canine companion and gaze longingly at photos of his late wife. But even after vanquishing the threat in the first installment, he doesn’t get much time to relax. When Italian crime heir Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmacio) shows up at his door in an attempt to hire John for one more murderous gig, his attempts to resist the effort only leads to more suffering in his sad, lonely life. Santino’s rough negotiation methods finally lead John to take the job just to make the annoying goon go away, and before long he’s off to Italy on a quest to murder Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini).
Much about “John Wick: Chapter 2” looks and sounds like the previous installment, from John’s moody exchanges with Winston (Ian McShane), head of the hitman network The Continental, to his cryptic interactions with The Continental’s mysterious concierge (Lance Reddick). But this movie has a more expansive playing field, veering from one elaborate sequence to the next with a noticeable uptick in confidence. As exaggerated action cinema goes, it never quite gets to the level of “Kill Bill Volume 2,” but by avoiding plot distractions in favor of exuberant style, it’s more consistently satisfying than “The Raid 2.” Stahelski excels at delivering a strain of violent fight movie in which each element contributes (over and over again, sometimes too repetitively and elsewhere just repetitively enough) to a symphony of mayhem.
It helps that “John Wick: Chapter 2” erupts with gorgeous colors at every turn. Guillermo del Toro cinematographer Dan Lausten creates an astonishing expressionistic blend to complement John’s fantastical underground world, from neon-soaked nightclubs to ample silhouettes. As John contends with various baddies tasked with taking him down, the movie’s musicality comes into view. One montage finds him fighting several hit men in different places, almost as if each battle were taking place concurrently, and the showdowns keep going like a rock ‘n’ roll jam session. Parts of “John Wick: Chapter 2” get tiresome, but it’s always a remarkable assemblage of inspired visuals. Even the liberal use of gratuitous headshots work like punctuation marks.
Ultimately, “John Wick” is a platform for exuberant set pieces that borrow from the best. A lavish, blood-soaked killing in the baroque interiors of an ancient Italian building resembles something out of the Dario Argento playbook, and an extended showdown with a rival hitman (played with devilish intensity by Common) builds to a hilarious anticlimax: A series of punches find the two men careening into a bar, stopping for a drink, and taking a stab at civility before moving on. It’s that precise degree of absurdity — played straight, as if it’s just business as usual — that gets to the essence of the “John Wick” formula.
It’s not an especially fresh formula, but Stahelski and Kolstad have assembled a snazzy remix. Snappy montages featuring cocked guns and bullets gathered can grow tiresome, but Reeves holds it all together. His muted delivery is perfectly suited for material that loves shiny surfaces. In many ways, the “John Wick” movies are about how the actor has become a creature of cinema, and when the sequel introduces his “Matrix” co-star Lawrence Fishburne as a powerful inner-city assassin named The Bowery King, you might wonder which franchise you’re actually in. “John Wick” may as well inhabit “The Matrix” world, since its wacky plotting leaves open the possibility that anything can happen.
The movie’s brilliant climax, set in a labyrinthine hall of mirrors in blatant tribute to Orson Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai,” proves the extent to which the filmmakers know their stuff. Like so much of this film, it’s not a particularly original concept. However, it’s such a dizzying arrangement of reflections that it’s impossible not to be drawn into the sophisticated choreography, not to mention the commitment to delivering visceral entertainment at every turn.
Compared to the massive scales of CGI’d blockbusters, “John Wick” and its sequel offer more cohesive doses of ferocious thrills — and the creepy finale sets the stage for a third entry that’s likely designed to do the same thing. Of course, any movie designed around a simple premise risks losing its appeal, but “John Wick: Chapter 2” goes to show that some rhythms don’t require too many updates. By sticking to the rules, this franchise may be infallible, no matter how much John resists his role in it. “I’m not that guy anymore,” he says in “John Wick: Chapter 2” when called back to action. “You’re always that guy, John,” he’s told. We can only hope.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” opens nationwide on February 10, 2017.