JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 | ★★★½

“You wanted me back. I’m back!” Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger could exclaim that line with the same awesomeness and rigidity as Keanu Reeves does in this impressive sequel.

“John Wick” had the distinct pleasure to do what most action movies are afraid to do nowadays: let us actually see the action without the nauseating, jumpy editing style that masks the under-choreographed stunts of the “Bourne” and “Taken” franchises. Reeves and director Chad Stahelski (the actor’s stuntman for “The Matrix”) have an unmistakable love and respect for the genre, devoting their pre-production to extensive preparation and training for the film’s balletic gunfights and fisticuffs. While genre stakes weren’t raised like they were in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the original noir shoot-em-up was a healthy filling of popcorn fun.

For “John Wick: Chapter 2,” Reeves, Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad are tasked with doubling down on the promise of their initial success. The fights are indeed more brutal, and the locales are far more exotic, though cinematographer Dan Laustsen retains the neon-laced allure of the first film. But by far the best aspect of this sequel is that it does not repeat the same beats of its predecessor. There are a few small nods to dialogue and visuals from before, but the film is more concerned with taking its protagonist to dangerous new heights. Like the original, however, the film has its imperfections in terms of structure and pacing, though the plot is just barely more engaging this time around.

Shortly after avenging the death of his adorable puppy, gifted to him by his wife post-mortem, John Wick is once again thrust into the underground network of assassins he retired from to live with his wife. Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime lord, comes knocking on John’s door to offer him another job, reminding John that he obligated under a blood oath to accept the mission. John initially refuses, but after some rather incendiary persuasion, the ex-hitman has no choice but to carry out his new assignment. Before long, John is double-crossed, finding himself in the crosshairs of nearly every assassin on the globe.

What puts “Chapter 2” a (small) step above the first film is that it is fully aware of its own awesomeness, and it’s fun to watch it dole out every high-gear sequence it has to offer with such unabashed glee. It’s also much funnier than its predecessor, particularly when fights reach their climaxes, and sometimes anticlimaxes. John runs into former associate Cassian (a strikingly poised Common) while on his mission in Rome, and when the two pummel their way into the Continental Hotel - where assassins are forbidden from conducting “business” - they resign to having a drink at the bar before Cassian begrudgingly leaves John to fight another day. Their collective stoicism here is both hilarious and electric. Reeves once again proves that he can do more with body language than any line of dialogue, though as I mentioned earlier, he does just fine with that. His commitment to the physicality of his character is a huge part of what gives these films their personality.

The film sees John transition from the vengeful Mad Max type to something more akin to James Bond. Even the structure obeys this transition by shifting from revenge mode to a 007-style thriller, setting John on a course he is actually reluctant to take, contrasting his blood-thirsty agenda from the previous installment. “Chapter 2” begins with John tying up one last loose end with the Russians who set him off. This is followed by a call to action, which eventually segues into an extremely sleek suit-up montage where John prepares to kill fools by choosing his load-out and outfit. It edges ever-so-slightly into “Bond” territory, but it exudes its own sexiness. Dramatic moments are slow, and though some are a little monotonous, they are intensely atmospheric and brimming with danger. Action fans will liken this change of pace to “The Raid 2."

As with the original, “Chapter 2” is gorgeously shot from beginning to end. “John Wick” dazzled with its gently muted color palette and sparks of saturated reds, blues, greens, and purples. This film dials up the intensity of every color; street signs pop in the opening scene where John tracks down his stolen Mustang, but the final showdown, set in a labyrinth of mirrors and LED lights, stands as the film’s visual peak. Camera movement is wonderfully restrained, perfectly comfortable with letting John mow down henchmen through hallways, corridors and streets without zooming in on every kill with shaky-cam nonsense. There’s also a particularly haunting imagine in the form a scene involving suicide; a character unflinchingly slits her wrists in a pool, filling the water with a thick shade of crimson.

My only gripe with “Chapter 2” is that no single action sequence topped, or at least lived up to, the nightclub scene from the first. However, right around the middle of the film, John gets some of his bloodiest kills in another rockin’ montage. (Cross-cutting is one of the film’s greatest strengths, by the way.) We even get to see that pencil trick of his, which I’m sure would make Heath Ledger’s Joker blush. If anything, the mirror labyrinth ending is a close contender. In all actuality, it’s a bit pointless to complain about the particulars of the action when it’s this well filmed, staged, and executed. It’s no better nor worse than the original, but “John Wick: Chapter 2” is still a bloody good time.

(7/10)