The zippy thriller “The Intern’s Handbook,’’ published in 2014, introduced us to snarky assassin John Lago, who gets this close to his marks by working undercover as an intern.
Lago is a long-term employee of Human Resources Inc., an elite firm that specializes in contract killing: “Our specialty was our cover: the internship. HR, Inc. would place us in companies as interns . . . and we would use our wallflower anonymity to slither up the corporate ladder like ninja black mambas and smoke heavily guarded, high-value targets — mostly well-heeled Fortune 500 golf zombies.’’
When we left him last, Lago was hoping to marry the love of his life, fellow assassin Alice. As “Hostile Takeover,” the turbo-charged sequel of “Handbook” opens, things appear to have gone terribly awry — not an unusual occurrence in Lago’s life — and we find him cooling his heels at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., trapped in the clutches of a jug-eared agent named Fletcher (cue Lago, a knowledgeable and witty film buff, offering up a profane quip from 1985’s “Fletch,’’ “the worst most quotable movie ever’’).
As Fletcher interrogates Lago, we learn via flashbacks that he and Alice did indeed marry, the bride sporting footwear befitting their chosen profession. Envision, if you will, “a pair of Alexander McQueen Titanic Ballerina Pumps she’d had fitted with a razor sharp titanium stiletto heel that could lacerate Kevlar and punch through concrete.”
As a special gift, Lago also organizes a post-nuptial surprise for his lady love: Following the ceremony, they literally drop in on a business conference, guns blazing, and take out the chief executive of Human Resources Inc. — the titular hostile takeover.
From then on, as Human Resources’s new co-CEOs, Lago and Alice are business as well as life partners. And, at first, things seem to go well. He trains their clutch of assassins in firearms use, martial arts, elevator kills, making coffee, and managing copy machines, while Alice recruits high-level clients. In between work hours, they nest happily in a luxurious Chinatown loft.
But before too long, Lago and Alice find themselves at odds because of their individual professional paranoias. Soon Lago is on the run, living by his wits, along with his well-trained muscles and random bits of weaponry and cash he’s got stashed around New York City.
Lago was clearly born to be a killer. His particular form of anger management consists of going to a dive bar in Brooklyn and beating everyone there to a pulpy pulp, including the police officers who are called to the scene, and he hones his edge at a secret training center where his regimen would make other boot camps look like recess.
But his greatest weapons may be his senses of irony, timing, and humor. He draws his inspirations and reference points directly from the movies — think “The Godfather,’’ “Marathon Man,’’ “In the Line of Fire,’’ “The Professional,’’ and “The Wizard of Oz,’’ specifically the Wicked Witch of the West’s melting scene. He’s better at dodging bullets than Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix’’; and he’s just as comfortable channeling Bill Murray in “Caddyshack’’ and Tom Cruise in “Risky Business’’ as he is Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon’’ or Jean-Claude Van Damme in virtually all of his movies.
Far grittier than a Bond film and infused with the mind-bending, identity-shifting elements of, say, “Mission: Impossible,’’ “Hostile Takeover’’ is fun, smart and jam-packed with serious splatter and gore — at one point, I actually screamed, completely taken by grossed-out surprise. Lago’s canny shenanigans will keep you riveted, from its taut opening pages to its explosive, cinematic ending — fitting as a “Handbook’’ movie is in development as we speak and its sequel can’t be far behind.
By Shane Kuhn
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.