Early in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” Keanu Reeves’ stoic hitman is in his basement hunched over his stash of firearms, ammo and gold, kept buried under concrete like a lock box in Hell’s bank. I noticed a wall of books behind him. It’s there in the first movie, too, but it never registered before. It’s nice that John reads — an enriching characteristic in an avenger who dearly loved his deceased wife (Bridget Moynahan) and has warm, protective feelings about dogs.
But that’s not why one watches gunmetal-sleek target practice like “John Wick: Chapter 2,” which returns Reeves to the role that should probably usurp Neo as his defining contribution to action cinema. If any sequel deserved “Reloaded” as a subtitle, it’s a movie that rolls out a succession of gun blasts to heads the way Fred Astaire handled pockets full of firecrackers in “Holiday Inn.” I don’t remember caring if Astaire’s character read books either. You just want to watch him move and, in Wick’s case, kill people.
The indie “John Wick” came out of nowhere in 2014 to inspire feverish praise from action enthusiasts (including me). It combined absurdity, wit, cool and artfully kinetic violence in a way that made tired tropes like contract killers, mobsters and bloody vengeance seem fresh again, not to mention its star’s panther-like appeal in a tailored three-piece, with speaking kept to a minimum.
The same key creative team is back for “Chapter Two” as well: writer Derek Kolstad and stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, going solo after sharing helming duties with David Leitch last time, which means aesthetic continuity is held, even if that element of devilish surprise (this is all happening because somebody stole his car and killed his dog?) is missing. It also bears that special sequel affliction of needing to feel bigger, even edging close to James Bond extravagance in a Rome montage of weapons-buying and suit-fitting. But when it comes to what matters — the urgent beauty of clashing bodies and stylish mayhem — it’s still a coke-bump rush for action junkies.
A cheeky opening set piece, leading with Buster Keaton footage projected on a building at night, reintroduces us to Wick’s Terminator-like approach to goals. As our hero tends to the unfinished business of retrieving his stolen 1969 Mustang from a taxi warehouse, we get a bracing mini-epic of incredible stunt driving, collision choreography and hand-to-hand combat, with hilarious cutaways to a desk-bound Russian gangster (Peter Stormare) hearing everything and getting more worried. You’d have to call this sequence an amuse-whoosh.
Back home, Wick assumes he’s free and clear of his past life, except we’re in a sequel. He’s visited by a natty, sinister Italian named Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio, “Burnt”), who cashes in a marker for Wick’s services that wouldn’t have been used had Wick not brought himself out of retirement. The target: Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini, “Reality”), who was chosen to run the Camorra mob over Santino.
The rules dictate Wick accept the mission, which sends him to the Eternal City and the Italian version of the Continental, one of the “John Wick” universe’s niftiest touches, a swanky hotel chain for hired guns with a lethally-enforced rule against conducting business on its grounds. Aware of who Wick is, the manager (Franco Nero) greets him, then can’t help but nosily inquire, “Are you here for The Pope?”
No, but expect a ritualistic laying on of hands, knives and gun barrels from here on out as Wick’s assignment leads to a high-priced bounty on his head, and the old stirrings of revenge against those who done him wrong. In pursuit from the ruins of Rome to the streets of New York are Gianni’s chief bodyguard (Common), Santino’s mute security enforcer (Ruby Rose, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage”) and, it seems, every third person Wick encounters. (I’m not sure if it’s funny or disconcerting that, at any given time, a sizable percentage of pedestrians turn out to be international assassins.)
The second hour of “Chapter 2” — save a mildly amusing “Matrix” reunion with a theatrical Laurence Fishburne as the subterranean leader of a cadre of hobo killers — is primarily an exhilarating gauntlet of martial arts/gun-fu assault, climaxing in a museum showdown inside a Welles-ian hall of mirrors. But these are the musical numbers we’ve been waiting for, mapped out in long, economically filmed takes of ferocious close-quarters fighting and firing that Reeves performs with a soulfully mean élan you could trace back to Lee Marvin’s heyday. The filmmakers know when to lace in genre-tweaking humor, too, as when Reeves and Common are on different levels of a crowded public concourse, nonchalantly poking guns out of their coats and squeezing off shots at each other that nobody else notices.
If Scamarcio isn’t as fun a villain as Michael Nyqvist’s bemused mob head was last time around, there’s still Ian McShane dripping authority as the Continental’s New York face, and the ever-present system of underworld codes and customs that lend a daftly enjoyable, old-world pomposity to it all. John Wick’s world is elegant and vicious, full of slaughter and courtesies and, if “Chapter 2” can’t quite replicate the original’s sense of discovery, its ending still made me wish “Chapter 3” could start right away.