John Wick: Chapter Two
Name a relatively successful action movie, and I will probably be able to name an underwhelming sequel to a relatively successful action movie. The DVD bins and straight-to-streaming sites of the world are littered with the likes of Speed 2: Cruise Control, when studio execs just can’t help themselves. I mean, what is there to do with an action sequel, beyond the usual fare of more explosions and gun shots?
Such was on my mind when confronted with John Wick: Chapter Two, the follow-up to the 2014 film that was a largely unforeseen hit. I found the first to be enjoyable, albeit maybe a tad over-rated, but was ready dismiss Chapter Two as just another cashing in from a studio looking to finance the next franchise. That was, of course, until the avalanche of critical praise. I missed John Wick: Chapter Two in theatres but got the chance to view it recently through iTunes. Was it a worthy continuation of Keanu Reeves’ bloody trail through the underworld? Or is it all that I feared that it would be?
John Wick (Reeves) returns home after his bloody revenge quest of the first film, hoping to finally put his former life behind him. But escape proves impossible, thanks to the sudden arrival of old acquaintance Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) at his door, bearing a blood debt Wick made to him years ago. Compelled by the unbreakable tenants of the underworld to go back into service, Wick must once again show his targets that he is “the bogeyman”.
Chapter Two enters your life with a very notable bang, as the titular character goes about retrieving the car that was one half of what caused all the problems with him in the first film. In the course of doing so, John Wick kills a load of people, and ends up wrecking the very thing he came to collect. The metaphor couldn’t be more clear for what Chapter Two is setting itself up to be: the story of how, in his bid to exchange the life of an underworld assassin with the happy suburban life of a nice house, beautiful wife, cool car and cute dog, John Wick can’t help but destroy everything he comes near. And maybe, just maybe, he prefers it that way. “I’m not that guy anymore” pleads Wick. “You’re always that guy” comes the response.
Reeves steps back into what is arguably his best role and best performance since The Matrix with aplomb, imbuing Wick with the desperately required humanity that the audience needs if they are going to ever overlook the fact that he mows through maybe 200 people in the course of the two hour running time. You really do feel Wick’s horrible dilemma, wanting out of the crazy world of hitmen and hitwomen, but being unable to walk away, tied intrinsically to its traditions and its demands. There is a palpable weariness in this Wick, a step beyond the raw anger and deadly stoniness of the first film, that drives Chapter Two forward, helped by the weasely antagonist, Scamarcio’s Italian mafioso with pretensions of artistic grandeur, the perfect foil for the take-no-prisoners Wick. A spoiled child who happens to have found the bullets for a gun, Santino is just the right amount of smarmy for us to want Wick to turn around and go after him, even though doing so may destroy Wick’s life entirely. They are aided by a suitably restrained but quite effective script, where actions speak louder than words, and delivery makes the most of the sparse dialogue.
That central drama is good enough, but the most notable thing about Chapter Two, indeed the thing that makes it a success more than anything, is the world-building that it does, the universe that it creates, as if writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski were conjuring up something from a homebrew RPG and turning it into a film. That probably sounds terrible, but in fact, it’s great: Chapter Two takes everything that John Wick just about set-up, and adds layer upon layers, to form a world that you really do just want to settle into, and all without any needless exposition dumps or lengthy diatribes.
The “Continental” Hotel and its rules, markers, High Tables, homeless Kings, codes of honour and codes of vengeance, the back-biting gossip and family squabbles turned deadly, and the oh so stylish underworld that is so prevalent that Chapter Two almost seems like it is set in an alternate universe of some kind, where every second person is an assassin of some kind. And having stepped back into that world in the first film, John can’t just step back out of it in Chapter Two. But it’s remarkable in that none of it seems tacked on or rushed or anything like that. Instead, it’s really classic world building, the surface details with enough of a glimpse at largely hidden depths that you aren’t left craving for additional info. Ian McShanes’ “Manager”, Lance Riddick’s concierage, the Anne Rice-esque Italian crime families with their candles, baths and catacombs, Laurence Fishburne’s “Bowery King” (and yes, I did get a kick seeing him and Reeves inhabiting the same scene once again) there’s so much here that I want to see more of. The supporting cast individually don’t get all that much time, but Fishburne, McShane and Ruby Riot (a mute assassin with a penchant for brutal sign language taunts) make the very most of what they have.
And much like the underworld that it depicts, Chapter Two is a film overflowing with panache and confidence in its appearance. It’s the exquisitely tailored suits (with bullet-proofing sewn in), the marvellously realised sets of a sort of neo-Gothic Assassins Creed (and that film could learn a thing or two from this), the drinks, the sleek weapons, the way the villain muses on the quality of duck fat when combined with potatoes. It’s the little touches, like the emphasis on colourful subtitles, or the sheer machismo on display from every other character, a sort of quiet but steely reserve, as if everyone has been taking cues from Connery’s Bond. A montage wherein Wick gets geared up for battle, including a wonderfully brief turn from Peter Serafinowicz as a wine expert/gun merchant, is probably the apex of it, of a criminal society that is fully aware of the murder and mayhem it is responsible for, but still thinks that they ought to all look good when doing so.
As for the murder and mayhem, Chapter Two returns to the frantically kinetic action that was the hallmark of the first one. The gunfights are all choregraphed quite well, but for me it was a real take it or leave it feeling when the guns were firing, largely because things got rapidly formulaic by the time we had reached the halfway point. Wick never misses a shot and has a tendency to shoot people lying prone on the ground frequently, before spinning around and doing it all over again. The crucial thing is the long wide tracking shots, the cleanness of the editing, wherein cuts are used only sparingly, out of kilter with the usual western techniques, but in a good way. There is also a creativity allowed by different environments, most notably a mirror-focused set-piece right near the conclusion, that called to mind the finale of The Rose Of Shanghai. Aside from that, it’s in the hand-to-hand stakes that Chapter Two is at its most entertaining and visceral, in two barn-busting showdowns between Wick and Common’s Cassian, that are on a par with anything else of a similar scope in recent years.
Beyond the scope of action, Chapter Two is shot brilliantly, with Chad Stahelski showing directorial skill beyond what would appear, from a cursory reading of his filmography, to be very limited experience. Stahelski understands that style is more than just sheen, it’s the understanding of the interplay between light and shadow, shining and reflecting. His New York is much like Welcome To The Punch’s London, an illuminated, garish perfection just waiting to be shot to pieces.
The ending of Chapter Two sets things up nicely for what is essentially an inevitable Chapter Three, taking Wick far outside of his comfort zone and offering a glimpse at a quasi-apocalyptic assassin hunt, a far more enticing ending in terms of guaranteeing my hard-earned money to see it than where we left at the end of the first offering. Indeed, John Wick appears to be the launching point for the latest effort to form the new great Hollywood panacea, the “cinematic universe”, and I wish Lionsgate much success, and hope that they can see what is happening with Universal and are taking notes.
But focusing on Chapter Two on its own, I can only say that it’s a thrilling, entertaining even engaging ride, a B-Movie idea with A-Movie ambitions, that it pretty much manages to fulfil. Great script, great cast, great visuals and choreography: all of the right notes are being hit here. It takes what made the first one good and expands things brilliantly, in a manner that really makes you want to see a little bit more of the world being portrayed. I’m going to be waiting. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Summit Entertainment).