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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Action/Adventure Rated R

Early on in John Wick: Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves’ assassin-for-hire who can’t quite retire has rammed his muscle car into an adversary’s vehicle, causing the bad guy to tumble out and roll right next to Wick’s door. They both pause for a moment and stare at each other—as if they can’t quite believe the lunacy they’re perpetuating, and that they’ve somehow, so far, survived it.

It’s little moments like this that make John Wick: Chapter 2—and even more so its predecessor, because there were more of them—rise above the usual action genre flick. Both films are directed by longtime stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, who knows that the more precise a fight scene is, the more personality it will have. And so each punch is given its own space (and sound), so that we really feel it. This is a movie that will make even the most hardened action fan wince.

If John Wick had gravitas in that it served as an extreme metaphor for the grieving process (there Wick got pulled back into the fray after the death of his wife and the murder of his dog), Chapter 2 lacks something in the motivation department. Thanks to a series of arcane rules, Wick is drawn deeper into the secret society of hit men that he tried to leave behind, crossing paths (and guns) with a conniving and ruthless Italian mobster (Riccardo Scamarcio). This brings him to Rome, where the series’ eye for stylish locations takes advantage of an endless, ancient catacomb.

Each punch is given its own space (and sound), so that we  really feel it.

Wick infiltrates a rave during that set piece, and things go awry in the midst of the crowd. If the ensuing shoot-out leaves a bad taste, that’s partly because we’ve had a series of real-world attacks in nightclubs since the first film came out, and also because the gunplay here has more of a callous, first-person shooter, video-game vibe than the intimate “gun fu” style of the original. (There is a much higher degree of gun fetishizing in general this time around.)

Stahelski and his collaborators do correct course during an ingenious montage later in the film, after an open contract is placed on Wick’s head and all of the assassins in New York City (who seem to comprise about 40 percent of the population) come after him. The sequence intercuts among three assaults on Wick in three different locations, so that it feels like they’re all happening at once. It’s as if we’re in the John Wick multiverse.

Holding this all together is, of course, Reeves, limping a bit more than the last time (understandably) and saving his limited emotions for the exact right moments. Yes, he sheds tears again over his wife, but more convincing is the opening sequence, when he finally slips into the driver’s seat of the car that was stolen from him at the very beginning of the first film. Letting out a soft sigh, he gently squeezes the steering wheel, then throws the vehicle into drive. Now that’s love.