John Wick: Chapter 2

Studio: Lionsgate

Jun 13, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

John Wick is the best American action movie of the last decade. The only thing that comes close is Mad Max: Fury Road, and that’s an Australian coproduction. Combining slick visuals, a savage blend of close-quarter martial arts and tactical gunplay, and an iconic performance by Keanu Reeves, John Wick turned the story of a retired assassin on a quest to avenge his dog into a modest box office success and a modern cult classic. Of course, when you’ve got a financially successful cult film, it’s only a matter of time before you get a sequel. Picking up only days after the end of the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 finds our hero tying up one final loose end from the first film – recovering his ’69 Mustang from a chop shop – before settling back into a life of retirement. Trouble comes calling in the form of an Italian crime lord to whom John owes a blood debt, and Wick finds himself headed to Rome to pull off yet another impossible job.

Directed by Chad Stahelski – one half of the team that directed the first film; David Leitch bowed out to helm this summer’s extremely promising Atomic BlondeJohn Wick: Chapter 2 faces the same conundrum that plagues all sequels, especially action sequels: more of the same but bigger, or something completely new? John Wick: Chapter 2 – hereafter referred to as JW2 – opts for the former, upping the ante on the groundbreaking action as well as heavily expanding upon the neon-noir world of ultra-formal assassins and criminals that made the first film feel so fresh and fun. The filmmakers once again bring their A-game, but in the end, JW2 begins to sag under the weight of ambitions and expectations.

Opening with a shot of a Buster Keaton film projected onto a brick wall, Reeves, Stahelski and their stunt team seem to respect and acknowledge their place in the long tradition of practical cinematic stunt work. Whatever missteps the franchise makes, no one can question Reeves’ commitment to the character of John Wick. “Unstoppable hitman with a penchant for slick suits and adorable dogs” isn’t a character that lends itself to dramatic heavy-lifting, but Reeves has taken a different route with Mr. Wick. Dialing down – or up, depending on your perspective – his trademark vacancy and monotone to the point of abstraction, he renders Wick as a man who has been completely hollowed out and operates solely on instinct. In his form-fitting suits and facial hair that evokes a death’s head, he is less a character than an aesthetic. Just as important as his look is his physicality, which Reeves elevates to a level that is almost unheard-of in western action stars. Bruce Lee was defined by his languid machismo, Jackie Chan by his cartoonish flexibility. Reeves takes his philosophy from the eastern masters of action cinema, turning Wick into a well-oiled murder machine whose speed and precision are wonderous to behold. The character is frequently injured, outnumbered and exhausted, but he always seems competent and in control thanks to Reeves’ total command of movement. Wick is frequently described by friend and foe alike as a man of focus, commitment and sheer will. They could easily be talking about Reeves’ performance in these films, which feels like the final word on stoic action heroes.

Those words could also be used to describe the first John Wick which, in the tradition of action classics like Die Hard and The Raid, was a perpetual engine of forward motion. JW2 sacrifices that leanness for numerous world-building digressions that are entertaining in and of themselves but would feel more at home in a sprawling television show than a feature film. Early introductions of the High Table – a global council of crime – and the revelation that the Continental – a five-star hotel that acts as neutral ground for assassins – is a franchise with locations in other major cities, are fun new elements that allow the story to expand. But by the time the film introduces Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, the head of a league of NYC assassins who hide in plain sight as homeless people, it begins to feel like an open-world video game with fun side-missions that are extraneous to the overarching story. Certain bits are more than worthwhile, including one of the all-time great loadout scenes in action film history – complete with Peter Serafinowicz as a gun sommelier – and a network of underworld account managers who look like 1940’s switchboard operators crossed with Suicide Girls. The overall disconnect mostly stems from how little of this relates back to Wick’s motivation and desires. The character’s lack of investment to the ins and outs of the plot as compared to the first film bleeds over to the audience.

These issues of sprawl and lack of focus also apply to the film’s action sequences, albeit to a lesser degree. As mentioned earlier, Reeves is unparalleled among his western contemporaries when it comes to action scenes and the stunt and camera work is some of the best you’ll see coming out of Hollywood. But after the first film came out of nowhere to set an incredibly high bar, JW2 occasionally slips into the realm of “too much of a good thing.” The creators introduce a few new elements, including a demolition derby of a car chase as a cold open, but many of the shootouts and hand-to-hand sequences begin to feel repetitive by the third act. There’s something rhythmically artful to Wick’s fighting and shooting styles – the Jackson Pollack-style blood splatters during a gunfight in an art museum feel like a knowing nod to this – but one can’t help but feel numb to that many headshots and judo throws, no matter how precisely executed. Bad guys often feel like they’re spawning just outside the frame to better facilitate being mowed down. That, combined with Wick continuously swapping out his weapons for those of his fallen enemies, only adds to the sense that JW2 is like watching someone kick ass at an open-world third person shooter. There are still some inspired bits – a standout is Wick pinning an opponent with the business end of an empty shotgun, using him as leverage to reload and then spraying him across a wall – but it feels more like a high plateau than an upward progression. Which is to say that it will likely only be one of the best action movies of the year, rather than the best action movie of the year.

The standout feature on the new Blu-ray is the commentary track by Reeves and Stahelski, which is both an informative listen and a showcase for their easy-going, twenty-year friendship. A variety of short featurettes explore the world, weapons and fight choreography of the film, along with some lighter material, including a supercut of every kill in the film and a two-minute short entitled Dog Wick, which flips the script and has a pooch avenging its master. 


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