Wednesday 31 May 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) - Movie Review

2014’s John Wick, one of the first films I covered on this blog, is one that I didn’t give nearly enough credit to the first time around. Largely due to my own inexperience in the art of critique and not knowing how to properly articulate what I think makes for good action beats (neither of which may or may not have improved all that much since), I didn’t end up giving that film its fair due in how stone-cold brilliant it is.
From the sharp-as-a-razor writing that I still struggle to believe isn’t directly based on a pre-existing work, to the excellent fight choreography, the finesse behind the camera, the acting, even the lighting; it is a bona-fide classic film and it finally gave main star Keanu Reeves mainstream recognition that has been long overdue. Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating this although I honestly don’t know how it could improve on the first attempt. Well, they found a way.

The plot: Retired enforcer John Wick (Keanu Reeves), while trying once again to leave his old life behind, is contacted by an old acquaintance. Crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) call in a favour that Wick owes him and asks him to assassinate Santino’s sister, the newly appointed member of the Continental’s higher-ups Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Bound by oath to honour the favour, John Wick sets out once again back into the underworld to settle the matter once and for all. Although, as the night stretches on, it seems that his mission has only just begun.

This is an incredible cast list, both for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Reeves is still amazing as Wick, channelling old-school action bravado like a pro and selling every hushed tone that talks of his past deeds. Scamarcio as the tether that brings Wick back into the underworld plays the dramatic and villainous foil superbly, Ian McShane’s slightly bulkier role as Winston gives him a better chance to exude power and authority over his domain and he grabs it with both hands, and Lance Reddick as the concierge of the Continental Hotel is still as unshakeably professional as ever.
Common and Ruby Rose as two assassins after Wick’s head may not have the best delivery of their lines (although, with the latter, that’s more because she literally doesn’t have any spoken dialogue) perform far better in that capacity than I ever could have expected. Hell, the exchanges between Common and Reeves, both verbal and physical, make for some of the best moments in a film already chock-full of them. Peter Stormare’s early role is incredibly brief but he handles his mountain of exposition and reiterated dialogue from Chapter 1 rather well, and Peter Serafinowicz, again in a small role as a weapons merchant, makes for a strangely engaging presence. Honestly, the only real ‘low’ point in the cast is Laurence Fishburne, and that’s not because he gives a bad performance; dude is really fun as the ruler of what is essentially an underground network of beggars; it’s just that his energy is a little too upbeat for what is largely a rather sophisticated and hardened story, especially at the point where he enters it.

With Chapter 1’s co-director David Leitch having gone off to work on Atomic Blonde as well as the next Deadpool movie (as if I could look forward to either of those films any more than I already am), Chad Stahelski is taking up solo direction duties here. And honestly, even without the technicolour splendour that dotted the original, this still looks absolutely gorgeous. Following two old-school rules of sequels (Bigger body count, more elaborate deaths), the action scenes somehow manage to one-up the impressive display of the last film.
A lot of that is due to the character of John Wick himself who, through both the incredible choreography from Eric Brown and co. and Reeves’ own acting chops, has a very distinct fighting style. He’s cold, efficient and insanely brutal when he needs to be, never wasting a bullet and always re-correcting his actions in response to his foes. In terms of brutality, aside from the myriad of headshots and blood sprays throughout, I’ll just put it like this: Remember the Joker’s pencil trick from The Dark Knight? We get an upgraded version of that here, in quite possibly one of the most enjoyably wince-inducing action beats I’m likely to see all year.
But that’s only half of it; the settings for the fight scenes are just as important and here, they also get a serious upgrade. Extended fire fights in ancient catacombs, fist fights on the subway, a shootout in a house of mirrors that doesn’t feature a single camera reflection (even the best DOPs in the world make mistakes in that department); it’s good to see such action prowess set against locales that are worthy of such epic throwdowns.

And speaking of locales, it’s once again time to get into what is easily my favourite part of the John Wick experience: The world-building. Very few film settings are as distinct and vast as the underworld of John Wick, something that we only got a taste of first time around. Honestly, I initially wrote off the mini-universe the film exists in simply because it was based in New York; no matter what angle you look at it from, it’s always been depicted as its own little concrete universe. Here, we not only go beyond the boundaries of the U.S. to see just how far this world’s borders are, but the details within are made just a little bit clearer. We have a number of distinct locations like the Continental hotels, the coliseum and the tunnels that burrow underneath it, and the rules by which these locations run aren’t explained point-blank to the audience, but rather alluded to in a way you would expect from actual people who don’t need to give exposition to an audience beyond the fourth wall.
The underworld has its own chain of command, rules and regulations that almost everyone adheres to, minor factions that exist around the main action but still have their own impact on the plot, an economy in the form of golden coins; even fantasy films nowadays aren’t this in-depth. And what’s more, this film makes all of these additional pieces of the film’s universe seem dead easy to set up, almost as if every other film should be this well-constructed. And quite frankly, considering the details that are still being tantalised to the audience can inspire literally days of endless discussion, I wouldn’t mind that at all.

Beyond the construction of the world its story lives in, one of the bigger motifs of the writing is one of the Trap. If you’ve ever watched/read/listened to a crime story before, you’ll have likely heard of the Trap before: The depiction of criminal life as something so ingrained in both the locations and the people involved that, once you’re in, you’ll never get back out again. Hell, action movies and even war films use this trope with the main character being brought back into his old life for “one last job”. Indeed, the first film toyed around with this as well, as it showed a very reluctant John Wick carve a bloody path through the underworld to get some sense of satisfaction for what was done to him. Likewise, this film involves him being brought back, albeit more forcefully, into the underworld to kick off the plot.
However here, it enters into somewhat new territory. One of the subtler signs of the world-building at play here is the number of jarringly mundane conversations John has with ‘old friends’, all done in a manner that hints at a far bigger story under the surface. Add to this the expansion of the already oppressive environment John Wick exists in, coupled with how many walls he’s been backed up against by his enemies, and the feeling is rather familiar: Our hero needs to get the hell out of Dodge. However, once we get to the ending, it stops being just standard action film set-up and starts becoming genuinely harrowing, aided by Ian McShane showing just how far the Continental’s influence spreads. It also ends up answering one of the few lingering questions I had in regards to how the underworld hasn’t made front-page news with how much violence comes up to the surface; now I literally have nothing remotely negative to say about this film.

All in all, as a person who loves media that creates rich and captivating worlds for the characters to explore, this is a goddamn god-send. Amazing acting, incredibly visceral and brutal fight scenes and the kind of writing that makes tremendous depth and detail dead easy to pull off, this manages to improve upon the first film in ways I didn’t even think were possible. And just to make things even better, it’s completely accessible to new viewers: Stormare’s opening monologue basically recaps the first film for you, so it’s not absolutely necessary to watch it to make sense of this one. It takes a lot of talent to make a story this layered and expansive, and yet be this open for newcomers; I’ve said it before, but even the bigger franchise properties falter with this.

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