John Wick Chapter 2 (2017)

Keanu Reeves. Love him or hate him…you HAVE to admit that the man absolutely commits to the physicality of the roles he’s been taking on recently. It’s like he knows that he has limited range as a dramatic actor, so he makes up for it by wholeheartedly throwing himself into the thick of the action. This was no more evident than in 2014 when the first ‘John Wick’ snuck out of the shadows and blew us unsuspecting movie-goers away…with a quick, well-placed head-shot! What could’ve EASILY been relegated to a Bargain Bin in a Walmart somewhere actually turned out to be a solidly constructed and oddly satisfying revenge tale that used an unexpected layer of detailed world-building to flesh out the ‘universe’ this exciting example of violent wish fulfillment used as a narrative ‘back bone’. And on top of it all…it had heart, with the effective use of ‘John’s grief over the untimely death of his wife, and the needless murder of the puppy she bequeathed to him, used as the fuel in his tank. Oh, and there was a shit-load of awesome fisticuffs and gritty, high-velocity shoot-outs peppered throughout the run-time. All these factors came together to create one of the most satisfying Big Screen experiences of 2014…at least for me. On top of the critical acclaim the film had heaped upon it on its release, it also made some impressive ‘bank’ and solidified the directing careers of former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. So…a sequel was pretty much inevitable. Fast forward 3 years…and here we are.
‘John Wick Chapter 2’ picks up about 2 weeks after the events of the first film. In an awesome pre-title sequence, ‘John’ (Keanu Reeves) is hunting down the final piece of revenge left over from the last story. This task now completed, he prepares to fade back into retirement and move on, the memory of his wife still haunting the peripherals of his life. Word of his recent, violent exploits have reached an Italian gangster named ‘Santino D’Antonio’ (Riccardo Scamarico), to whom ‘John’ reluctantly owes a literal blood debt. After initially refusing to honor it, ‘D’Antonio’ puts ‘John’ in the position of ‘no choice’. ‘John’ makes his way to Rome to fullfill his obligation, but there is much betrayal and treachery abound, and soon ‘John’ is on the run as dozens of shadowy operatives descend on him to claim the $7 million bounty newly placed on his head. MANY a cranium pop into an ugly red mist as a result. Many.
When production of ‘Chapter 2’ was announced, I was curious to see how Chad Stahelski would handle the proceedings, as his directing partner, David Leitch bounced to work on ‘Deadpool 2’. I needn’t have worried…as the styling of this film perfectly matched the aesthetic of Chapter 1, and the story progresses more or less naturally in keeping with what the first one set-up. All that being said…this is a kick-ass sequel that ultimately does what MANY sequels before it have failed to do…and that’s to successfully build off the foundation laid by the first film and to logically expand on what’s already there, while giving us ‘more’…while also giving ‘more of the same’.
Starting off, the logical intro to the meat of this review SHOULD be the insane, ‘in camera’ stunt-work on prominent display. A helluva lotta work went in the choreography, the cinematography, and the editing…and it pays off in spades! The car chases, the fist-fights and the gun battles are all extremely well-handled, with enough grit to make you wince from time to time, as the cinematic adrenaline rush surges across the Big Screen. Several times, I just KNEW that the stunt team had finished many a day on set bruised and battered. In conjunction with this, the amount of time that you can blatantly tell that it’s actually Keanu Reeves in the scene is very impressive, especially if he’s driving a car or working a firearm. For a middle-aged man…the guy can kick some serious ass!! This is NOT ‘Bill S. Preston…Esquire’! If you’re looking for a visceral action movie that moves at a break-neck pace while actually allowing you to SEE the action play out, instead of hiding weak choreography behind lazy ‘shaky cam’ and needlessly hyperactive editing, you get the ‘goods’ here.
The cast is fun. Of course, Keanu Reeves just sorta makes ‘John Wick’ work, even through his stilted delivery of ‘hard-boiled’ comic book dialogue. Returning for some juicy supporting roles, we get John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane back as prominent figures from the first flick helping to populate ‘John’s world again. The villains were a little weaker this time around, with Scamarcio’s ‘D’Antonio’ coming off a little bland, kind of just a generic Italian gangster type. Ruby Rose (‘Orange is the New Black’) turns up in a henchmen role that reminded me a lot of Dave Batista’s throw-away character, ‘Mr. Hinx’, in ‘Spectre’, in that he was a physically interesting antagonist..who’s given virtually no lines or character expansion. Here, Rose just looks like a tattoo’d choirboy who communicates exclusively through sign language…despite apparently not being deaf. She was…ok, but maybe a little wasted. We also get a ‘Matrix’ reunion of sorts, with ‘Morpheus’ himself, Laurence Fishburne, turning up as ‘The Bowery King’, a strange underworld figure running an army of tactically-trained homeless people. I did like the style given to many of the background characters, like the call center full of tattoo’d 1940’s pin-up girls or the bearded hipster fashions of many of the minions.They all worked well in tandem with the pulpy feel of the hitman underworld that ‘Wick’ inhabits.
Given that we’re not rooting for ‘John’ to catch up to the Russian assholes that killed his dog and stole his prized 1969 Mustang this time around, the script is admittedly a little flat, especially since the ‘heart’ behind his motivations in the first one are not here to push him, and us, forward. But deep story telling is not the main thing here. Some seriously kick-ass action is the big draw for these titles. That being said, they did nicely expand on some of the slick little details that popped up in Chapter 1. Things like the Continental Hotel and it’s Management. The use of the gold coins. Related operations in an international setting. New characters in this ‘universe’. The rules of the world. This script gives us enough cool little extras to lend ‘expansion’ and intrigue to the blossoming franchise, and again, I want to see what else this ‘universe’ has to offer in a third film.
Technically, this film looks great. There’s a very attractive lighting scheme at work, with a lot of rich colors and use of shadow giving the various set-piece locales a unique look. On a Sound Design level, the crew clearly had fun. The gunfire and various impacts come fast and loud, with a sexy level of ‘low end’ to punctuate the sometimes shocking violence that bursts at the audience from the screen. If you liked the music in Chapter 1, then you’ll probably have no problems with what you hear here.
All in all, ‘John Wick Chapter 2’ was pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be. A well shot, well edited feast of hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat and fierce gunfights in this odd underworld of cool, interesting characters and rules, that we’re guided through via a role seemingly tailor made for the limited but deeply committed Keanu Reeves, who just rocks the house in this role. Despite not having the emotional resonance of the first film, there’s definitely enough lightning fast brutal violence and crazy choreography to keep your attention focused on what they’re giving you. Basically, if you liked ‘John Wick’…you’re bound to get a serious kick out of ‘John Wick Chapter 2’. Bring on the John Wick Trilogy!!!

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