★★★★

Hollywood stuntman Chad Stahelski (The Matrix, V for Vendetta) made his directorial debut with the surprise-hit 2014 action neo-noir flick John Wick, and now he’s returned to helm its follow-up. Unceremoniously titled John Wick: Chapter 2, this installment does exactly what the sequel to John Wick should do: It takes everything that made the first movie so great—gratuitous, gory violence; car chases aplenty; expertly choreographed fight scenes; plenty of jokes; and sweet, sweet vengeance—and amps it up tenfold with more blood and guts, more vengeance, and some fantastic callbacks to the first film.

The movie finds John Wick (the magnificently broody Keanu Reeves) where we last left him: attempting to enjoy retirement from his high-pressure career as “the Boogeyman,” the deadliest and most feared assassin in New York City (and probably the world). However, when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a nefarious Italian baddie from his past, comes to collect on a debt Wick owes him, the titular hitman has no choice but to return to his field of expertise. Of course, not everyone is so keen on abiding by the strange code of conduct among assassins, and Wick ends up having to punch, kick, stab, and shoot his way out of more than a few tricky situations around the globe. The body count and blood splatter increase exponentially from the first film, as Wick takes out army after army of opponents—all whilst sharply dressed.

Since Wick ends up both battling against and seeking the assistance of fellow crime-syndicate insiders, viewers get a slightly deeper look into the wild underbelly of this surreal universe this time around; one of the key players we meet is the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who controls a resourceful, seemingly omnipresent network of assassins. Other cameos include the always delightful Ian McShane, who returns as Winston, proprietor of the Continental Hotel—an eccentric establishment whose on-call sommelier specializes in weapons. Ruby Rose (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) solidifies herself as a natural action badass in her role as D’Antonio’s bodyguard. Quite possibly the most interesting new character is Cassian (Common), one of Wick’s former colleagues, whose skill and resolve nearly match that of Wick himself during a few epic fight scenes (perhaps we will see him return in the third installment—a dynamic duo of assassins, anyone?).

In addition to the terrific cast, stunts, and gore, the stunning cinematography contributes to the litany of traits that make John Wick: Chapter 2 so special. Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, Silent Hill) lends his discerning eye to the movie, choosing striking locations to film the action sequences and utilizing creative camerawork to dazzle viewers; there’s absolutely no green-screen work here, and it makes all the difference—in particular, watch out for the mesmerizing melee that takes place in an interactive modern-art museum exhibition.

At 122 minutes, the film does run about 20 minutes too long, but overall it’s as close to flawless as an action flick can get. The beauty of John Wick: Chapter 2 is that it never tries to be something it isn’t: It embraces its simple, bloody plot line and delivers the action we demand in violently satisfying, aesthetically pleasing spades.