John Wick: Chapter 2

Turns out sad Keanu is pretty easy to piss off. Keanu Reeves, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane and Academy Award nominee Laurence Fishburne star in John Wick: Chapter 2.

John Wick Chapter 2Cast of Characters:
John Wick – Keanu Reeves
Cassian – Common
The Bowery King – Laurence Fishburne
Santino D’Antonio – Riccardo Scamarcio
Ares – Ruby Rose
Charon – Lance Reddick
Abram Tarasov – Peter Stormare
Helen Wick – Bridge Moynahan
Julius – Franco Nero
Aurelio – John Leguizamo
Winston – Ian McShane

Director – Chad Stahelski
Screenplay – Derek Kolstad
Producer – Basil Iwanyk & Erica Lee
Rated R for for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity

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Following the events of the first film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is approached by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), with a request to kill his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who he believes stole his rightful place at the “High Table” – a council of high-level crime lords. This is no ordinary offer, though, since D’Antonio holds a “marker” that makes John obligated to accept the request; however, John still refuses, causing D’Antonio to destroy his home.

I have a feeling that might not have been a good idea.

Of course, John would love to move on and retire, but a visit to his friend Winston (Ian McShane) confirms to him that he must honor the marker if he’s to remain in good standing with the Continental – the shadowy crime syndicate of which he’s a member. This means jumping back into the game, but it’s not the smooth reunion he wishes it could be when he sees just how many adversaries are looking to take him out.

And not for dinner… unless dinner to them means a bullet to the head.

John Wick was one of the pleasant surprises of 2014. Despite not getting a big push from the studio, it earned critical praise, box office success and reinvigorated Keanu Reeves’s stagnant career. All three results were pretty much a guarantee that a sequel would be in the works, and both directors Chad Stahelski, David Leitch and writer Derek Kolstad left more than enough room for further exploration in the world they had established to justify such a sequel. Roughly two and a half years later, that sequel has finally arrived, and it is quite the non-stop thrill ride.

The beauty of this franchise so far is that is that it knows what it’s supposed to do and does it extremely well. Both Stahelski and Kolstad are back as director and writer, respectively (though not co-directing this time, David Leitch does return as an executive producer), and right off the bat, they deliver the goods spectacularly, opening with John Wick retrieving his car in an exciting, superbly shot sequence that piles on the body-count and turns more than its share of vehicles into motorized punching bags.

XXX: Return of Xander Cage, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and similarly inept action films should take notes ’cause this is how you craft an action picture.

Coming from a stunt choreography background, Stahelski has shown both in John Wick and now this film that he clearly knows how to craft an action film. The difference from those that are great in their respective areas yet still fail the transition to director (e.g., Wally Pfister, a great cinematographer, whose directorial debut Transcendence is great looking but disappointingly awful in nearly every other aspect) is that Stahelski never overplays his hand and focuses strictly on his strengths. The action sequences are an absolute feast for the eyes, a combination of beautifully detailed set design, expert choreography, much of which is performed by star Keanu Reeves himself, and nifty camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Dan Laustsen. And it’s not just the way they’re constructed either. Stahelski could’ve been perfectly content to rest on his laurels and just repeat what he did in the first film, but instead he brings something new to each inventive setpiece he puts on display here (fans of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon will appreciate an obvious reference to the 1973 action film that occurs during the third-act).

As much as the film banks on its breathtaking action, that’s not to say it’s all style and zero substance. Of course, Kolstad’s script isn’t anything particularly deep, but he has created an intriguing world, one that maintains as much a level of grounded realism as it can, inside the mysterious Continental – a safe haven hotel for hitmen that is off limits to the violence they commit on the outside. In the first film, Kolstad gave us just a little taste of this world, while leaving room for expansion later on, and here he digs a little deeper into the inner-workings of the Continental. This isn’t Inception by any means, but it doesn’t have to be either. Kolstad provides just enough world building to keep the story feeling fresh, while also providing moviegoers with much needed, periodic levity breathers from the full-throttle action.

One of the surprising aspects of the first film was how good a number of the performances were, and let’s be honest, John Wick is not really a franchise that requires strong performances. Whatever, though. If strong talent like Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick are fully game for this franchise, then I’m all for it. Chapter 2 again assembles another strong lineup of acting talent, with McShane, Leguizamo and Reddick returning and again delivering fine turns. Franchise newcomer Riccardo Scamarcio is somewhat of a lightweight villain; however, fellow newcomers Common and Ruby Rose compensate Scamarcio’s shortcomings as badass mercenaries targeting Wick.

It should be noted that this is Rose’s third film this year, following the aforementioned, horrible XXX: Return of Xander Cage and the equally horrible Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Go figure, as a deaf mercenary, her best performance is the one where she doesn’t talk. Backhanded compliment aside, she does pull the role off well, and even co-shares one of the more creative action setpieces opposite Keanu Reeves. Kolstad also wisely doesn’t overplay the sign language shtick her character has.

Giving Matrix fans the reunion they’ve been waiting years for, Laurence Fishburne pops up in a brief but fun handful of scenes. Fishburne is smooth, cool and all sorts of charismatic swag as a New York crime lord, and if you think Stahelski and Kolstad are gonna bring together Neo and Morpheus together again for a couple scenes without even one reference to The Matrix, think again. While his appearance is brief, it does hint at a possibly larger role in future installments to come.

Speaking of Neo, Keanu Reeves seems to have found a role that’s perfect for him. I’ve beaten up on his ability, or lack thereof, as an actor before, but in the right role, when handled properly by the right directors, Reeves can be utilized well (The Matrix, Parenthood, Speed, A Scanner Darkly), and he most certainly is here. The great thing about this role is that it doesn’t require range; it only requires presence and physicality. For all the weaknesses Reeves may have as an actor, two strengths he does possess are presence and physicality. For presence, there’s an effective melancholic quality that he’s brought to both film during their quieter moments, and the physicality speaks for itself onscreen. Say what you want about him, what can’t be said is that he doesn’t commit when he switches into action mode. Reeves is most definitely a workhorse when it comes to action, and it’s fortunately paid off in a franchise that is serving him well.

This is a perfect example of a film whose cast and crew understand they’re not making The Godfather, but, unlike many other throwaway action films that are just as braindead in style as they are substance, still take their work seriously and aim to make the best project they can possibly make. Not every film has to be Citizen Kane, but no matter the genre, no film has an excuse to vomit out a half-assed piece of shit onscreen. Thankfully, the cast and crew behind this franchise believe that as well. Those, like me, who have been tired of seeing action films repeat the tired trend of nauseating camera movements and unintelligible quick cuts and are longing for riveting action sequences, the kind that feature long, fluid takes and smoother shots that allow you to see the entire sequence play out, this is your film.

Jam-packed with enough expertly crafted thrills to thoroughly satisfy action junkies, John Wick: Chapter 2 abides by the “proper guide to effective sequels” handbook by upping the action ante and expanding upon the mythology established in the first film. With two strong films now under their belt and room to move the story further into future installments, provided Chad Stahelski, Derek Kolstad and Keanu Reeves play their cards right, this could turn out to be one of the strongest action franchises of the 21st century, maybe even of all-time.

I give John Wick: Chapter 2 an A- (★★★½).

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