John Wick: Chapter 2

Posted: March 4, 2017 in Film reviews
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Director: Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves

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“Need more bullets!”

 

It’s shortly after the events of the first film, and after getting his revenge, John Wick (Reeves) has only one thing on his mind; retrieving the car that was stolen from him. After battling his way through a small army of goons working for the brother/uncle of the men he killed last time out, John gets his car back, at which point he returns home to his newfound canine companion, and back to retirement.

John’s retirement lasts approximately three minutes and twenty seconds before there’s a knock at his door. It’s Santino D’Antonio (a wonderfully smarmy turn from Riccardo Scamarcio) an Italian crime lord who once did a huge favour for John, and gained his marker in return. He now wants to redeem John’s debt. John refuses, saying he’s retired.  D’Antonio isn’t one to take no for an answer however. John visits Winston (the ever-reliable Ian McShane) manager of the Continental hotel in New York. Winston reminds John that the mysterious society that John was once a part of only has two rules; the first is that you can’t kill someone within the confines of a Continental hotel, the second is that a Marker must be honoured.

With no choice John agrees to perform a job for D’Antonio, though he is dismayed when he discovers the job is assassinating D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna.

John heads for Rome, starting a chain of events that will see a huge bounty slapped on his head, a bounty that every hired gun will be after, but John Wick isn’t known as the Boogeyman for nothing. One thing is certain, an awful lot of people are going to die!

 

When early word arrived of the first John Wick, people were underwhelmed. A fairly bland title for an action film starring Keanu Reeves as an assassin who goes on a revenge spree after his dog is killed. Initially people weren’t keen. Then word of mouth suggested it might be good, and it was; very good. John Wick was a slick, noir inflected action film that turned an innocuous name into a byword for devastation. Nimbly directed by Stahelski, and featuring a role Reeves seemed born to play, what further helped the film stand out was the mythos surrounding the society of assassins that John had been part of. With their odd use of archaic gold coins, and the wonderful notion of the Continental hotel (a rest stop for hit men that, like holy ground in the Highlander films, is a place where fighting is forbidden) this shadowy organisation gifted the film a slightly surreal originality that just heightened the enjoyment.

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“I’d like to help, John, but I’m just a lovable antique dealer.”

After John Wick scored big at the box office it was clear there’d be a follow up. Obviously such a film would need to find a way to get John out of retirement once more, and it would surely have to expand the mythos surrounding the Continental and its backers.

I was really looking forward to this, but some of the initial reviews were a trifle sniffy, suggesting the film lacked the verve of the original and, worst still, was actually dull in places. I can see the critics’ point, in other hands this procession of gun battles, knife fights and Kung-Fu, might have been a trifle wearing.

Thankfully we weren’t in other hands, we’re in the hands of the team behind the original, and whilst Chapter 2 is something is a different beast, and certainly lacks the left field visceral enjoyment of the original, this is still a great film and one I liked, A LOT!

Yes getting John back out of retirement is somewhat contrived to say the least, but there is an explanation for why D’Antonio chooses now to approach John, and yes there is a lot of action here, and much as I enjoyed it the film could have easily been pared down a little—the opening fight scene is great but does go on a bit, and if nothing else the motorcycle chase right at the beginning could have been excised without affecting the film one jot. But compared to a lot of action sequels that either water down the violence and language (see the later Taken and Die Hard films) or just provide more of the same, Chapter 2 is a triumph because it expands the Wickian universe. We see another Continental Hotel in Rome (managed by the original Django himself Franco Nero), we hear about the High Table, the people in charge of the mysterious society, and we learn about the markers. There’s an argument for Chapter 2 giving us more of the same, only more so, and the number and scope of the fight scenes is increased exponentially—as is the number of deaths—but this is counterbalanced by widening the universe and by a succession of great supporting characters, which is where the first film scored highly as well.

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The ultimate enemy, hipster gunmen led by 15 year old Leonardo DiCaprio

One of the joys of the first three Die Hard films (especially 1&3) is that it featured characters who were fleshed out enough that you could easily see them starring in their own film/TV series, and it’s the same with both John Wick films. Frankly if they made a Continental TV series starring McShane, Lance Reddick as the man on front desk and Peter Serafinowicz (who threatens to steal Chapter 2 as a Sommelier whose expertise extends far beyond wine) then I’d watch the hell out of it. John Leguizamo has barely had five minutes screen time across both films, yet his character still comes alive, and I liked Cassian (rapper Common) a fellow assassin with a somewhat justified grudge against John.

When the Matrix reunion hits and Laurence Fishburne turns up the expanded universe widens yet further, and his Bowery King sees the film veer almost towards Neil Gaiman/Neverwhere territory.

On the somewhat more villainous side Claudia Gerini does a good job with limited screen time, and as D’Antonio’s mute henchperson Ares model/actress Ruby Rose is surprisingly effective given her diminutive frame.

Stahelski’s direction is assured, both in the more frenetic fight scenes, and the quieter moments, and he makes good use of both Rome and New York locations. The cinematography is top notch and the one place this films exceeds the first is in its final showdown, echoing somewhat Bond vs Scaramanga in a mirrored maze, it’s actually better than the first films somewhat more pedestrian dockside fight. Frankly I think the Broccoli’s could do worse than let Stahelski loose on a Bond film.

At the heart of it all though is Reeves, whether you think criticism of his acting is fair or not he’s perfect as John Wick, providing John Wick with a weary. laid-back rage ideal for the role, and he convinces in the fight scenes better than I suspect many men in their fifties would.

So it’s a smidgen too long, sags a little in the final third before we get to the finale, and probably could do to lose a few (dozen) killings, and to make Wick a little less like an indestructible force of nature, but these are minor quibbles. Exciting, stylish, funny, and filled with interesting characters from top to bottom this is an object lesson in making an action sequel.

Lord knows where they go with Chapter 3 though!

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“Have we met before?”

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