Friday, February 10, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Director: Chad Stahelski
Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero, Claudia Gerini, Peter Serafinowicz

John Wick was the kind of film that stood out in the sea of action cinema because it used its tropes and understood its history to present a film that was as artful in action as it was efficient in its narrative. It used subtle world building and a snowballing momentum of reveal and unleash the power of a classic action hero in a world that was over the top, but was presented in such a way that it was real to those involved. John Wick: Chapter 2 hones in what every action sequel attempts to do. It’s faster, bigger, and meaner. For all intensive purposes, it accomplishes, in spades, what so many action sequels attempt to do and generally falter at. This is world exploration, fresh and even more visually artistic than its predecessor, and it still understands why audiences connected with the first one. In many ways it’s the expansion of the universe that makes it so much fun to watch and it still delivers on all of the action fronts.

John Wick (Reeves) is ready to go back to his post-retirement life. He has a new dog and he has his car back. His return to the world he left behind those has created a ripple effect though and this leads a criminal boss (Scamarcio) to his doorstep asking for him to return a favor that he is owed. This sets Wick back into the world he has come to despise where the stakes are higher and the consequences deadlier than ever.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a robust film. It might lack the efficiency and general character build that made the first one such a spectacularly fresh take on a well-trod genre, but it makes up for it in the aggressive world building and the hyper-stylized approach to action that writer Kolstad and director Stahelski bring to the table. Narratively speaking, this film is less concerned with John Wick as a character, pulling back his character arc and simplifying it even more than the original as he is essentially forced to bounce around the globe to participate in the next lavish action set piece, but his spiraling decent back into the complex world of assassins and criminal enterprises is back of its charm. This isn’t John Wick the unnatural force of death unleashed on his own whim. This is John Wick reacting to more aggressive forces trying to push him one direction or the next and it gives the film a different tone. We’ve seen what he can do to one crime syndicate. Now let’s see what happens when he becomes one pieces on an evolving chess board of different teams with different rules and different intentions. It takes the Wick mythos into an entirely new world.

A man and his dog.
This approach allows the film to not only expand into talking about overruling crime lords, add in new locations, and breathe life into the assassin existence of rules, blood oaths, and vendettas, but it allows director Stahelski to explore new visuals and go further with the style. In a manner, this is John Wick going through a variety of levels of hell, punctuated by surrealist imagery, comparisons of the violence to art, and a dialogue focused on the lack of freedom and damnation that comes with the life style that’s paralleled by his inability to get away from it. Whether it’s the contrasting use of dark ruins with neon lights, an art gala based on “reflections of self” and a mirror maze, or the yellow lit streets of Rome, Chapter 2 goes into a variety of stylish set pieces where gun fights, chase sequences, and car battles borderline absurd, yet feel real to the grit and grime of the characters as it relentlessly pummels the audience through its second and third acts. Japanese action auteur director Seijun Suzuki would be proud of this balance while the film retains its potent John Woo Hong Kong flair for the dance like ballet of gun fights and hand to hand combat. This is a film that knows its roots and blends them into a rip roaring experience.

It certainly helps when John Wick: Chapter 2 is also, once again, exceptionally crafted. The stylistic approach only works if the cast and crew are 100% into the concept and it’s obvious that they are. As I said before, this team just UNDERSTANDS action cinema. Whether it’s John Wick’s cool and steely performance as the lead, the uproariously over the top secondary cast (punctuated by Wick’s mirror image performance from his “nemesis” played by Common, Laurence Fishburne as a guerilla assassin king of the homeless population in New York, and the scene stealing slick ninja skills of Ruby Rose), or the dead pan humor that’s increased three fold for the film, Chapter 2 gets it and runs with it. The stunts are jaw dropping, the cinematography and choreography meld into one, and they even throw in a great cameo role for Franco Nero. It’s impressive to say the least.

"We are on base! That's not fair!"
If you were one that perhaps found the original John Wick a bit too cut and dry, than Chapter 2 will certainly peg with its more robust visual style and tonal changes to how it deviates from its core 70s style revenge tale into the expanded universe of its setting. While I found the shift into a larger world does detract a bit from the character growth and efficient narrative of the original, it’s a change that wholly makes sense in the sequel pursuit of ‘bigger, faster, stronger.’ John Wick: Chapter 2 is a phenomenal second film that truly does take the franchise into franchise mode it’s worth the ride. John Wick might be going through levels of hell in the film, but it’s action auteur bliss to ride along with him. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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