As John Wick Chapter 2 unfolds, we are reminded how narrow the line can be between a very good film and a very bad one. Here is a film moving through an absolutely standard series of plot machinations, wedded to an utterly feverish capacity for impossible set pieces and mannerisms, and communicated with such sharp audiovisual panache as to render my second point an asset and my first point very nearly irrelevant. It’a utterly ludicrous, the type of howlingly grandiose secret-agent mumbo-jumbo stuff that arrives in only our most overbaked fever dreams, yet so much quicker on the draw about it than we are, and so stylistically confident and handsomely-constructed that we cannot help but surrender to it with goodwill and even respect.
Movie Review: John Wick Chapter Two
By Ben Gruchow
February 16, 2017
I have not seen the original 2014 film, but I gather from the sequel’s opening sequence that it concluded with a few loose ends to be tied up. This gives us a painless way to not only introduce the title character (Keanu Reeves), but recap who (or what) John Wick is (a highly-trained hitman, part of the standard shadowy cabal) and why he feels so compelled to extract such violent means of resolution to the conflicts we see him embroiled in. To recall the opening sentence of this review: One of the quickest ways to determine whether you’re seeing a good ridiculous film or a bad ridiculous film is to assess the clarity of the bad guy in the scene. The bad films present the generic Bad Guy qualities and then either try to communicate urgency through hyperactive filmmaking or just let the scene sit there and slowly suffocate. The good ones hire an actor like Peter Stormare, who is incapable of being generic. Stormare plays the criminal head of a chop shop in the opening sequence, holed up in his office while John Wick rains destruction out in the warehouse; his reactions to each new sound suggest an actor keenly aware of their rightful place in the story’s universe, and occupying it cheerfully.
The actual bad guy of John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t quite as charismatic, but he’ll do. He is crime lord Santino D’Antonio, played by Riccardo Scamarcio, and he wants John to come out of retirement and assassinate his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Simple stuff, except Gianna is already a powerful criminal figure, in Rome, surrounded by platoons of armed guards, including other members of the organization John belongs to. No matter; John belongs to the classical model of movie assassins, in God mode by default, able to be anywhere and subdue anyone depending on the needs of the plot. Gianna has no sooner arrived at her inner sanctum in Rome than John pops up in the background holding a gun; the scene that follows is potent not because of its content, which we’ve seen played out countless times before, but because of set design and cinematography and a sinuously graphic, almost sensual act of injury.
It turns out that John has been double-crossed by D’Antonio (the reason being the standard “tying up loose ends”), and what follows are a series of action and combat sequences, more brutal than most. We know where everything is headed, and it seems as if the movie knows we know; so little time is spent allowing for making sure its set pieces take place in a version of the real world that we suspect any allusion to it is the film crossing the right t’s and dotting the right i’s so it can get to the good parts. We do get to enjoy some of the small details: I liked Ian McShane as the manager of a central hotel that seems to board every assassin in the company, and I enjoyed watching John go through a dark-humored variation of the Q sequences in Bond films, where he visits various merchants in Rome for bulletproof suits, guns, blades, blueprints. I particularly enjoyed Peter Serafinowicz as a sommelier; in some disconnected part of my mind, I was watching his scenes while casting about for where I last recognized the actor from, and it hit me: he was the ingenious comic creation from 2015’s Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy. In the alternate universe where all films of this genre are connected, the actor is playing the same character in a slightly different context.
In a universe predicated on professional courtesy among indestructible assassins, D’Antonio remains stubbornly insolent; he double-crosses John and puts out a lucrative contract on his life across all of New York, which spurs a back half where were never quite sure which passersby are or are not trained killers. That's one way to thank a man for a favor, I guess, especially one who’s displayed unfathomable skill and motivation in causing grievous harm to all who cross him and could have easily been recording your sororicidal goals for playback to the High Table themselves. With that kind of foresight, though, we would then be deprived of the presence of Chapter 2’s rogues’ gallery, including Common as a fellow assassin and Gianna’s ward, and Ruby Rose (for the third time in this young year) as D’Antonio’s right-hand accomplice Ares.
Rose is a charismatic actress even in dreck, but this film has her play mute and challenge her to communicate her character with gaze and gesture, and she's thrilling to watch. She has the physicality and presence of an Angelina Jolie, and this time we're actually able to see her. The apotheosis in new cast additions for this sequel, as the trailer has helpfully spoiled for us, is Laurence Fishburne as an old associate of Wick’s, in a manner of speaking. Fishburne is only in the movie for a couple of scenes, and he’s transparently there to give us an unofficial reunion between Neo and Morpheus, but few actors sell a parting command of, “Please someone get this man a gun!” with such gleeful, cat-like anticipation as Fishburne does here. His scenes also provide a momentary respite from the action sequences bookending them, one which is almost languorous in its pacing.
Oh, but now we come to the action sequences. These are played, like the story, with most of the same developments that we’ve seen in spy and assassin movies countless times before…but seldom have any of them executed those moments this well, this consistently. Director Chad Stahelski adopts a style that is not precisely Eastern or Western in influence; he knows the beauty of good stunt work well enough to back off with the camera and simply let the performers act through their choreography in protracted takes, but he also has an affinity for striking, symmetrical movement and precise blocking. The gunfight sequences in this film may number one or two too many - even I began to fidget halfway through the movie’s big climactic sequence, set in an art museum that will absolutely have trouble finding a willing insurer after this movie’s events - but Stahelski at least finds a way to frame the waves of anonymous bad guys in ways that make their entry and often-rapid exit visually interesting, usually having them in the foreground, John reacting to them a split-second before they’re visible. On a strict technical basis, the hand-to-hand and gunfight sequences in this film are the best in years: beautifully staged and lit and paced. Violent, yes (we are well and truly into R territory almost from the first scene), but never exploitative.
That is, ultimately, all the movie really has in its arsenal; I’ve already mentioned that the story and dialogue are merely passengers in a fast and aggressive and well-designed vehicle. As good as the movie is, there is the sense that a better one underneath some of the routine byplay: one where Wick’s psychology is given a fuller exploration than what we get here, without losing the film’s athleticism or its moments of levity. “Whoever comes, I’ll kill them all,” I paraphrase from John in one particularly consequential moment of dialogue, and we realize that most of the deeper shadings of this character are ones we must bring to it. Still, this is by almost any metric a well-crafted action thriller, one that will satisfy its intended audience and most newcomers. I find myself compelled to see the first film to get another excursion into this world, and that’s a high compliment to pay to a sequel.
3.5 out of 5