Saturday, 18 February 2017

Guest review: John Wick: Chapter 2

EJ Oakley checks out the new John Wick movie. Check out her thoughts after the jump!

“Here we go again,” I thought to myself, as a Russian crime lord got his knickers in a twist onscreen at the mere idea of the movie’s titular character getting anywhere near him. “It’s going to be a complete re-hash of the first movie – one which I didn’t even enjoy all that much – and I’m going to leave disappointed.”

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

The excellent opening fight...
I’m aware that my opinion on the first John Wick movie isn’t one that the majority shares. To me, 101 minutes of gratuitous violence over a dead puppy and a stolen car was hardly quality content; even despite the fact that it was a beautifully-shot movie, and the film’s aesthetic was very much in the vein of Nicolas Winding Refn – one of my all-time favourite directors. My mother enjoyed the movie more than I did; I’ll let that fact speak for itself. But John Wick: Chapter 2 is a completely different creature from its predecessor. It comes armed with a gripping plot (and not just a mere semblance of one), a grittier soundtrack, even better cinematography (big ups to DOP Dan Laustsen), and an unexpectedly healthy dose of humour. Also, the dog doesn’t die in this one. What could be better?

You wouldn’t be able to say that my initial fears about this movie were unfounded, though; given my doubts about the first one. At the end of John Wick, Keanu Reeves’ lean mean killing machine has successfully exacted revenge on the killer of his puppy – having massacred not only the killer, but also his father, and everyone else remotely connected to them. John Wick: Chapter 2 opens where we’d last left our titular hero – angry as ever, and still missing his car. “If this movie takes after the first one,” I pondered, “I’ll be sitting through another 101 minutes of gratuitous violence; this time only over a stolen car.” The thought was hardly a pleasant one, even though this was a free preview screening, and worse come to worst I could have just stolen my friend’s popcorn to keep me entertained.
But, as I said, this was not what happened. My expectations were completely and utterly superseded. The resolution of Wick’s car woes takes up no more than the first ten or fifteen minutes, and from that point on, viewers are thrown straight into the deep end. The pleasant conversation Wick has with his trusty mechanic friend is the last (and perhaps only) bit of lightness in the film, before writer Derek Kolstad decided to make like his main character and proceed with all guns blazing. 
Shortly after the car is towed away, Italian mafia mogul Santino D’Antonio (played by the admittedly very attractive Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at Wick’s door, calling in a favour owed in return for helping with Wick’s “impossible task” from several years ago – accomplishment of which allowed him to retire from assassin-hood, before the events of John Wick pulled him back into the fray. Keanu Reeves does a wonderful job at portraying Wick’s weary, almost mournful apathy – a skill that was apparent in him since the glory days of the Sad Keanu meme – as he repeatedly refuses the job.
Ares in the mirror maze...

However, D’Antonio has other ideas. Taking a leaf out of Wick’s own book, he torches the beautifully-designed minimalist home (hurting me and my designer sensibilities deeply in the process) with a grenade launcher. This leaves Wick to seek shelter at the Continental Hotel; an international safe haven for the world’s most wanted, which viewers of the first movie will fondly recognise.
Also returning are Lance Reddick as Charon, the Continental’s beloved concierge (who provided brilliant comic relief in one of the first movie’s best action scenes); and Ian McShane as Winston the manager, whose role is greatly expanded on following the first movie. Instead of simply hovering on the sidelines like in John Wick, Winston’s character is developed as an advisor and sternly paternal figure for not only Wick, but D’Antonio, and almost every other significant character who crosses the Continental’s grand carpeted foyer. Acting in this capacity, he coerces Wick into taking the job and settling his debts once and for all so he can retire for good. Reluctant as ever, Wick travels to Rome with a view to killing Santino’s sister Gianna, whose place at the High Table (an international crime syndicate) Santino is eager to usurp. Of course, an action movie is nothing without danger approaching on all sides – besides having to contend with Gianna’s formidable bodyguard (and old friend) Cassian, Wick is also set upon by Santino’s men in a betrayal bent on covering up “loose ends”. And so unfolds the rest of John Wick: Chapter 2 – a rip-roaring tale of interminable violence; culminating in an explosive and unexpected twist that will leave even the most jaded viewers (like myself) anxiously awaiting Chapter 3.

