"John Wick: Chapter 2" is the best action movie in town right now. Far and away.
Lovers of Chopsocky back in the day should know that it practically out-Hong Kongs Hong Kong. It does so with a lot of portentous, stripped-down plot about a large, complex organization of underworld assassins that have their own currency and their own luxury hotels, gun-makers, tailors (they make spiffy, bullet-proof bespoke suits) and urban lookouts all over Manhattan's street population whose Fagin-like leader is played by, yes, Laurence Fishburne.
If you remember how delighted you probably were with all the action of the original "Matrix" movie and then trudged to the sequels hoping for more, you'll understand how Keanu Reeves in these Wick movies is now as successful as you'll find in the American action trade, right up there with Denzel, the Rock, Vin Diesel, the whole gang in the "shoot first, talk later" club.
And that brings up a nice little sidelight about status in Hollywood" "John Wick" co-director Chad Stahelski was Keanu Reeves' stunt double in those "Matrix" movies. Every now and then, some truly great stunt-coordinator will graduate to film director and inflame all the snootier folks in the judgment racket (professionals, backfence Hollywood magpies) who will pooh-pooh such peons for lacking gravitas and vision.
Which is all, at best, irrelevant. When Burt Reynolds' old pal Hal Needham graduated, their movies together didn't have a stitch of cinematic art anywhere in sight but they were great fun by any definition.
Stahelski has even better instincts. His scriptwriter Derek Kolstad knows that if he keeps his tale to a minimalist combination of comic book and video game, the non-stop and perfectly choreographed frenzy of the killing action can be amazing to watch.
Which "John Wick: Chapter 2" most definitely is. Many say it's better than the first. If anyone has been looking for the greatest cinematic advance in dance on film, it seems to me you can forget "Chicago" or "La La Land." Look at this thing.
Following in the tradition of homicidal choreography coming out of The East for decades now (and exemplified by the great film master John Woo), Stahelski gives you intricately and precisely choreographed versions of the deaths of hundreds of guys assailing John Wick.
These action scenes are extraordinary -- bloody, crazily uptempoed and, within seconds, as weirdly individual as possible. Bullets rain down. When Wick empties one gun, he snatches another from his latest victim and so on. When all other weapons fail, remember this is a guy who once killed an army of marauders with a pencil. Yes, a pencil.
His own injuries are purely phantasmal. His face has some artfully decorated scratches and gashes and he limps a bit sometimes, but Stahelski doesn't bother explaining how he manages to perform all that superhuman homicidal choreography with a bullet lodged in the lower right quadrant of his gut. He just does. And we go with it.
Everything in "John Wick" is an alternative fact, which is to say fiction. Of notable purity, too.
In the original "John Wick," the assassin was hauled out of retirement after the death of a puppy and the theft of a car -- not just any car but a 1969 Mustang a la the classic car in "Bullitt."
That's where we pick up here, as Wick gets it back.
Retired again and with a new pooch, he is hauled out of retirement by an associate he owes who wants him to kill his sister, now a big shot at the underworld's big table. In this organization, when you've left a "marker" like that (which Wick did), you pay it back or you die.
What I especially love about the shadow underworld limned by "John Wick: Chapter Two" is the New York Luxury Hotel called The Continental where Common is the desk clerk/concierge and Ian McShane, the hotel manager.
They're a whole lot more than that. The hotel is the center of the whole vast, mysterious shadow organization of assassins, all of which are available by smartphone text in seconds.
The other rule for this bunch -- besides repay your markers -- is NO BUSINESS IS TRANSACTED INSIDE THE HOTEL. You have to put your guns away and have a nice civilized bourbon or gin at the bar instead of prosecuting your grievance or commission. You can shoot up the catacombs in Rome all you want, but not the Continental.
His old associate succeeds in convincing Wick to pay him back by burning down his house. Don't ask how that works. It's up there with all this movie's unanswered questions like "how do so many guys keep fighting and walking after full-on kicks to the groin?" and "Just how many shots can be fired from one hand weapon?"
If you're watching this movie, the accumulation of unanswered absurd questions just adds to the delirium. You're there for the action here. So Reeves and Stahelski keep Reeves' dialogue down to, perhaps, a grand total of 200 words.
And then they give you Action. Big time. Non-stop.
And it's all close to sensational.
“John Wick: Chapter 2”
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Claudia Gerrini. Directed by Chad Stahelski. 122 minutes. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.