Friday, 17 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 review

I checked in to the Continental for Chad Stahelski's ultraviolent sequel to 2014's sleeper hit/cult movie... Check it out after the jump!

Look at dat aesthetic
Can we all agree that the first 'John Wick' was really, really good? I think we can.... Even if some of us seem to think it's the best action movie since 'The Raid', and others think it's just a hell of a lot better than 'Jason Bourne'. However, it didn't seem to merit a sequel - Wick had his dog killed, and he went on a vicious rampage until he had eviscerated those responsible: a self-contained story. But, yes, success gives a certain kind of encouragement to breed more success - and thus 'John Wick: Chapter 2' was born. Sequels are very tricky things to pull off. Well, I thought, Keanu Reeves can kiss his critical comeback goodbye.

I now see I was wrong.

If 'John Wick' was 'The Raid'; this would be 'The Raid 2' - eschewing the original's simple premise and emotional heft for a more complex, far reaching, and visually exciting spectacle. Indeed, although we open on a car chase and brutal fight scene - these serve only to wrap up the final loose ends of the first film. After this, Wick seems to genuinely believe he's free from the shackles of his previous life. That is, until Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) enters his life. Armed with a grenade launcher, and a sacred bargain from many years earlier, he ushers Wick into a world of political intrigue - an assassination attempt to unseat key members of the hitman inner-circle (more on that later).
More awesome than awesome

But, of course, that's not all - after the victim does the deed for him, Santino puts out an exorbitant hit on the titular character - leading him with nowhere to hide as we see the full extent of the syndicate of assassins. This time, Wick is fighting for his life - rather than simply trying to decimate a gangster empire (hah, 'simply').

There's far more copious violence here than in what we've seen before. Wick decimates almost twice the number of bad guys this time around, with an improved arsenal - and for a much longer portion of the run-time. There's a shootout at an avant-garde Roman ruins concert; through the streets and subways of New York; and in an elaborate modern-art mirror maze in a gallery. It's almost fetishistically brutal - with head explosions comically exaggerated; and a visualization of that pencil stabbing that we've all been waiting for for so long (no, it does not disappoint). The final shootout - if I'm not mistaken - must have taken a good 10-15 minutes; and the sprawling concert/club/catacombs fight in Rome must be a good 20/25, all things considered. So, yeah, it's a film filled with senseless action - but senseless action in the 'gun-fu hell yeah' type of way rather than the bloodless shaky-cam kind of way... You'll have to give up your morals for around two hours, however, as almost all of the enjoyment, humor, and progression in the film comes from feeling a sense of enjoyment about mostly-innocent hordes of bodyguards being dismembered in all kinds of horrific ways. Just try not to think about the fact that they probably have wives and kids, eh...

You'll also have to really enjoy that type of film, or at least not be opposed to it. If 'The Raid', or 'Hardcore Henry' catapulted you into the bored zone, then 'John Wick: Chapter 2' is probably not the film for you. Relentless fight scenes that stretch over the 15 minute mark are, after all, not everyone's cup of tea.

Morpheus? Is that you?
A lot more expansion on the mythology behind the Hotel Continental, and the hitman world follow to boot - a wise move, I should think, given that this was one of the stand out parts of the first venture. Stahleski decides to play a reverse-convention move and set up all of the mythology here, rather than have it in the original, which mostly works. A network of hotels? Sure I can believe that. A comms center and leadership board? I can believe that? A blood currency of favors? Erm... sure... But perhaps the various images of hundreds of New Yorkers receiving the hitman text messages prove to be rather unbelievable. And how the hell does EVERYONE know John Wick by appearance? Not a problem I suppose, given this IS the same film in which one guy can take on thousands of professional killers and live to tell the tale... And, as well as this, I think we still have a lot to learn in the third movie - given that as of now we only know the vaguest of customs in low detail.

