Movie Review: John Wick Chapter Two
By Ben Gruchow
February 16, 2017
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.
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.