2017 | rated R | starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common, Ruby Rose | directed by Chad Stahelski | 2 hrs 2mins |
Studio Pitch: The continuing adventures of everyone’s favorite action-man assassin John Wick.
After John Wick‘s night club shoot-out sequence blew a lot of people away, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch divided up their time and trademark action style resulting in two 2017 movies “from the director of John Wick“, Atomic Blonde and the latest chapter in the John Wick saga John Wick: Chapter 2. Chapter 2 picks up right after the original, with Wick closing the loop on the gang that stole his car after slaughtering the gang that killed his dog. The film requires only the vaguest memory of John Wick (you’ll get Wick staring at photos and flashing back to his dead wife so you know he has a dead wife), instead director Chad Stahelski repositions his action figure from broken man on a revenge spree to silent, brutally efficient assassin working within an elaborate worldwide system. In Chapter 2, he’s just doing the job he does best.
This film is better than the first in every imaginable way. It is a prototypical sequel that expands on the good stuff in the first film while leaving behind the bad. Wick is still the strong silent type and Keanu Reeves plays his 1 dimension with intensity, but now unburdened with the pretense of building an emotional connection to a puppy the movie strides forward into a full-blown, over-the-top hero worship narrative. Wick is the subject of legend in the worldwide assassin community. He’s called the boogeyman in the criminal underworld where they utter hushed stories of how he killed “3 guys with a pencil” and even those stories of his death-personified brutality are “watered down”. The mere mention of his name sends arch mob bosses trembling in fear, hiding in their offices, as Peter Storamore does in the hilarious opening. It’s great.
Stahelski heard the response that we want more night club shoot-outs and delivers here. There are a couple of massive set pieces in the film, plus Reeves and Common having their own little They Live fight. Each of these set pieces is a beautifully, precisely choreographed ballet of gunplay and grappling Judo; and they are captured in delicious-to-behold shots that don’t cut away from the action. Why anyone would put together an action scene with over-edited shaky-cam after the John Wick movies is baffling. We still know little about Wick, but we don’t need to. This movie is style over substance where the style is elevated to pure cinema high art. It’s a gorgeous film with a splashy color palette and the action is thrilling to watch. Chapter 2, like Wick himself is a quick, efficient, streamlined machine of headshots and gun porn with no time for padded back story or characters to flesh out the film’s “demographic appeal”. It’s so refreshing.
As fun and impressive as it’s bone-breaking, no-stop action is, I had a reaction to it that was similar to what some people had to The Raid films, especially The Raid 2. The film is almost too much of a good thing to the point of drawing it out to exhaustion. It has a numbing effect. While Wick faces an increasing battle against a world of assassins, the movie doesn’t work the knobs to escalate that tension. It starts at a 10 and has nowhere else to go. The right filmmaker can make two people talking over dinner intense, but John Wick is less concerned with getting then pulse racing than it is with crafting an acrobatic marvel.
One of the first shots of the film is a projection of a Buster Keaton movie, a tip of the hand on Stahelski’s part to the kind of movie he knows he’s making and the lineage that got us here. He knows the value of photographing his action so that we see Keanu Reeves perform the fighting, just as Buster Keaton knew it was crucial to the comedy for audiences to see him perform the slapstick and stunts. Two filmmakers a century apart who share a value in the illusion of authenticity that makes movie magic. Also like a Steamboat Bill Jr or The Navigator, John Wick: Chapter 2 stands on the visual language of film, often advancing the story and slipping in character beats amid long stretches without dialog.
Chapter 2 one of the best action movies in years. It has everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t. I expected it to scratch the action movie itch, which it does in spades, but I didn’t expect it to be so involved in world building. Chapter 2 builds out the rules of The Continental, the traditions behind the coins and blood debt and how they do business around the world. All this is at the service to the minimalist story, as this time John Wick is called out of retirement by a blood debt that must be paid, rules that even God-like Continental manager Ian McShane is only enforcing. Stahelski doesn’t stay in one place too long and Chapter 2 has no problem clearing the deck for the next film. It is one hell of an intriguing cliffhanger.
It will be hard to top this film, but I can’t wait to watch them try. With both a final John Wick film and a final Raid film coming, it’s a great time to be an action fan.