Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Un’altra, Per Favore! – John Wick: Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is aptly titled. This sequel picks up exactly where the 2014 original left off, showing the titular aging assassin (Keanu Reeves) tying up the loose ends from his last scuffle with the New York Russian mob – which is to say, getting his 1969 Mustang Mach 1 back from them, in a garage-based action showdown that’s probably the most hardcore bit of table-setting ever shown in a sequel, before finally settling down for his much-anticipated retirement. Reeves makes it clear that Wick expects this to last about as long as we do: when a slimy Italian crime lord named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his door demanding that he honour an old pact, he doesn’t seem that surprised. Like the first film, Chapter 2 wastes no time whatsoever. Its brutally efficient storytelling style delivers exactly what fans of the first film have come to see, and then some. Chapter 2 feels like director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves were given carte blanche to make a sequel that inspired, fascinated, and excited them, and they’ve clearly done so – it’s the Judgment Day to John Wick’s Terminator, and any action fan worth his or her salt will know how big a compliment that is.

Chapter 2 cranks up every dial on the action-movie board – there are more exotic locales, higher stakes, bigger setpieces, and, of course, a much higher body count. Wick’s journey to Rome, where he performs what he vainly hopes will be his final job, is stuffed to bursting with slick production design (an outdoor rave and a subterranean hot-spring suicide jump to mind), fun cameos (including two by Franco Nero as Julius, the manager of the Continental’s Roman branch, and Peter Serafinowicz as The Sommelier, purveyor of fine firearms for the discerning assassin), and brain-blasting action, which follows the original in its clean, purposeful style. Letting Reeves commit himself to learning the character’s skills, as he’s done throughout his career (from Point Break to The Matrix), means that Stahelski can simply rest the camera on him in comfortable wide shots as he and the stunt team perform their grisly choreographed numbers. It’s not accurate to say that the fight scenes in Chapter 2 are balletic; that language is better suited to films like House of Flying Daggers. No, the fights in the Wick films are graceful in their cold efficiency, reflecting Wick’s no-nonsense approach to dispatching a room full of enemies. There is little in the way of action fantasy here: Wick reloads constantly, spitting out spent magazines that clatter on the floor; he grapples with his foes often, but only long enough to get his gun angled on them for a quick shot to the head; he fights with knives, but never flourishes or taunts or performs any fancy moves. John Wick is too old for that shit, and he’s got a dog to get home to. Just like the first time around, it’s beautiful, shocking, entrancing, and thrilling to watch him work.

Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in John Wick: Chapter 2.

One of the most intriguing elements of the first film – a large part of why it enjoyed such an enthusiastic cult following that quickly blossomed into broad audience appeal – was the mythology that Kolstad baked into the world of John Wick. Portraying the culture of underground assassination organizations as age-old brotherhoods with strict codes of behavior, secret clubs and armories, unique currency systems and access rites, was a way to invest what might otherwise have been simply an excellent shoot-‘em-up flick with a narrative hook that lent it a feeling of genuine legitimacy -- an extra layer of interest that would help the film hold up to repeat viewings and maintain the legacy of a modern classic. It meshed perfectly with the filmmaking ethos that’s clearly so important to Stahelski, himself a renowned stunt man: there are rules in this world, and everything goes better when those rules are followed. Stahelski’s no maverick; his films are the work of a craftsman who understands the purpose of conventional filmmaking techniques and uses them with fluency and intent. This is the seemingly obvious philosophy that so many action movies fail to embrace, and they’re why the Wick films are praised above all others, despite their similar surface appeal of seeing bad-guy heads get blown up. It’s not just precise, exacting craft on display; there’s a rich world-building to sink your teeth into, too – and Chapter 2 delivers so much more of both. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

And, of course, the person tying the whole experience together is Reeves. I don’t feel I need to defend his acting ability or his body of work, because they speak for themselves. He’s perfectly cast as Wick, perfectly committed to the grueling action sequences and perfectly stoic as a man who would understandably not be a great conversationalist. But Reeves has a subtly commanding presence onscreen, holding our attention with every movement of his hands and body. Watching Wick make coffee for D’Antonio is nail-biting thanks to the way Reeves grips the carafe; I was certain it was about to become a weapon. And his performance in the film’s numerous action sequences can’t be overstated – he’s simply amazing to watch, in the same "Holy shit, did you see what he just did?" way as the martial-arts legends of the screen. The second act of Chapter 2 has Wick on the run, after D’Antonio puts a bounty on his head – the entire underground world of assassins he belongs to now gunning for him – and Reeves brings an indomitable rage to Wick in these sequences, a snarling will to survive no matter what odds are stacked against him. (In this sequence he also gets to play off his old sparring partner Laurence Fishburne, playing an ex-assassin called The Bowery King whose network of killers posing as hobos gives him eyes and ears all across New York. Their chemistry is effortless, as you’d expect.) Reeves is 52 years old and showing not a whiff of his age. I hope he gets to make films like this for years to come, because unlike so many of his aging action-star colleagues, he’s making it absolutely worth it for us.

For all their gory action and serious plotting, the most continually surprising thing about the stories of John Wick is the biting wit that runs through them. Chapter 2 is frequently a very funny film, using the rhythms of an action sequence to deliver a literal punchline or Wick’s established in-world reputation to frighten the other characters. In this movie, Wick proves himself just as wry and sarcastic in Russian, Italian, and American Sign Language as he is in English, and even just the sheer audacity of some of the kills he racks up were enough to provoke hoots of joyful laughter from the audience I saw the film with. This is another way in which the Wick movies set themselves apart from their inferior brethren: they’re very self-aware, playing with the tropes of much worse action films before tossing them aside and delivering something fresh and surprising instead. John Wick: Chapter 2 is an improvement on its predecessor in nearly every way – barring maybe the delightful surprise of the first film, which can’t be replicated – but it’s this attitude that I think makes it succeeds the most. It’s just way too much damn fun.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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