Thursday, April 27, 2017
Film Review: John Wick - Chapter 2
If you liked the original John Wick, you will like the sequel.
And I loved John Wick.
Chapter 2 begins the day after John's (Keeanu Reeves) bloody rampage of revenge against the Russian crime family from the previous film. Unfortunately for John, once he steps back into the life, an old acquaintance Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes to call in a debt. As Winston (Ian McShane), the big-wig in this assassin society explains, John cannot run away or decline to fulfill the debt or he will executed. Santino wants John to go to Rome and kill his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can take over their family criminal organization.
This creates such an interesting dilemma for the audience. Unlike the first film, John was motivated by revenge and killed only very bad people in that pursuit. As a result, the audience lost no sympathy for John in his rampage. But in the sequel, John is sent to straight up murder someone. And to be sure, Gianna is not an angel, but John's motivation is to save his own skin. You can tell the filmmakers wanted to tie you up into moral knots over this. Their solution to the problem can be the source of some interesting discussions.
Regardless, the first act feels very much like a less-inspired repeat of the original: there is the build-up, the interesting underground economy and culture, the shootout in a crowded dance floor, etc. But once we move in to the second act, the film really picks up. Not only is the violence creative and entertaining to watch, it is fairly constant until the end, pushing the movie forward at an exciting pace. Around every corner there is another deadly threat and so the movie constantly keeps you on your toes.
The film also introduces us to some interesting characters who never overstay their time on screen. Cassian (Common) is the bodyguard for Gianna. And while there is a grudging respect between him and John, there is also a deadly animosity. Ares (Ruby Rose), plays Santino's mute assassin and body guard. Director Chad Stahelski does an interesting job of making her look completely unfeminine without appearing too manish. The Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne) chews up the scenery as the keeper of spies dressed as the homeless. Peter Serafinowicz has a small scene where he helps arm John, but it so charming and effective. But my favorite was probably Julius (Franco Nero) who runs the Rome version of the Continental (the safe-ground hotel for assassins). This also leads to my favorite bit of dialogue from the whole film. Seeing John in town for work, Julius sits him down very seriously and point blank asks him, "Are you here for the pope?" The next two lines made me laugh out loud.
John Wick Chapter 2 also delves us deeper into that fascinating underground world of the assassins. The closest film caparison I can think of is the Harry Potter franchise. In each film we get a further peak behind the curtain of a world that runs parallel to our ordinary world but is living just below the surface. For Harry Potter, it's wizards and witches. For John Wick, it's assassins and hit men. Stahelski deserves a lot credit for rely on the audience to follow the action without beating them over the head with the information. The old school communication systems show that they are not vulnerable to hacking. The Bowery King is seen sending phone SIM cards through carrier pigeons. Things like this hint at a larger world and draws us in rather than pushes us out.
And Stahelski has lost none of his flair for directing the action that made the original John Wick so watchable. Even when something happens that should be ridiculous (like a shootout in a public place where no one notices), Stahelski infuses it with a strong sense of coolness.
If you are someone who is offended by gratuitous violence, then this film is not for you. But even this movie address the toll that the violence takes. In one scene, Gianna asks John, "Do you fear damnation." John answers, "Yes." And while this is far from a saintly character, it is good to know that he is not a nihilist who does not acknowledge the cost of killing.
John Wick Chapter 2 does not surpass the original, but it also does not trample on its good will. It is a fun shoot-em-up thrill ride and I cannot wait to see Chapter 3.
4 out of 5 stars.