John Wick: Chapter 2 vastly improved on the flaws I found inherent in its predecessor, but also kept all the best bits; hitting the sweet spot between re-hash and reinvention. The quirky neon WordArt-style subtitles return with a vengeance (is it just me or are the emphasised words brighter than ever?), as does every single character’s penchant for saying “Meester Wick” in overly dramatic, yet somehow tongue-in-cheek, tones. The humour doesn’t stop at subtlety, though – Chapter 2 also provides viewers with a good amount of overt laughs. A scene where an assassin undercover as a raving homeless man lured two men in by asking for spare change, only to shoot them with a silenced pistol hidden beneath his coat, had me in hysterics for far too long, much to the annoyance of the people seated behind me. There is plenty more schadenfreude to be had over the course of the movie; providing good relief where tension may sometimes run a bit too high.

Common as a vicious bodyguard...
But the truly winning quality about Chapter 2 was its absolutely stellar development of the dark crime underbelly so integral to the first movie, both people-wise and concept-wise. In John Wick, wholly refreshing concepts such as the Continental (the crime world’s Premier Inn equivalent, except with chandeliers and paid for in oversized gold coins) were simply presented on a plate for the viewer to accept as a convenient reality in Wick’s life. The sequel manages to beef up most of its peripheral characters with actual personalities – a drastic improvement from the first movie. Remember Perkins? Case in point. It also cleverly uses the unique aspects about the world set up by the first movie, both for and against all those who populate it, by taking everything that was established in John Wick and subsequently turning it all on its head. Although some scenes were bordering on implausible in their complete lack of subtlety (in particular, some fight scenes, and the very end of the film), the plot was ultimately enthralling, and atoned for the first movie’s flaws by providing more than adequate justification for the odyssey of violence that Wick embarks on. I can’t provide any more details – I am a sincere believer in writing spoiler-free movie reviews unlike some – all I can add is, if you see the movie, you’ll know what I mean.

In terms of character development, Winston the manager is not the only one who benefits from being given a substantial personality. Keanu Reeves’ excellent portrayal of John Wick is much easier to empathise with as an unwilling participant in the crime world’s games, since audiences are given more to go on than just a couple of tearfully loving flashbacks to better times with his deceased wife – a la Pixar’s Up. Common gives a solidly nuanced performance as Cassian, a stoic bodyguard ruefully torn between avenging his charge and his former friendship with Wick. Even Gianna D’Antonio, a character who is in the movie for all of ten minutes, could spark heated debates about whether her actions amounted to egoism, cowardice, or perhaps even indifference.

Fate is cruel...
The only one who misses out on the party is suave, shrewd Ares – D’Antonio’s mute bodyguard who is as deadly as they are silent – played by Ruby Rose (of Orange is the New Black fame) as gracefully as a character with no lines can be played. A figure as intriguing as Ares receiving virtually no screentime (especially compared to Laurence Fishburne’s mildly irrelevant homeless informant ring overlord, the Bowery King) felt unjust. While it’s arguable that Fishburne’s character is part of the setup for another sequel and therefore required, it still doesn’t excuse the well-known habit of introducing a token disabled character just to sprinkle some diversity onto a movie’s cast of characters. With Ares, Kolstad seems to have committed the same sin that the writers of Kingsman: The Secret Service did with Gazelle – create a vicious sidekick for a villain, give them some form of disability, and then fail to give them any meaningful presence in the movie whatsoever apart from a general role as hired gun. Not only does this mark one of Chapter 2’s biggest flaws in my opinion, but also a worrying trend in movies today that seems to be on the rise.

Errors aside – and what movie doesn’t have errors? – John Wick: Chapter 2 is, at the end of the day, a thoroughly enjoyable action flick. Still brimming with wonderfully choreographed, high-octane violence, and no longer lacking a decent plot or empathetic characters; it is a more-than-worthy successor to the series’ first installment. If John Wick: Chapter 3 and the purportedly upcoming TV show keep this trend of improvement up, I might just become the series’ biggest fan. And, much like the trials and tribulations that the franchise’s eponymous character has faced; that is definitely coming a long way.
'John Wick: Chapter 2' gets 4 stars!

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