John Wick: Chapter TwoReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/11/17 02:03:29
When the original “John Wick” premiered in 2014, most people went into it assuming that it was going to be just another bit of anonymous action movie hackwork—after all, how could a film featuring a star whose best days as an action lead were perceived to be behind him, a first-time director whose previous gig was serving as the stuntman for said star and a plotline so absurd that it almost seemed like a spoof of the conventions of the genre (a former hit man comes out of retirement to go after the guys who stole his car and killed the pet dog that was a parting gift from his recently deceased wife) possibly be? Pretty damn great, as it turned out, because rather than the paint-by-numbers effort that was expected, the film was instead a sleek, stylish and impeccably crafted work that gave viewers a screenplay that was much smarter than anyone might have expected, especially in its depiction of a vast and incredibly well-organized criminal network that seemingly controls everything, a fiercely convincing performance by Keanu Reeves that restored the aura of holy cool that sort of slipped away from him in the wake of the disappointing “Matrix” sequels and an astonishing array of action sequences that were so stylishly and impeccably conceived and executed that they offered viewers the kind of jolt of excitement that they felt the first time they encountered the works of such masters of the genre as John Woo, Walter Hill and Luc Besson.Viewers left “John Wick” hungry for more but, in a rare move at a time when virtually every genre movie of note comes out with sequels already being planned, that film was pretty much a self-contained narrative that ended on a perfectly satisfying note that did not necessarily leave itself open for future installments. When the film wound up being a surprise success at the box office, a follow-up became inevitable and while the return of Reeves, screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski was an encouraging sign, would they be able to make a second film that retained everything that made its predecessor so entertaining without just coming across as a cash-in retread? Amazingly, they have done just that with “John Wick 2,” a film that, with one exception, manages to top the original in terms of pure visceral excitement and unexpected ingenuity. If “John Wick” was a film like “Mad Max” in the sense that it took a fairly standard revenge narrative and presented it in a new and thrilling manner, then “John Wick 2” is akin to “The Road Warrior” in the way that it amps up the thrills and offers an ingenious expansion of the universe that it introduced.
“John Wick 2” begins pretty much right where the first one left off by tying up a few loose ends as Wick retrieves his stolen 1969 Mustang from a Russian crime boss (Peter Stormare) who helpfully fills the newcomers in the audience on the backstory while Wick helpfully reduces the man’s payroll to virtually nothing. After that, Wick plans to go back into retirement for good when suave Italian supercriminal Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) turns up to call in a favor that he simply cannot refuse, although it takes Santino blowing Wick’s house to bits to finally make him agree to it. It seems that Santino’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini) is about to take a seat at the High Table of The Continental, the vast criminal enterprise that appears to have organized criminal activity throughout the world. Santino would rather have the seat for himself and orders John to kill Gianna. After traveling to Italy and getting suited up for action (including a visit to a sommelier who deals in weapons instead of wine), Wick crashes the party marking Gianna’s ascension—she actually makes it fairly easy for him—but when he tries to make his getaway, he is ambushed by Santino’s goons, led by the silent and enigmatic Ares (Ruby Rose, whose presence seems to be required in every action movie sequel coming out this season), and is forced to shoot his way out through the partygoers.
Wick escapes and makes it back his Continental-run hotel—where no blood can be spilled on the grounds lest violators be considered “excommunicado” from the organization and all its benefits—and then to New York City but learns that Santino has put out a $7 million dollar contract on his life open to any and all hitmen. Wick is then forced to fend off a series of attacks from an unending array of killers, led by Gianna’s vengeance-seeking bodyguard (Common), while trying to figure out a way to get back at Santino and finally free himself for good. Aiding him in this endeavor, at least to a certain extent, is The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who has built an entire financial empire off of people pretending to be homeless beggars, and Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of New York’s Continental Hotel who observes all of the chaos with a certain degree of bemusement.
The first “John Wick” was a standard-issue action thriller that was elevated to near-greatness thanks to the knockout visual style, a more-than-welcome sense of humor and a performance by Keanu Reeves that took perfect advantage of his undeniably unique presence. “John Wick: Chapter 2” might have turned out to be just another action thriller sequel—the kind where everything is pretty much the same as the original, only bigger and louder—but those same two aspects help elevate it to true genre greatness. Director Stahelski has a genuine eye as a filmmaker and while the visual style may be divorced from anything resembling reality, it has been executed in such a sleek and memorable manner that only the proverbial churl would complain about the deliriously daffy excesses. The set-pieces are beautifully choreographed pieces of work that actually deserves to be called “balletic” for the way that they eschew the rapid-fire editing of most action films of late in order allow viewers to better see and appreciate the efforts of Stahelski and the army of stunt men that have been employed here. These are the rare action scenes that are wild and chaotic as can be on the surface but have been assembled with such care that viewers can always make complete sense of what is going on during them. After a while, one might assume that a film that is all action might get a little exhausting after a while but Stahelski keeps throwing new ideas into the fray to keep things interesting throughout—a climactic brawl in a literal hall of mirrors is a thing of real beauty and a shootout in a crowded train terminal that is hardly even noticed by the commuters for reasons I leave for you to discover is a blackly comic gem that Hitchcock himself would have been proud to have devised.
As for Reeves, he once again is tasked with not only coming across credibly as a man whose cool exterior barely masks someone who is fully capable of killing three people with nothing more than a pencil but with keeping the obviously absurd narrative from completely spinning off the rails. In both cases, he once again scores so beautifully that it is quite possible that John Wick will replace Neo as the character that will cement his place in cinema history. From a physical perspective, he is fiercely convincing throughout and manages to make even the most brutally over-the-top excesses on display (and trust me, they are legion) seem reasonably plausible. More importantly, his endearingly zonked presence acts as an effective counterbalance to all the carnage on display that helps to lighten the mood without making it jokey and helps keep it from becoming just another movie notable for its excessive body count. Although Reeves is front and center throughout, he gets plenty of support for the cheerfully hammy turns by such pros as Fishburne, McShane and Franco Rosi (who, as the manager of Italy’s Continental Hotel, get the single best line when he warily asks Wick if he is in town to kill the Pope) while Scamarcio’s turn as the sleazy villain is aided immeasurably by his resemblance to the “Myra Breckenridge”-era Rex Reed. The only performance that doesn’t quite work is the one given by Ruby Rose, whose assassin babe character is meant to inspire memories of Perkins, the similar role played to perfection in the original by Adrienne Padalicki—Rose is okay (she is certainly used better her than in either “XXX 3” or “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter”) but her role is pretty much the one aspect of this film that does not improve on the original film.Other than that stumble (which the producers could make up for with a Perkins origin film), “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a thunderously exciting film that is arguably the most thrilling and satisfying action film to hit (and shoot and stab and strangle) multiplexes since “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It is so well-made in every possible aspect that you may find wondering why other films of its type fail as badly as it succeeds. Face it, most action films these days—especially ones that are sequels—are made for the lowest common denominator and as long as they contain enough carnage to lure audiences in for the opening weekend, that is all that matters to the people making them. “John Wick: Chapter 2” may have been produced mostly for commercial reasons but the people in charge clearly strove to do something more than give viewers another helping of the same old shit and that effort makes all the difference. Like so many films of its type, this one ends with a final scene designed to set up a future installment in the franchise. Unlike so many films of its type, this is one of the rare times when the idea of another sequel feels more like a promise than a threat.
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