I have a confession to make: I am not in love with the first, “John Wick” movie. Don’t get me wrong, when one compares it to the non-choreographed, convoluted, edited-within-inches-of-its-life dreck we get nowadays in the action movie genre, “John Wick” is a revelation. Plus it has a lot of things going for it besides it’s action: Keanu Reeves provides his best performance in years, with a supporting cast including Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and others doing a damn good job in their roles as well. It even manages to fold in some some clever bits of worldbuilding, which gives it some levity as well as substance. But taken as a whole, it’s an example of a bunch of people getting together to do their best impression of the stuff they were into in their younger years. A polished one, yes, but at the end of the day it is just an impression that doesn’t have much to say beyond its self-contained bloody playground.
Hence my pleasant surprise to find the sequel, “John Wick: Chapter 2” not only being a better movie than the first, but also being so good in ways that makes one appreciate the original film, to the point where I will definitely add it to my personal Blu-Ray collection in the future. The movie leans into the menacing, deadly acts of its main character and uses that hook to drag us into a world full of morose beauty and abject horror in ways that are both complex but also kind of soulful and energetic. It also expands upon the worldbuilding that grounded the outlandishness of the original film to build a story twisting the familiar traits of the modern world (modern art, homelessness, architecture and even music) into funhouse mirror reflections so twisted that in the hands of a sloppier moviemaking team would come off as pretentious and offensive. God fucking damn does this movie kick ass.
Thing is, the movie is such a strong mix of sound and furious imagery that while one could say that the plot is meatier than the first, when the movie does go into said plot mechanisms, it’s fun and interesting but creates a strange dissonance that might raise more questions than answers. Thankfully, there is still some wicked narrative efficiency going on here when it comes to the characters: one knows from the moment, say, Ruby Rose or Common show up on the screen what they stand for and what their skillsets are, with each actor proving themselves to be quite adept at the action (at least from a narrative standpoint). Even when the movie goes into the details of, say, what makes The Continental Hotel and the leagues of assassins that are featured in this movie tick, the screenplay by Derek Colstad, working with director Chad Stahelski, just dips its toes into this kind of stuff and then leaves the audience to connect the dots. Which is a good thing, given that if the, “Taken” movie series is any indication, moviemakers are all too prone to bloating the good things they have with too much elaboration and narrative contrivance.
Such efficiency even extends to the way action sequences are made. While one can compare this movie to old Bruce Lee movies in how well-choreographed it is, the movie actually lets you see the actors struggle, bruise and bleed in ways that also evokes the late moviemaking of Michael Mann (“Collateral”, “Blackhat”, “Miami Vice” and, “Public Enemies”). Sure, handheld cinematography is used (deftly in this case with the help of cinematographer Dan Lausten), but the scene blocking and composition are melded with great sound design so that every punch, kick, broken limb and headshot is felt and seen. The action is polished while also retaining the soul of the acting, and is coherent without being lifeless. Given that I’m writing this in a world where the average action movie has 3 separate jump cuts for a scene of a guy just slicking his fucking hair back, one can’t help but relish what is shown here.
Oh, yeah, the plot: John Wick wants out, but Santino D’Antonio (played by Riccardo Scamarcio) wants him back in, due to a promise that was made back when John exited the game. John refuses to do a job for Santino, and Santino proceeds to destroy his house (thankfully, the dog lives this time, and this time it’s an adorable adult grey Pit Bull). So John gets back into the business to do this job, only to find that he may have gotten himself into a much bigger mess he will have to punch, kick, shot and stab his way out of. So, yeah, if there’s another knock one can have against this movie, is that it doesn’t have as strong of an emotional core as the first movie did. Not that Keanu Reeves doesn’t emote at all. During the movie there are interesting interactions between him and actors, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Common and Lawrence Fishburne (No, really, fucking Morpheus is in this) at different parts in this movie. Some moments where he is hurt, others where he is just fine, and even one moment late in the movie where he shows desperation as a huge bounty looms over him. Moments like this prevent the movie from being just a boring Mary Sue-fest. We’re not just watching a killing machine, we are watching him calculate, make some moves, and go all into a situation where, by the very end, he may not make it out alive…leading to a fateful decision followed by a coda that tips the movie from a gritty actioneer with notes of grace into something close to a horror movie, however arch the worldbuilding and exposition gets.
Believe the hype: this sequel kicks so much ass. Brutal, beautiful, and diverse, the movie clocks in at over 2 hours but I swear to anyone pining for great action, if not great moviemaking period, that time will feel like an hour and a half. This is a movie that should definitely be seen on the big screen…preferably in a crowded theater or with a bunch of friends when THAT scene happens. You’ll know it when you see it.
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