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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 dives deeper into its world, outshining its predecessor

One of my favorite redemptive arcs in comics is Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Born Again" in the pages of Daredevil. The story of a man being utterly torn down to the ground floor of his being, left penniless and seeking vengeance has never been done better in that medium though many have tried to lesser success. But regardless, it's a formula that generally works well, and in his return trip to the world of John Wick, Chad Stahelski (now helming solo with his co-director for the previous entry, David Leitch, moving on to other projects) utilizes it in a way that refreshes this burgeoning franchise and points towards an intriguing future for where it can go next.

I moderately appreciated the initial John Wick film. It was a good fit to display the still vibrant action chops of Keanu Reeves, while minimizing his performance weaknesses through dialogue-light role. Most importantly though, it went beyond just the standard "beat 'em up cause my dog was killed" premise by way of introducing some surprising world-building. After letting that film settle, my biggest regret was that we only got whispers of this unique world of assassins, and gold coins, and hotels where blood cannot be shed. It was a tease of something that you knew could have been expanded and played with on screen to great satisfaction, especially as the film wore on with its numbing brand of fight choreography. As luck would have it, John Wick: Chapter 2 provides exactly the kind of elaboration on these ideas that I was looking for, to the point where it becomes central to the entire conflict.

The sequel basically picks up where its predecessor left off, with the title hero hunting down a member of the Tarasov family in order to finally return back to his retired life that was promised to him after striking a deal with a former associate. After getting his stolen car back in pretty spectacular fashion, that same associate, an Italian mafioso type/fellow assassin named Santino (Riccardo Scamario) calls upon John to take on a task for him that will clear the way for Santino to ascend to the top of the criminal food chain internationally. John, of course, being the stoic hero that he is refuses. But, as we learn, when you make a blood oath in this world, there's no getting out. Santino wreaks a terrible vengeance on John, which forces his hand, and he's off to Italy to get embroiled in an even tougher situation. One that will send an entire cadre of killers after him.

Truthfully, I'm not sure John Wick: Chapter 2 will make a believer out of the non-committal. It's still an outright action spectacle, and while the early set-ups filled my audience with glee and verbal exclamations, after awhile, the sheer pummeling that your senses receive from the constant carnage will wear you down. There was a point where one of the better looking sequences set in a colorful hall of mirrors didn't even phase anyone because it started to become such old hat. The action remains rather weightless in places, as there's still a good deal of John killing random schmoe after schmoe; though when he's doing battle with better drawn out characters, even slightly, that is where the strengthening of the plot takes over.

The problem with the previous film, is that once you got past the fun quirks of it, the thrill of its bone-crunching violence, it was Keanu Reeves taking on boring, personality-free Russian bad guys. And regardless of how today's political context could reframe that, there's little that's memorable about its big finale, or much of it at all beyond those aforementioned wrinkles that set that film apart from your Transporters and the like. But with this second chapter, screenwriter Derek Kolstad really nails down the uniqueness of this property. We get to learn more about how contracts are established among this network of rogues, how the Italian iteration of The Continental hotel operates, the concept of a Ward, and just what happens when some of these very important doctrines are broken. There is indeed honor among assassins.

Equally impressive is that this sequel doubles down on the idea of a world operating beneath the surface of our own beyond the behind the scenes business of tatooed receptionists that send mass text messages to every contact across the globe. There's an inventive set-up that plays out like They Live, with John and a fellow member hunting him firing silent shots at one another while a crowd of everyday people walk on by unaware, and there's another bit involving an even deeper network of individuals that came awfully close to putting me in mind of The Invisibles (for more reasons than one). John Wick: Chapter 2 has its focus laser-beamed into a society beyond the one we can see, but might if we looked hard enough.

The other major element that stuck out to me, other than its additional stylishness (it adds large fonted subtitles for emphasis and humor, but not much else) is that Reeves is given a lot more to do in terms of dialogue and character development. Because of the enormity of the task(s) ahead of him, he has to be more than "The Bogeyman", and that of course is a double-edged sword. We want to have a reason to care about our hero here, but Reeves has some notable deficiencies as an actor. To Stahelski's credit, he plays with that pretty significantly. Everyone is having to act around him, but the camera then tightly focuses on Reeves' face as he delivers a both hard-ass and laughable line. It washes out to the point where it ends up working far better than one could imagine, as if everyone involved is in on the joke.Were a more capable thespian involved, some of that charm would be lost.

A smattering of better villains helps, Common steps in as Cassian, a character who is outright one of John's equals and their conflicts are a highlight of the film. The rather stunning presence of Ruby Rose's silent constant antagonist Ares adds another memorable obstacle. Once you toss in a violin playing, beret wearing enemy, and one that's basically a sumo wrestler, suddenly you're building a line-up worthy of a Dick Tracy story. This all creates an experience that's more involving and fun than the previous film. Stahelski knows he's working in a ridiculous genre anyway, so why worry about verisimilitude?

John Wick: Chapter 2 is all about confidence, confidence in its concept, its own internal universe, and its lead. It doesn't quite avoid all of the pitfalls of the initial entry, but what it adds creates far vaster potential, with an ending that is quite enticing...something I never thought I'd imagine saying about this franchise. I could do with another one, thank you.

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