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Film review: 'John Wick: Chapter 2'

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The original "John Wick" was the biggest and most pleasant surprise of 2014. Stylish, smart, and exciting, it's a B-movie executed with A-level precision. Now comes the terrific "John Wick: Chapter 2," a sequel which takes everything that made the original great and ratchets it up to gloriously absurd levels, delivering more action, elaborately-staged mayhem, and gunplay without sacrificing any of the genuine artistry that made the original such a joy to watch.

Both films center around John Wick (played with stoic precision by Keanu Reeves), a legendary hitman for whom retirement just won't stick. In the first film, he returned to seek vengeance after thugs stole his car and murdered his dog, a final gift from his recently deceased wife (played in flashbacks by Bridget Moynahan). "Chapter 2" opens with Wick tying up some loose ends before intending to settle back down for a peaceful life with a new pooch (don't worry, no harm comes to the dog this time around).

That relief is short lived, as trouble soon arrives in the form of mobster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who emerges in the wake of the first film's carnage to collect on a debt we learn that Wick is bound by blood oath to repay. Santino sends him to Rome, where he's soon embroiled in a deadly family rivalry, and pretty soon everybody wants Wick dead.

As with the first film, the supporting cast is loaded with wonderful character actors: Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Peter Stormare, Lance Reddick, Peter Serafinowicz, and Laurence Fishburne (giving fans a mini "Matrix" reunion) all dig into their roles with relish, no matter how small the part. Possibly best of all is rapper and actor Common as Cassian, a rival hitman who gives our hero a run for his money.

Returning director Chad Stahelski (working solo after David Leitch, Stahelski's co-director on the first "John Wick," shifted focus to his own projects, including "Deadpool 2") is a veteran stuntman, and the knowledge of the form makes all the difference. It's no accident that the very first shot of the film isn't of Keanu Reeves, but of Buster Keaton. The "John Wick" movies are influenced as much by the meticulous physicality and expert choreography of that silent film comedian as the Hong Kong action films they more obviously resemble.

Compared to shoddily-constructed action flicks like the recently released "xXx: The Return of Xander Cage" -- which had the benefit of a cast that included legendary martial artists Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen, yet never held a shot long enough to see either of them throw a single continuous punch -- the technical skill on display here is thrilling to behold. If nothing else, "John Wick: Chapter 2" is another excellent argument for the Academy finally adding a category at the Oscars for the year's best stunt work.

Besides the ace stunts, one of the best elements of the first film was the playful mythology built up around its underground society of professional killers, and the most intriguing creation was the Continental Hotel, a high-class lodging which also functioned at the central hub of operations for the film's network of assassins, gangsters, and hitmen. For the second film, writer Derek Kolstad doubles down on that world-building, expanding the universe and filling in more details about the elaborate code of honor that these denizens of the underworld live and (frequently) die by.

The "John Wick" films are master-classes in action filmmaking -- intricate symphonies of bullets and gunfire orchestrated with wit and imagination by Stahelski and his team. But while the endless orgy of carnage is undeniably thrilling, I admit that seeing a film so gleefully glorify gun violence at times left me a bit uneasy. I had a great time, but the responsibility a filmmaker bears when translating such bloodlust to the screen is something that seems at least worth considering. Sure, if you look for it there's a message to be found about how every violent act has repercussions that lead only to more never-ending cycles of violence, but really the film's only aim is to dazzle and entertain its audience.

And Stahelski certainly achieves that, with one stunning set piece after another, building to a climactic shootout through a mirrored art installation that calls to mind "The Lady From Shanghai" (and a scene later rehashed in "Enter the Dragon"). "John Wick: Chapter 2" delivers enough mind-blowing, bone-crunching action to leave genre fans eager for more. The stage is clearly set for a chapter three; as long as Reeves, Stahelski, and company continue to deliver the goods, the ticket line will form behind me.

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the Oscar-nominated German comedy, "Toni Erdmann."

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