REVIEW: John Wick: Chapter 2 [2017]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 122 minutes | Release Date: February 10th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director(s): Chad Stahelski
Writer(s): Derek Kolstad

“Are you here for the Pope?”

The team behind John Wick achieved success with a formula that distilled the prototypical action film down to its main points of entertainment while leaving the fat on the cutting room floor. This is why we moved back and forth through time for some scenes (the result playing out while the road there is experienced in montage) and why the economy of script successfully conveyed a hyper-real state of danger and malice from all involved. We don’t need elaboration on what we just saw and what we just saw is so in character for our badass lead that those who weren’t there don’t either. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) epitomizes “the Boogeyman” and everyone else respects this truth despite knowing they must try to kill him anyway.

This simplicity in construction made the original excitingly unforgettable and surprisingly rich in a mythology learned without ever feeling it was being shoved down our throats. It was enough to meet different characters and see how they interacted with each other to know this secretive world of assassins is held together by very specific rules and code of conduct. An “eye for an eye” concept of retribution is enforced in full to the point of every action having an equal and oftentimes more brutal reaction. You don’t mess with an assassin and fool yourself into thinking revenge won’t come. You don’t “work” within the sanctuary of Winston’s (Ian McShane) hotel The Continental without stiff excommunication penalties. And you never mess with Baba Yaga unless you’re hoping to die.

So Derek Kolstad fleshed out his fantastical universe of hitmen for hire that hide in public and stuntmen turned directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch brought the pain of physical choreography and the beauty of style as substance. To assume they’d be able to strike gold two times in a row, however, seemed slim—especially considering the motivation necessary to pull the infamous Wick out of retirement was very specific to a certain time and place in his life. They needed to make a seemingly random act of violence personal in a way that would also trigger ideas of fate, destiny, and karma. It had to be imperative that Wick would risk everything to see justice done because the unwanted aftermath of his resurfacing would be unavoidable.

This is where John Wick: Chapter 2 arrives as less a sequel than continuation. Kolstad is for all intents and purposes being provided two additional hours with which to color between the lines and add detail to the blueprint of backstory he already provided with Chapter 1. Stahelski returns to keep the visual style intact (although the brilliant use of an eclectic soundtrack as emotional barometer to pump us up is glaringly absent) and the cast follow right along. It isn’t a fully formed entity, but a bridge to enhance what we know and what’s coming next (Chapter 3 is already in development). Chapter 1 gave us characters and atmosphere; Chapter 2 gives us the world in which they play. Their Church of Death is officially revealed.

It’s all overly dramatic with a High Table of international branches looking down from their Mount Olympus at the thousands of assassins beholden to their rules below. And it is thousands as the scope of this underbelly is shown to be more than a few high rollers staying at The Continental for sanctuary and roaming the streets for bounty. There are ancient traditions, seats of authority, and a long-standing culture of betrayal on behalf of the weak and loyalty from the strong. Everything is learned thanks to Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio)—the male heir of a respected family within this “church” whose sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) inherited their father’s chair instead of him. Santino holds a marker from Wick indebting him if ever he began shooting again.

This education is Chapter 2‘s goal as the plot is hardly riveting beyond where it takes Wick. He simply must stay alive: swallow his pride and do a job for Santino and then survive the inevitable double-cross earned by either victory or defeat. This provides a series of high-impact, precision battles of gunplay and fistfights to enjoy on a purely visceral level as the underlying machinations of Winston in Wick’s favor and Santino as potential usurper of power unfold. Phones start ringing and random people on the streets are activated to take John out. Santino’s deaf lieutenant Ares (Ruby Rose) and Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) want him gone; outliers like the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) arrive as spectators weighing their options before backing one horse over the other.

Production design is once again impeccable with royal accommodations and myriad supporting roles toeing the line between ultra severe and comically nuanced. Lance Reddick shines as the scene-stealing Continental concierge Charon, his affinity and respect for Wick never contradicting his duty to the rules. New addition Peter Serafinowicz as the sommelier of weaponry delivers a wonderfully dry yet excitable outfitter of destruction. Gerini’s Gianna continues the level of austere devotion to the lifestyle and self-pride in traversing it with which Willem Dafoe injected in Chapter 1. Fishburne is a bit over-the-top at times, but it works considering his character is fiercely independent despite keeping a pulse on the assassins’ world. And McShane’s calm autonomy is the perfect foil to Scamarcio’s tantrum-infused entitlement with Wick caught between.

Stahelski and Kolstad are all about giving these actors room to chew scenery and beat the living hell out of each other. So while it’s ostensibly setup for the all-out war promised by Chapter 3, this installment still leaves you breathless through sheer ambition. Reeves was born for this role and embraces it with every fiber of his being to engage in violent car chases, merciless sparring sessions, and bullet ballets leaving him anything but unscathed. There are two heavyweight match-ups between his Wick and Common’s Cassian that will bruise you in your seat and multiple instances of abrupt comic relief to ensure we don’t find ourselves bored by the whirlwind of non-stop action. Behavior is more professional than personal this outing, but just as uncompromising.

This is one case where the “bigger is better” mindset for sequels works to compensate for any shortcomings of the story. When you’re in it you don’t notice just how little is actually happening and when you leave you find yourself not caring because you came for the stylish action and weren’t disappointed. The filmmakers drop you in as though you never left (save a few lines repeated from the original to ground newcomers before the film itself rejects them as superfluous to ardent fans) and never waste a second with words implicitly spoken through expression. It’s kill-or-be-killed within a stringent hierarchy of checks and balances to keep order and not shake-up the status quo of shadowy life in plain sight. Escape forever but a dream.

[1] Keanu Reeves stars as ‘John Wick’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise
[2] Riccardo Scamarcio stars as ‘Santino D’Antonio’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise
[3] Ruby Rose stars as ‘Ares’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

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