BOOM Headshot 2: Electric Boogaloo
The first John Wick came out of the freaking blue and felt like a welcomed surprise to see a long-ridiculed actor star in a fun revenge tale that was filled to the brim with style and surprising techniques to world building. Naturally a sequel was commissioned almost immediately after release, and I must confess that I felt slightly nervous. Rarely a sequel that was hastily produced is ever of high quality, especially in cases that truly seemed like lightning in a bottle. Less we forget that Keanu himself was in two sequels to a film that took everyone by surprise and…yeah the less said about The Matrix sequels the better. Can John Wick buck the trend and join the illustrious ranks of other stellar sequels or is it doomed to wander the wastelands of poor execution. The answer is…surprisingly in between the two.
So the sequel picks up a few hours after the first film ended where John Wick (Keanu Reeves), the most badass assassin ever, has avenged the death of his dog by taking out his former employers with the Russian mafia. After a pretty kick ass chase leading Wick to reclaim his stolen car from the last film, the legendary hit man is ready to put his guns away for good when an unwelcomed friend from his past comes knocking on his doorstep. Turns out that Wick was only able to enjoy retirement in the last film because he pulled off an impossible task years before with the help of an Italian mafioso named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and the mob boss was gifted with a marker. This marked is essentially a life debt for any insane task that the creditor has in mind, and D’Antonio wants Wick to kill his sister to claim her criminal empire. Aside from trying in earnest to retire, Wick also knows killing this woman would be a death sentence in any event. Nonetheless, Wick can’t refuse the marker either as he’ll lose all the protections given to him by the international syndicate of criminals with their own currency from the last film. At this point, Wick has to navigate the seedy underworld once more and ends up racking up an even larger body count than last time around.
The plot doesn’t sound very interesting, and believe me when I say that I was actively trying to make it sound more compelling for review purposes. The story lacks the momentum and emotional core that defined the first film with its tale of revenge and righteous indignation of a terrible wrong. Here, Wick is thrown into the politics of the international crime syndicate he was supposed to be retired from, and he continues to not want to have anything to do with, but the world won’t let him go.
Now that sounds like a great premise, but the execution story wise feels very muddled. You really don’t have a fix as to why Wick is doing what he does save for his own survival. Which would be fine, but being in a constant state of danger can get old as a plot device. Further, the scenes lack a cohesive narrative in which one shootout leads to another in a different location. I mean we go from a New York warehouse to fighting inside the Roman Coliseum before going for a shootout on the Manhattan streets in the first half of the film. The second half’s action are much more reasonably paced and transition smoothly into each other.
Yes, yes, I hear you from across the Internet, “I don’t give a fuck about story, is the action still good?” Well, you ravenous consumers of ultra-violence, yes I was quite well impressed with the action on display in the sequel. It’s definitely the area that was definitely improved upon in this installment compared to the first film, and where the budget all went. The movie opens up with a car chase in a confined area that swiftly turns into a demolition derby, before John Wick pops out and dispatches goon after goon with his bare hands. We get about 40 minutes of set up after that where the aforementioned narrative issues rear their ugly head before dropping you back in the action once the film is in Rome, Italy.
After that, it’s pure action movie bliss from there on. Gun fights are particularly hard to shoot compared to a fist fight as the weapon is mostly aimed at targets off screen in most action films. John Wick: Chapter 2 opts to frame the aiming and blasting all in the same frame, which necessitates Reeves and his enemies to be in more close quarters situations. This is an intriguing choice to shoot a film, as you clearly need lots of choreography and pacing to make it all look fluid and exciting to watch. But the director, Chad Stahelski (one of the two filmmakers from the first film), really understands how to set up a scene before catching the chaos unfurl onscreen. Hell, he even makes the act of reloading a gun a tense watch as you understand how outnumbered Wick is and how little ammunition he’s got lying around (that the film carefully makes a point of where he’s pulling it from).
Also, helping is that the gunfights are intermixed with some good ol’ fashioned martial arts, as Keanu navigates from room to room by snapping necks, breaking limbs, and slamming heads into walls. All of it makes for a thrilling experience that really wouldn’t be the same without Neo. Reeves, despite having moments of really bad delivery, still has a commanding screen presence and charisma that you still believe he’s actually doing all the crazy shit he’s doing. Mostly because Reeves is in fact doing all of his own stunts, which definitely adds to the experience.
Other big actors adding to the experience are Ian McShane and Lance Reddick as operators of the Continental Hotel where assassins can sleep soundly without knowing someone is going to pop them while they nap. The pair add to intriguing world of hitmen that the movie remains as vague as possible about, not giving you too much information to over explain how their inner-workings operate. Meanwhile, Laurence Fishburne appears for what’s obviously an in-joke connection to The Matrix in scenes that appear to me to have been tacked on just to accommodate Fishburne’s appearance. At the very least, Morpheus in this film is over-the-top and operatic as hell, which is a massive improvement as the “magical mystical black guy“he was in Passengers.
Granted, other new actors don’t fare so well. Riccardo Scamarcio doesn’t really do well as a unique antagonist the way Alfie Allen and Michael Nyqvist were in the first film. And Ruby Rose does provide a lot of physicality as an action character, but she’s not given much to do here, aside from using sign language. She’s better here than she was in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but not as fun as she was in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Common fares a little better as an antagonist both thanks to his acting and the fact his character has a pretty damn good reason to be cross with Mr. Wick.
Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 is an entertaining action romp that will please fans of the original well enough. I do doubt that if you weren’t a fan of the style-over-substance approach of the first film that you’ll appreciate the sequel. But if you did fall in love with the dog-avenger the first time around, I’ve got a strong feeling you’ll get a kick out this. With that, this is a very strong…