IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 122 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After tracking down and collecting his stolen Mustang, former hitman John Wick is visited by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio. In order to complete his “impossible task” of retiring and getting married, John once asked for a big favour from D’Antonio. The debt was signified by a “Marker,” and D’Antonio now plans to collect. John refuses to return the favour, intending to retire for good, but D’Antonio destroys his home with a grenade launcher as a warning. Wick’s mentor Winston reminds him that if he rejects the Marker, he will be violating one of the two unbreakable rules of the underworld: the Markers must be honoured. Wick meets with D’Antonio who tells him to kill his sister Gianna so he can take her seat on the “High Table,” a council of high-level criminals….
Just Keanu Reeves saying “You wanted me back, I’m back”, delivered with all that peculiarly awesome woodenness that he’s so good at, in the trailer for John Wick: Chapter 2 was enough to get those of us who enjoyed the original 2014 action hit more than a bit excited. Now I know that our webmistress Bat was a huge fan of the first movie. I liked it a lot: to many older action fans like myself the movie was a breath of fresh air in a genre which nowadays seems to be dominated by watered down violence, CGI, and action sequences comprised of loads of tiny edits so you can’t see who’s doing what and to whom and where. I liked the tantalising glimpses of a yakuza-type criminal underworld, the sly irony [Wick doesn’t go on a roaring rampage of revenge because of the death of his wife, but because of the death of his dog], the rough and ready nature of Wick’s fighting style – two thirds jujitsu, one third a bit of everything else including street brawling….I liked a great deal of things in the film. But I also felt that it could have been a lot better, that was just a little bit lacking, that it seemed like a bit like a dry run for a much improved sequel. And now that much improved sequel has arrived, a sequel which should be held up as doing many of the things a sequel should do. It explores further the world of the first film. It delivers more, bigger and better action without sacrificing the slight ‘independent’ movie feel the first one had. It’s more brutal but also funnier. It brings back some familiar beats from the original and provides much of what fans loved about it, but goes down a few different paths. Yep, to use a cheesy and overused term, John Wick: Chapter 2 – for much of the time anyway – rocks.
“If anything, the stories about him have been watered down” says Russian mobster Abram Tarasov – brother of Viggo and uncle of Iosef from the first film – to one of his lackeys, a line which tells us that this film is entirely aware of its own absurdity but will stop short of actually taking the piss. Tarasov immediately finds out if this is true or not as Wick comes for his car which is in Tarasov’s garage, resulting a great car and bike chase and a spot of fighting, a sequence where I felt like cheering. Real stunts! No shakycam! A hero who, in the middle of having a set-to with an opponent, is just as likely to do an ‘Indiana Jones’ and pull out a gun and blow the other guy away as he is to carry on fighting. If anything Wick is even more unrestrained in his viciousness this time – in one bit he knocks someone down in his car and the guy, though slowly walking, is clearly severely injured and harmless, yet Wick has another run at him and smashes his body against a wall. His toughness is taken to often ludicrous proportions in this movie though – throughout he’s constantly shot and you see the blood but he doesn’t seem to be actually hurt that much, and he’s even knocked down by a car several times but gets up immediately.
As before, Wick doesn’t want to become an assassin again and is content living a simple life with his new dog, but is forcibly drawn back in. Santino D’Antonio says that if Wick kills his sister than he will be left alone, but straight away we know that’s not going to be true, and this is one film where – however cool its hero may look dispatching people – the business Wick’s in is definitely not glorified and is presented as a labyrinthine trap which nobody can extricate him or herself from. Wick goes to Rome to do the deed, and finds his target at a night club situated above some convenient catacombs. There’s so much cool stuff in the next 15 minutes that I begun to lose count of all the bits I loved. A terrific handheld [but not shaky] backwards tracking shot for ten seconds or so as Wick shoots down bad buy after bad guy. After much build up, the techno music eventually kicking in as the action begins and the crowd cheering as Wick somehow ends up on the stage. And what we think is going to be a murder, than a fight, turning into something different and even moving as the scene ends with a rather beautifully shot death in a swimming pool that the likes of Dario Argento and Nicolas Winding Refn would be jealous of [apparently this scene has been cut by the BBFC so the film got a ‘15’ certificate, though it’s been edited down very unobtrusively].
Derek Kolstad’s screenplay provides a few genuine surprises in the first half, though what plot the film has is almost over an hour or so in and the rest of it, which has more than a touch of Bourne despite the camera remaining steady, consists of little more than an infinite number of assassins [they are everywhere in this film] going after Wick with generally predictable results. Still, the amount of mayhem, often taking place against white backgrounds so the spattering blood stands out more, just about compensates. High points are a terrific brawl between Wick and a bad guy played by rapper Common, Wick using a pencil in a way that would make the Joker jealous, and the most visually interesting climax I’ve seen in some time, set in a strange modern art exhibition where the blue and red-emphasising look that’s been dominating the whole film [much like the first] reaches really rather interesting peaks. It’s possibly inspired by the finale to Enter The Dragon, which itself probably derived from the ending of The Lady From Shanghai, but is very cleverly put together and a reminder that screen action, be it Tony Jaa running up that endless spiralling ramp absolutely smashing the hell out of anything thing that moves in one single steady-cam shot, Reeves [again] endlessly pursuing Patrick Swayze through houses, or Jackie Chan using the Eight Drunken Gods to defeat his rival – can be as artistic and pure as anything else the cinema can do.
Of course it’s all pretty daft and unbelievable, though there seemed to me to be more internal logic than there was in the first one where – for example – Wick seemed to go from being a smart character to kind of a careless one when he lets Viggo live only for him to pay terribly for his mistake ten minutes later. I liked the way these organisations use old technology – it’s quite a sensible idea that they use stuff that’s harder to hack or look into, what with governments probably even now looking at our emails and our texts. We get even more of a sense of a complex criminal underworld with its intricate rules, regulations and rituals. Much of the film’s humour is to be found here, such as the way Wick is given various weapons as if he’s being measured up for a suit, or a fight between Wick and an opponent ending up in one of the organisation’s hotels where no violence can be committed, and the person there calmly says to them: “May I recommend a visit to the a bar….to calm yourselves”……whereupon the two go and buy each other a drink! On the other hand this must also be one of the bloodiest ‘15’ rated films ever [even with one scene cut]; there’s no way that the number of gory head shots, for a start, would have got past a ’15’ ten years ago. I decided to be really ‘sad’ and count the number of Keanu kills in this movie. I ended up with 121, but I reckon I missed a few.
Reeves uses his deadpan charisma to its best advantage – maybe he’s still not much of an actor but this suits the part – it’s entirely believable that Wick is emotionally stiff, a guy who has killed hundreds of people and had lost his wife and his home. Minimal editing reveals that Reeves is doing most of his own stunts too. Sadly his reunion with Laurence Fishbourne is virtually wasted as Fishbourne only has a couple of scenes, and Ian McShane’s character isn’t in the film nearly enough either, though McShane has a brilliant few seconds of subtle acting right at the end where his character does something that he doesn’t want to but knows he must – look out for it. Despite returning director Chad Stahelski operating this time without creative partner David Leitch, there is a real sense that everyone involved with John Wick: Chapter 2 did their very best to top the first film. It’s even gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dan Lautsen, and the two hour running time totally flies by – in fact it seemed to me to last around 105 mins until I checked IMDB. It very obviously sets things up for John Wick: Chapter 3 – and I want it now.