The difference between the greatest grindhouse and the just plain tasteless is hard to define. But like the Supreme Court’s famous observation on obscenity, I know it when I see it. Great grindhouse is oddly affectionate, more than a little funny without trying too hard, as eager to please as a puppy, cheerfully grim, and completely unapologetic. It is fearless and ridiculous, more enthusiastic than crass. It is the difference between Crank and Crank 2, Planet Terror and Machete, or Drive Angry and Hobo with a Shotgun.

What I most love about Shank 2 is how well it understands this difference. Shank 2 is a great grindhouse game, not quite as glorious as House of the Dead: Overkill, but far better than the guilty pleasure of the latest Splatterhouse game.

After the jump, it’s a grindhouse party

As a fighting game — and that’s 90% of what this is — Shank 2 is no simple button masher. Any given brawl changes based on what you’re carrying, who you’re fighting, how patient you are, and even what stuff has been dropped on the ground or knocked over to be grabbed. These are satisfying varied battles that require reflexes and close attention, a bit like Batman: Arkham City for the combination of skill and gritty bone-crunching impact. Guns and grenades are optional, but always welcome. Your reward is a splash of colorful grindhouse blood and viscera, about three times as gory as it needs to be, and four times as gory as the usual action movie.

The grand unifying principle here is the unabashed 2D artwork, rugged, broad, and muscular. Shank 2 is nothing if not stylish and consistent. The setting this time is South America and it hits all the right notes in all the right scenarios, all the way up to the final reveal in the mysterious lab underneath a tourist resort.

Shank 2 occasionally breaks out into super stylized set pieces, perhaps in silhouette against a stormy night, or on a rope bridge a la Temple of Doom, or with some ridiculous industrial blades spinning dangerously nearby. At one point, a boss is literally disemboweled. But the notable thing is what happens after he’s been disemboweled. Suffice to say, Shank 2 is the game of the movie that Robert Rodriguez’ Machete wished it was.

Unlike the original Shank, any traces of platforming — which is another way of saying you’ll sometimes die because you missed a jump — are gone in favor of this combat. You have to jump or swing from time to time, but Shank 2 knows itself well enough to treat these bits as just passing moments on the way to the next brawl. It’s got a touch of optional enjoyable grinding to draw out the experience, if that’s your thing. You can unlock new playable characters with unique stats by beating challenges.

With the emphasis on fighting, the co-op survival mode is a great way for two players to jump right into the combat, defending piles of supplies from waves of attackers and earning money to buy power-ups. Since it’s on a single screen, this is about as perfect a local co-op game as you could ask for.

4 stars
Xbox 360