In a world of pointless, repetitive, and cookie cutter sequels that simply rehash the plot of the original without doing anything new or interesting, I was worried that John Wick: Chapter 2 would become the newest member of this none-too exclusive club. My review follows after the jump.
After reclaiming his beloved 1969 Mustang from the Russian mob, John Wick (a perpetually glowering, but committed Keanu Reeves) is ready to slip back into retirement once more. But just when he thought he was out, John finds himself pulled back into the clandestine assassin underworld he just left (again). Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a leader of the Camorra crime organisation who John swore a blood oath to, demands a favour from the legendary hitman, with John’s quest to clear his debt to the crime boss taking him to Rome where much beautifully filmed and choreographed violence ensues.
Imagine the first John Wick film but remove the strong emotional undercurrent and ramp up the action and violence to near-Looney Tunes levels of absurdity and you have John Wick: Chapter 2. In the first installment, we as an audience are totally behind John’s motivation. Who wouldn’t want to seek sweet, righteous revenge when the last gift from your dead wife – a puppy of all things – is horribly murdered by thugs? Never mind that returning writer Derek Kolstad had the integrity not to murder another of John’s beloved pets (I’m sure many of us were convinced his goldfish, gerbil, or pet rock would buy the farm this time), the catalyst for the plot of Chapter 2 lacks the emotional impact that the first one had.
What saves Chapter 2 is its absolute commitment to delivering the ultimate Friday night beer-and-pizza movie for action junkies. The film earns the right to show two master assassins interminably tumbling down a million flights of stairs mid-fight the way Andy Samberg fell off a steep hill in Hot Rod (which coincidentally also starred Ian McShane), precisely because it know how ridiculous it is. We may scratch our heads at why everyone in New York, from the homeless to a sumo wrestler lookalike, is an assassin, but when a film delivers such crowd-pleasing set pieces time and time again against such a variety of opponents, you can only chuckle, shake your head in disbelief and enjoy the spectacle, because it feels as if the filmmakers are right there beside you, doing the same thing. If an action sequel decides to take the almost inevitable ‘more is more’ approach, this is the way to do it.
Like the first one, the action in Chapter 2 remains as beautifully lensed as an action film can be. A stand out is a shootout in a museum which features colourful, perpetually transitioning screens, and a hallway of mirrors that recalls Enter the Dragon and The Lady from Shanghai. Another confrontation in the catacombs of Rome is reminiscent of the best Call of Duty levels. The choreography maintains the standard set in the first film, this time with a pleasingly heightened emphasis on extended hand-to-hand combat, but there is a sense of repetition that creeps in by the end credits.
Thankfully, Chapter 2 features another strong supporting cast to help ground the shenanigans. Chief among them is the returning Ian McShane as the urbane, yet avuncular Winston, who runs the Continental Hotel in New York, a safe haven for assassins. Common also shines as fellow assassin and adversary Cassian. Seemingly a match for the otherwise bulletproof John Wick, their extended fisticuffs in Rome and a New York subway carriage bring a sense of danger otherwise lacking in the rest of the film. And what a treat it is to see Keanu Reeves share the screen once again with his Matrix Trilogy co-star Laurence Fishburne, this time appearing as the Bowery King. Their sole scene together teems with warmth and anticipation that is very much powered by the two actors’ shared history. Riccardo Scamarcio does what he can as Santino D’Antonio, the film’s primary villain. His arrogant, yet calm presence is more appreciated upon repeat viewings, but he suffers from limited screen time and comparisons to the charismatic, but amusing Viggo from the first film.
As a whole, John Wick: Chapter 2 also suffers from comparisons with the first film. Some of the warmth and emotional connection have departed, leaving a slightly colder, more emotionally disconnected experience. Gone also is the surprise factor that made the first film such an unexpected delight. Thankfully, the increasingly excessive carnage is saved from repetition and staleness by sheer inventiveness and director Chad Stahelski’s admirable refusal to give in to the siren’s call of excessive CGI and incomprehensible editing. That said, a third installment would do well to put John’s emotional journey front and centre of proceedings once again (something that the somewhat maligned The Dark Knight Rises arguably got spot on). Perhaps the next big-bad should go ahead and wreck John Wick’s ant farm after all.
By Johnson Hii
Director: Chad Stahelski
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick
Runtime: 122 minutes
Release date: Australia: May 17, 2017