Dancing with the Devil

wick 2-sFans of 2014’s breezy 100-minute bullet ballet that was “John Wick” can rest assured, the boldly-titled “John Wick: Chapter 2” lives up to solidifying its bid at a franchise: it’s consistent with what made the original film unique and doles out a plausible storyline for us to continue watching Wick wander through his gratuitously violent, implausibly compelling world (besides, “Wick 2’s” tagline is ‘Never stab the devil in the back’- how cool is that).

For those who haven’t seen “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves starred as the aforementioned ‘devil’ John Wick, a former Russian mob assassin nicknamed ‘the Boogeyman’ for his ability to kill anything that moved. Upon completing an “impossible task” for his Russian mob boss, Wick was granted the freedom to retire and quietly live out his days with his wife, Helen. Wick’s peaceful retirement didn’t work out as planned: Helen succumbed to a terminal illness and the ’69 Mustang muscle-car Wick owned drew the attention of a sleazy punk named Iosef, who just happened to be the son of the Russian mob boss Wick used to work for. Not knowing Wick’s reputation or link to his father, Iosef and his goons broke into Wick’s home, beat Wick unconscious, and stole his Mustang. Before leaving, they also killed Wick’s puppy, Daisy- the last thing his wife ever gave him. Fueled by anger and said dead puppy, Wick resurfaced as an elite killer once more to reclaim his muscle car and, oh yeah, avenge his crushed canine.

While its synopsis sounds sketchy, what set “John Wick” apart was its skill in knowing what it was: a revenge story with a tongue-in-cheek tone, a protagonist that lived up to his label as the ultimate killing machine in awesomely-choreographed fight scenes, and the creation of an assassin’s world where the rules were clearly mapped out. Away from the outside interference of cops and petty criminals, these elite assassins found refuge and intel within the Continental hotel, owned by a man named Winston (Ian McShane). Winston set his own rules for his assassins’ safe haven: kill within the confines of the Continental and he’d kill you.

Written by Derek Kolstad and helmed by Reeves’ former stunt double/first-time director Chad Stahelski, the highlights in the original “Wick” film were fight scenes that resembled watching the best first-person shooter video game ever played. Instead of bad guys lining up one-at-a-time to be clobbered by our hero, the pace was quickened and guns, knives, and martial arts were added to make each fight sequence a macabre dance. Anything done well is a sight to behold- Stahelski’s skill in staging the gratuitous violence made “John Wick” gratifying.

Three years later, “John Wick: Chapter 2” opens with resolving one loose end from the original film- Wick locating his ’69 Mustang. Director Stahelski and writer Kolstad return once again to smartly resolve this in an action prologue (not unlike a Bond film) and reveal a better reason for Wick’s return: Wick must repay the debt on a physical ‘marker’ held by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) for Santino’s helping Wick in the Russian mob’s “impossible task” that secured Wick’s initial retirement. Now tasked with performing an assassination for Santino to fulfill his ‘marker’ obligation, Wick travels to Rome, stays at Rome’s counterpart to the ‘safe haven’ Continental hotel, gets outfitted with bulletproof suits and an arsenal, and awaits his target. In the course of Wick’s killing to set things right, Santino’s scheme involving Wick is nefarious enough to make Wick the expendable loose end when all is said-and-done. A bounty is soon placed on Wick’s head and we soon learn nothing is said-and-done in Wick’s world without a lot of repetitious head shots and body flips.

If “Wick 2” is anything, it’s a continuation of what was admirable in the original, namely the skillfully-staged fights: no matter how lengthy or repetitious, they’re still fun because they’re well done. With its European locale and with Reeves wearing an all-black suit-and tie, John Wick embodies a James Bond appearance with a Jason Bourne brawn. The addition of supporting actors like Reeves’ “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne as a crime lord, Franco Nero as Rome’s Continental hotel owner, and Ruby Rose and rapper Common as elite assassins who may have Wick’s number make this sequel one that satisfies.

If “John Wick: Chapter 2’s” macabre dance is any indication, director Stahelski and writer Kolstad can keep returning to make this devil’s dance card full.

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