REVIEW: John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

I didn’t get John Wick until the first ten minutes of Chapter 2 explained it to me. I blame it on exhaustion – I was tired of vengeance.  Specifically that aging, old-but-not-too-old-to-forget-you-were-once-a-highly-trained-assassin sort of vengeance revived almost single-handedly by Liam Neeson in Taken.  For a while there it seemed every actor just north of the cusp to headline a superhero movie became a former operative with a shadowy past and an unwitting family of cannon fodder/plot points. Keanu Reeves is certainly at the younger end of the spectrum and John Wick is the most energetic example by a dubstep-fueled country mile, but I didn’t see it as much more.  It hinted at an interesting world of honor-bound assassins and bullet-hell boogeymen, but it was still another retired gunman with nothing left to lose. Then the bad guys stole his car and killed his dog.

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Chapter 2 opens with John still on the hunt for his precious 1969 Mustang.  He wages a one-man warpath to a rain-slicked (everything in this movie is rain-slicked) chop shop owned by the always welcome Peter Stormare, playing a relative to the original’s big bad.

As Wick shoots, stabs and fractures his way into the compound, Stormare tells one of his subordinates the story of the so-called Boogeyman.  He wiped out an entire crime family on his own. For no payment. For no contract.  Why?  Because the bad guys stole his car and killed his dog.

And just like that, it all made sense.

John Wick is the logical extreme of not-retired-yet thrillers. The greatest assassin the world will ever know set off by the smallest plausible slights. It is ultimately a small-scale story about a living legend proving his reputation.

But John Wick: Chapter 2 is something else entirely.  It is the action movie primordial, starring the action hero immortal.  John is no longer a living legend, but the grim reaper himself, begrudgingly forced back into the business of mass, swift death.

And boy-oh-boy is business booming.

Chapter 2 sidesteps the same-story-different-day pitfalls of the Taken franchise and gives up on the revenge business right away.  John and his new dog, a lovable meathead he never gives a name, are peacefully retired.

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Until an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio, shows up with a silver marker, the first of Chapter 2‘s maddeningly compelling additions to the mythology.  In the assassin game, a marker is a literal blood oath sworn to another, good for one favor, any favor, and voided only in death.  D’Antonio happens to hold the marker John used to retire the first time, when he thought he could live a simple life with his wife.

But that was before she died, his car was stolen, his dog put down and no fewer than fifty Russian mobsters were killed as penance.

D’Antonio left John alone to retire, but it certainly doesn’t look like he’s retired anymore. The favor? Kill D’Antonio’s sister so he can inherit his rightful seat on a council of the world’s criminal organizations.

John says the unthinkable. John says it’s impossible.

But he has no choice. And away we go.

One of my problems with the original, and its genre in general, is a lack of deadly suspense. We know nobody can actually kill John Wick. He’s just too good. If he wasn’t that good, there wouldn’t be a movie. So the entertainment lies mainly in how he, in turn, kills everybody else.

I can appreciate that. I love Commando as much, if not more, than the next guy.

But John Wick felt a bit flat at times because of it. When John wasn’t killing anybody (which admittedly wasn’t often), the movie tended to slack.

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Chapter 2 almost immediately fixes the problem.  The suspense doesn’t rest in whether John lives or dies. Of course he lives. But the movie throws a series of openly admitted no-win scenarios at him, and the audience is left tapping their feet, trying to puzzle out how he could possibly survive given the odds, even though we know he absolutely will.

It’s arresting. It’s delightful. It casts John Wick as a celibate, sleek James Bond and it fits him better than either of his tactical, bulletproof suits, the one for day and the one for night. He travels to picturesque Rome, mingles with old comrades-turned-enemies and even consults a charmingly ambiguous Q-type on the latest hardware.  While he doesn’t have the ultimately heroic aims of 007, it’s a direction I hope the franchise continues.

Because it absolutely wipes the floor with Bond and all his contemporaries when it comes to the action.

The centerpiece sequence is John’s assassination of D’Antonio’s well-guarded sister at a well-guarded concert in a well-guarded Roman amphitheater which just happens to sit over unguarded catacombs.  I don’t want to reveal any of the action, but it is perhaps one of the best video game levels I’ll never get to play.

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John kills a couple dozen nameless thugs with an array of guns he’s hidden or stolen, hides momentarily for his health to seemingly regenerate, then runs when the next wave of enemies shows up and kills a couple dozen more.

The end result is something between ballet and Looney Tunes.  Perhaps Chapter 2‘s greatest trick is instilling a sense of humor among the headshots.

Early on, Wick proves he doesn’t waste time or energy with a callback to Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s quickly dispatched Cairo swordsman.  At another point, he aims a shotgun at some poor bastard, pulls the trigger, notices he’s out of ammo, pins the guy to the floor with the barrel, reloads as he’s down there and fires as soon as a shell is chambered. Later, John and new nemesis, Cassian (Common), trade silenced shots over ignorant heads in a busy NYC subway terminal, hiding the muzzle flares with their coats. Every time he ran out of ammo and just whipped his gun at the next future-corpse’s head I couldn’t help but laugh.

This movie sets the bar in its opening minutes – hyperkinetic action, razor-sharp direction, a bizarre yet believable mythology of assassins, heavy-hitting character actors you wish would stick around longer and one of the most game leads the genre’s ever seen – and keeps raising it with every gunshot.  And let me tell you – some real-world conflicts have spent fewer bullets than this movie.

John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t just enrich its predecessor; it surpasses it in almost every way. It’s more exciting, more compelling and more fun.  My only real complaint is that it sets up a crazier sequel with the odds stacked impossibly against John.

And I just don’t know how that’s possible.  But I do know this.

I’ll be first in line to find out.

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