26 Feb REVIEW: John Wick: Chapter 2
Chad Stahelski (Dir); Derek Kolstad (Scr)
Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Common, Lance Reddick
Logline: Following the events of the first movie, John Wick is forced to honour a blood debt that he knows will lead in turn to a bounty on his own head.
The first fifteen minutes of John Wick: Chapter 2 are a frenetic, petrol-fuelled vision of style. Purple neon saturates slick asphalt, Mustang motors overwhelm the senses, cameras dance over skyscraper rooftops to catch vehicles in parallel street pursuit. Motorcyclists flip with flourishes, vehicles bounce and batter with definitive impact, John Wick takes car bonnets to the hips like they’re shopping trolleys and gets up for more.
All to reclaim his car and put an end to the revenge mission against him following the events that unfolded in what we will now know as Chapter 1. The point is…
John Wick is back.
Delayed epilogue out the way, Stahelski moves the plot along to allow Chapter 2 its own voice, relocating Reeves’ titular assassin to Rome and introducing new rogues, Santino (Scamarcio), Ares (Rose), and Cassian (Common), to the mix and expanding the fictional world of the assassin’s guild to which John once belonged.
It is in the latter where Chapter 2 really succeeds. We explore the neutral ground that is the Continental in more depth, visiting both New York and Rome branches; we learn the full value of this criminal underworld’s rules (look out for a particularly humorous scene where a to-the-death fist-fight inadvertently crosses Continental boundaries) and the consequences for not respecting them; we meet new and interesting faces in Winston (McShane) and the aforementioned Ares, while existing heads such as Charon (Reddick) are fleshed out further; and we continue the Greek mythology references (a personal treat!).
Of the aforementioned characters, the mute Ares stands out as the freshest face. Originally intended to have dialogue, the move to reduce the character’s communication to sign language is a masterstroke, adding depth to an antagonist that could have been depicted as little more than A. N. Other Henchman. A cracking and enriching touch.
At the helm, Stahelski was simply made for the action genre. The framing, tracking, lighting and editing are top, top notch, really gifting the John Wick cannon an identity all its own and harking back to early Michael Bay classics such as the Rock and Bad Boys. The first film did a fine job of using little-known Manhattan locales to create what could have been a convincingly nameless city, had the director willed it so, and the sequel is no different. Even St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s spires, used as a backdrop for the Continental’s rooftop garden, do not seem so familiar in this world and the credit for creating a world both strange and identifiable must be placed at Stahelski’s door.
However, for all its style and kinetic energy, Chapter 2, like its predecessor, is not without flaws. It is in the stunt-tastic, opening ballet of violence and vehicle porn where JW2 peaks. That isn’t to say the subsequent trough is immediate, in fact JW2, like a young Ronaldinho playing at keepy-uppies, manages to keep the octane consistently level throughout, momentarily losing traction in a slightly overlong chase through Roman catacombs, before regaining its steady standard when the action returns to New York City.
The problem lies entirely in the aforementioned steadiness. Once the action hits a certain level, very early on, it almost seems like it has become too difficult to top. Each subsequent sequence is a stunning piece of flowing, visceral choreography that never really outdoes the one that came before it; as a result, once our jaws have dropped for the first time, they only ever have one direction to go from there.
Possibly compounding this point is the general sense that Mr. Wick is never truly in danger. With the exception of a second act battle with Cassian, there’s no real sense of peril, no suggestion that the next villain might actually win (or even slow him down), no notion that John Wick might, in fact, be mortal. Much like the Marvel cannon’s superheroes, our expectation as the audience isn’t so much if Wick will defeat the next rogue that crosses his path, but more a case of when. Subsequently the tension, the sense of danger never really resonates.
Kolstad’s script, at times, also detracts. Much like the film as a whole, for the most part it delivers, but not without a few sticking points. Wick himself, although badass enough to be placed up there with the likes of Bourne and Bauer, often comes across a very thin character, often offering up no more than a sentence (and sometimes even less) when quizzed on his return to the profession, questioned on how he’s been, or just downright threatened. One need only look to the scene that sets off this second go-round, where Santino requests Wick honour their blood debt, to find a prime example where more would have been… well, more.
Criticism’s aside, there’s no denying John Wick: Chapter 2 is a ride. One that will leave many (myself included) craving a third instalment, maybe even a fourth. In Stahelski, the budding franchise is in confident hands and can be assured it will continue to be the new bar for action movie finesse going forward.
Fantana Score: 7.5