'John Wick: Chapter 2' reloads for more outrageously stylish action

The angsty assassin reloads in Rome for more eye-popping action. Here's our spoiler-free review.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Some sequels require you to remember what went before. In others, however, everything you need is on the poster. And the poster for "John Wick Chapter 2", not only tells you what you need to know, it also reviews the movie: Keanu Reeves is in it, his name's John Wick and he shoots people.

Oh, you want more than that? OK. Reeves returns as the haunted hitman, reluctantly drawn into the nebulous underworld power games of a courtly crime syndicate. Donning his trademark sharp suits he journeys to Rome to dispatch countless faceless goons in his signature elaborate style, combining guns and martial arts -- and anything pointy that comes to hand -- in flowing close quarter carnage.

This time, Wick even uses a car as a weapon in a tyre-squealing opening sequence that neatly ties into the first film.

It's the action that marks out the John Wick films, a heady combination of realistic firearms handling and cartoonishly excessive body count. The camera roams unblinkingly around Wick as he skilfully and economically dispatches enemies between fast reloads, showcasing Keanu's genuine tactical skills and fluid physical abilities. The verisimilitude of the action allows the film to soar to operatic moments of melee that have you cheering and wincing at the same time.

Between the outrageously over-the-top altercations, "Chapter 2" expands on the skewed world of killers and gangsters that Wick stalks through. He and his contemporaries in crime do their deadly dealings in plain sight yet unseen by normal people. Vendettas simmer in a sumptuous and intriguing demimonde, from discreet tactical tailors and secret switchboards to luxurious hotels where silk suits conceal high-powered weaponry and debts are settled in blood.

The angsty assassin faces various dapper denizens of this nefarious netherworld. Elder statesman Ian McShane and spaghetti western legend Franco Nero bring gravelly gravitas to proceedings, while Common gives our hero a run for his money in the martial arts stakes, even if he manages to be the only man in the world who makes Keanu Reeves look animated. Much more fun are Riccardo Scamarcio and Claudia Gerini as warring gangster siblings, all flashing eyes and elegantly smouldering hatred.

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The gunplay plays out in the opulent setting of Rome, drenched in lavishly atmospheric lighting playing across the exquisite architecture and fine tailoring. Suave old country Mafioso and beautiful killers make eyes at each other before reaching for their guns. Simmering tension explodes into symphonic violence in art galleries and catacombs.

The combination of brutal violence and Italian elegance is intoxicating: John Woo meets Michelangelo Antonioni. Fellini with a gun fetish. "8½mm", if you will. "La Dolce Beretta".

Extravagantly fun as all this is for a film about a man that's so economical with his words (and with his bullets), it does go on a bit. A cameo from Reeves' past raises a few laughs of recognition but helps pad proceedings past the two-hour mark, a tad long for viewers to sit still -- especially after the round of beers the movie practically demands.

The film also shamefully short-changes Ruby Rose again after she was criminally wasted in this year's "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter". Apart from one far-too-brief fight, we're still waiting for a film to really let Rose cut loose as the badass action star she's so clearly ready to be.

There's talk of a third movie, and it's richly deserved for such a lively and singular action series. When "Chapter 3" blasts its way into theatres, you know what you need to remember: Keanu's in it, his name's John Wick and he shoots people.

"John Wick: Chapter 2" is in theatres in the US now and the UK on 17 February.

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