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Walking in to see Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 2, I had one principal concern. Great as the first film had been, I was worried that the filmmakers -- many of them part of the stunt community -- would use the follow-up to further emphasize the amazing action and downplay the fantastically-detailed world of assassins that had been designed in the original movie. Because I know others will share this concern, I will address this directly: that is absolutely not the kind of sequel that audiences are being delivered in John Wick: Chapter Two, as we have instead received a movie that wonderfully accentuates everything that is excellent about its predecessor.
The mark of smart and careful sequel screenwriting, John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up the precise loose threads left by the movie's predecessor and weaves them into a wholly new, wholly awesome narrative. Loose thread number one is the stolen car John Wick (Keanu Reeves) failed to recover before the end of the first chapter, but he sorts that out within the opening minutes of the film as part of a naturally spectacular action sequence full of crushed vehicles and smashed bodies. Before the story even starts, it has you on the edge of your seat, and a struggle for balance on that edge is definitely part of the theatrical experience.
The second loose thread arrives in the form of further exploration of John Wick's infamous "Impossible Task" -- the ultimately successful mission years ago that allowed him to leave the assassin life and be with his love, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). It turns out that one of the reasons why our hero was able to complete this life-changing assignment was because of help from a powerful ally named Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), and in exchange he had to give up a Marker -- a blood oath in the form of a coin that promises a favor at some point in the future. While Santino had no intention to have John repay his debt while he was retired, his return to killing as seen in "Chapter One" inspires the former friend to come calling.
Of course, Santino comes with no ordinary task. He requests that John assassinate Gianna Marchesi (Claudia Gerini), who is not only Santino's sister, but has taken their deceased father's seat at the table of the international assassins' guild. Understanding the potential devastating fallout from the kill, John initially refuses, but after paying a serious price, he finds himself on his way to Rome to both complete the job and find a whole new collection of targets on his back.
What made John Wick stand out as an exceptional action film was much more than audacious and legitimately special action sequences; it was the level of detail and specificity to the rules of the fiction -- most revolving around the unique assassins' hotel known as The Continental. John Wick: Chapter 2 fully doubles down on this impressive aspect of the growing series, and expands the world in excellent and fun fashion (and only part of that is going international). Amidst all of the excellent gun play and martial arts, one of the most amazing sequences in the film is just watching John go through a preparation montage, meeting the proper vendors and collecting all of the gear, weapons, and sartorial requirements needed for his Italian mission. Without ever being overt or over-heavy with exposition, the sequel provides a new level of richness to the detailed universe that has been created, and it brilliantly adds to the stakes while just making everything in the movie that much more vibrant and compelling.
Both reintroducing characters and meeting new players is obviously a major part of this as well -- and while the first John Wick saw Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe meet untimely demises, the film still has more than enough great personalities off of which Keanu Reeves can play (the star himself once again putting in another amazing performance that further suggests this is the part he was born to play). As far as familiar faces in the continuity, it's great to see the return of Ian McShane's Winston, the manager of the New York Continental; Lance Riddick's Charon, the hotel's concierge; and John Leguizamo's Aurelio, John's favorite car guy -- but in many cases it's the new blood that keeps the heart pumping.
Playing the Bond-worthy mute henchwoman Ares, Ruby Rose is excellent as one of the primary and significant threats to John; and armed with his very own vengeance tale that could very well be its own movie, Common is awesome as Cassian, who has his own very personal reasons for wanting to see the eponymous hero die. Add the cherries on top that are Django himself, Franco Nero, as the manager of the Rome Continental, and the great Lawrence Fishburne as the leader of a homeless spy network in New York (it's as awesome as it sounds), and you have yourself a movie that is never falling short in the badass department.
As alluded to earlier, the one sure thing that is expected of John Wick: Chapter 2 is incredible, teeth-clenching action, and the sequel in no way disappoints. Certainly the Red Circle Club scene in the first film set a very high bar for expectations, but it's a bar that that the new movie giddily leaps over. From the aforementioned car reclamation, to a drawn out gunfight in the catacombs of Rome, to an attack in what is basically a house of mirrors, the set pieces are not just brutally real and thrilling, but also beautiful in their own way -- with Chad Stahelski finding impressively dynamic angles to capture the hardest hits and liberally using color and shadow to make sequences pop in the best way. And, of course, with some of the best stunt people in the business (not to mention one of the best trained action stars of all time in Keanu Reeves), all of the blasts and blows are shockingly real and are that much more gripping as a result.
Bottom line, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a near-perfect sequel. It has a story very much worth telling, builds on the characters and world in exciting and creative ways, and is one of the few titles that actually legitimizes its unfortunately bland subtitle. We are in the midst of watching the emergence of a potentially truly great action franchise, and Chapter 3 can't come soon enough.