Here's a sneakily tough challenge: crafting a sequel to cult hit John Wick.
There is the expectations game that makes it difficult, of course. No one thought a pulpy, action vehicle for Keanu Reeves directed by a former stuntman would be much of anything when it arrived on the scene in 2014. And why would they think that? Reeves hadn't been relevant for a decade, give or take, and that director, Chad Stahelski, was best known for being Brandon Lee's body double after Lee was killed on the set of another cult film, The Crow, in 1994.
Now? You've got a following. You've got fans, like myself, who both desire and expect something like the first.
The recipe for success for John Wick went well beyond the element of surprise, though. You can't ignore the scores of mind-blowing action sequences. But you also can't forget about the vivid world-building as you catch your breath.
Its brilliance is not down merely to the pathos of Reeves' titular character losing his puppy and then exacting revenge on an unending string of dog-slaughtering Russian roughnecks. It is also owed to The Continental - the hotel for hitmen operated by Ian McShane - and to his respectful but adversarial relationships with other professional assassins. It is about all the little details, some filled in and some left tantalizingly blank.
How do you run that back? How do you avoid giving in to the temptation to run up the body count further just to story-top the original? Alternatively, how do you keep building this comic book-style world (that's more interesting than any actual comic book) at the right pace, surprising and delighting without giving away everything all at once?
Stahelski's answer seems to be to do everything just about the same, and upon first viewing, it's hard to argue with his approach. This doesn't work for sequels in other genres like comedies, but with the straight-to-the-vein action and episodic vibe of John Wick, it works just fine in Chapter 2.
The world's most deadly retired assassin is sucked back in to the underworld when a former associate, Santino D'Antonio, calls in an old favor - one related to John's initial chance at earning retirement - that both makes D'Antonio a permanent enemy of John and compels him to repay that favor.
So off John goes to Rome where we discover that there's a Continental in the Eternal City (and presumably many others around the globe), and that our angsty hero has been a guest there on plenty of occasions.
We're also treated to an unforgettable set of visuals as John sneaks in to the "coronation" party of a rival of D'Antonio's and takes her out. The party is set against the backdrop of Roman ruins at night, and a three-way chase through the tunnels ensues after he has completed his ostensible mission. It ends with Common, filling the role of respected adversary that Willem Dafoe occupied in the original, and Reeves crashing through a plate-glass window at The Continental and sharing a tense adult beverage as their hostilities are paused. The rules and decorum of The Continental require that no blood be shed on hotel grounds, after all.
This is unquestionably the best sequence of the film, though not the only highly memorable one. John ends up back in New York, but the implications of what he's done and who he's done it for make his position more tenuous than it ever was when he was merely trying to take down the entire Russian mob based in Manhattan.
The fireworks keep coming, and the action sequences - blessedly the antithesis of the shaky, choppy style popularized in the Bourne movies and still prevalent today - are so relentless there barely seems time to celebrate the reunion of Reeves with his The Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, much less try and figure out how his character fits in to the Wick-iverse.
It's almost - almost - a bit much. I almost want to complain. I almost want to lament that the delicate, perfect mix of the original isn't quite right in Chapter 2. The bodies are stacked a bit too high. The world-building is a bit too thin. The introduction of Fishburne almost feels like the kind of wink-to-the-fans move that fits better in the comic book schlock that the original John Wick was such a respite from.
But I think that belies my concern with the third chapter in this story and not my dissatisfaction with the second. John Wick: Chapter 2 is just what it needs to be - an unbridled celebration and extension of the original. Stahelski and Reeves might mess up this formula in the next installment, but they got it just right in this one.