It's also pretty funny in many cases. The fight scenes themselves are loaded with sight-gags. For instance, in one instance, Wick and another character come to the resolution of a fight just as they crash through the windows of the Continental - and are forced to walk amiably to the bar and have a drink together (remember: rule number one is no business on Continental grounds). This makes for surreal and hilarious viewing. In another, a man has his dick cut off on a pristine white train platform as an automated voice reads to 'report all suspicious activity to a member of staff'. And, indeed, by the time Lawrence Fishbourne's faking-homeless assassin cult shows up, we're in full on camp territory ('Your descent into hell begins here'). And Franco Nero plays the owner of the Italian Continental. Franco. Goddamn. Nero. The most stereo-typically Italian (albeit completely awesome) actor in existence.  But it's all in the spirit of a totally unbelievable action film - filled with stereotypical Russian mobsters, Italian mafia, and a shootout in a fucking art gallery. Take it as it is please, and don't go expecting a side of social reasoning with your big fat juicy fucking burger.

In da cluuub...
And, yes, it looks a lot nicer than the first one. And you all know how much of a sucker I am for nice looking movies. Whereas in the initial venture we simply had the club scene to aesthetic orgasm to; now we have a concert in ruins, 'Only God Forgives'-lit catacombs, a classical art gallery, the neon-tinged streets of New York at night; and the aforementioned mirror maze, which when combined with revolving mirrors and a surreal automated voice really presents a consciously stylistic highlight. The stylized subtitles are back. Are they tacky? Do stylized subtitles lower the artistic merit of a movie? Perhaps just a little; you have to remember that those subtitles shape the corny aesthetic of parts of the 'John Wick' films. If a modern, subdued font was used then I think we'd actually be discussing this film under different terms. An interesting thought, but, then again, some people like what they've done a lot. Each to their own, I suppose.

There are some little flaws here and there. Keanu Reeves is a bad-ass, a nice guy, and very funny in interviews - but he can't act. This isn't so much of a problem when he's slicing and dicing his way through New York, but when he has to say lines (such as 'I'll kill them, I'll kill them all') it comes off as a little comedic due to the seeming inability to portray emotion. Another mistake, and a far bigger one at that, is Ruby Rose's Ares - a deaf mute bodyguard. Although the scenes of subtitled sign language are pretty cool, Rose does an awful job of trying to remain convincing - putting on a series of exaggeratedly camp and over-serious facial expressions for practically the whole movie, which comes off as incredibly stupid. She's a decent fighter, but in the world of John Wick, we know she's gonna die - and there's no two ways about it. Therefore, a character needs to be something more than capable of swinging a punch. Also - going out on a limb here - wouldn't Ares be an awful fighter anyways; not being able to hear and all? The soundtrack, for me, was not really up to scratch. In the scenes where there was music, it was usually inaudible due to the fighting; the Italian concert song was an interesting choice, but had no real melody to get behind; and there's a lack of identity to the soundscape save for the theme tune. At times it seems like it wants to be 'Bond' - and at others 'Kingsman'. Please make your mind up.

Nail-biting action...
But these flaws are beyond outweighed by the benefits - in fact,  they're completely obliterated by them. Expect the unexpected here, ladies and gentlemen, because there are some true surprises that await you in this sequel. Of course, it would be silly to spoil them here - as they wouldn't be surprises. But lets just say at one moment I was honestly shocked beyond words. You'll know when you see it.

In fact, as you can see by now, there's a direct formula to how 'John Wick: Chapter 2' works its magic perfectly. It takes a sleeper hit, and distills it to the very materials that made it so special - and giving us a double shot of that spirit rather than diluting it with mixer. As a result, we get more of the neon lighting; more of the eye-popping violence; and a deeper understanding of a complex mythology. Hell, this is one meaningful stare away from a Refn movie - or perhaps late Korine. Please don't take that last comment as a negative...

Common as a fellow hitman...
By the time the credits roll, 'John Wick: Chapter 3' has been effectively confirmed - and what a challenge it extends to any masochistic director: to take on a critically acclaimed franchise and perhaps bring it to a conclusion. That conclusion will have to be more beautiful, bloodier, and something else entirely in order to surpass the two films that have come before. That's a hard task in itself, but with the story-line set up in the concluding moments of the film, it'll have to be a miracle. The stakes are going to be higher, the odds are going to be even worse for Wick; and we could have what will prove a very sad ending indeed to this trilogy... Good luck to them, but for now, we can bask in the glory of this second chapter, and all the goods of a perfect action blockbuster.

And, no, the dog doesn't die. You can sleep tonight.
'John Wick: Chapter 2' gets 4 stars!

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