Review: John Wick Chapter Two

Director: Chad Stahelski

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio

John Wick was a happy curio in the post-award season wastes of 2015; a self-aware twist on the trad US action B-movie bolstered by a refreshed Keanu Reeves and the visual discipline of its creators – former stunt players Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski – who took a more Eastern approach to their depiction of violence.  Going against the grain of how modern American action sequences are presented, Kolstad and Stahelski made the cuts more precise. Simply, they made less of them; replacing disparate quick-fire mayhem with extended sequences of choreographed combat in which the audience was granted a sense of time and geography.

It paid dividends in short bursts, but John Wick still felt like a ‘small picture’ due to its very shape and framework. A modest word-of-mouth hit, it evidently caused enough of a stir for a sequel to get the green light. Reeves, having secured some of his best notices in years, signed on for more. So off we go with frankly minimal expectations for anything other than a flat-out rehash of the first movie. But John Wick Chapter Two joins that lamentably short list of action sequels that significantly blows it’s predecessor out of the water, eclipsing former ambitions with dizzying ease.

Chapter Two picks up right where we left off with its eponymous hit man still nursing his wounds as he ties up loose ends from his recent return into Kolstad and Stahelski’s fantasy world of (extremely well) organised crime. Having acquired vengeance for the killing of his puppy (the tongue-in-cheek trigger for film one), he turns his attention to getting his car back. If this sounds like a hollow enterprise to build a sequel around, fear not; this is the flimsiest of excuses to open Chapter Two with a bang (several of them) before the brio of a new story can be assembled.

With barely a moment to bury his arsenal of weapons in the utility closet, Wick is paid a visit by crime-boss-in-waiting Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio – I can’t decide which name is better here) looking to call in a professional marker. D’Antonio, it transpires, is the one who helped Wick out of the business in the first place, but he now looks to draw the famed killer further back into the fold. Wick refuses and loses his house. It’s not long before New York hotelier Winston (Ian McShane) is sagely advising Wick to honor his debt rather than ratchet up the violence.

But this is John Wick Chapter Two, so violence is coming.

Any sequel worth it’s salt will attempt – at least – to honor the original film. Ordinarily such follow-ups are little more than cash cows, playing it safe on a recognised name instead of gambling on a brand new enterprise. Originality is not to be expected in this arena. John Wick Chapter Two is not particularly original. The brief synopsis I’ve detailed here could come from any number of interminable Steven Seagal bargain-bin titles. But what makes this film such a pure unadulterated joy is how it takes the template of the first movie and makes it feel modest by pushing at the edges, revealing a larger universe.

This is expert world-building, and many of the film’s greatest pleasures come from how its creative team unfurl their detailed and idiosyncratic parallel universe. The Continental is, of course, an international chain of sanctuaries, acting like embassies across the world where hit men must lay down arms or risk excommunication from the entire enterprise. Chapter Two globalises the elaborate system of rules already established (it will be worth revisiting John Wick before you go and see this one).

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While the additions slow the series down, they also delight. Stahelski’s film takes the time to show how news of a new hit is disseminated to the criminal overground via a 50’s-style hive of switchboard operators. We travel with Wick to visit his arms dealers and his tailors (establishing a neat range of body armour cut to fit his designer Italian suits). And, in an unexpected nod to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, we are granted insight into an intelligence network hidden within New York’s homeless population. These additions speak to the appetites behind the camera, hungry to elaborate on an established blueprint rather than simply remix it. Chapter Two feels like an expansion of premise.

Then there is the presentation. John Wick was a slick and stylish piece, but it never particularly took the time to announce its own sleekness, at least not enough to make memories of such grandstanding. By comparison, John Wick Chapter Two peacocks the rising confidence behind the camera. Resplendent with shimmering neon, chiaroscuro and, in its Italian sequences, redolent nods to giallo pictures of the 1970’s, Chapter Two is one of the most beautiful action films to have appeared in the last decade. Dan Lausten’s cinematography is gorgeous, recalling the sheen given to Nicolas Winding Refn’s work by Larry Smith and director Stahelski afford his film moments of (comparative) stillness in which to just bask, De Palma-style. It can be lurid, but immaculately so. In a less snooty arena, this would be the stuff of statuettes.

The pacing is more consistent too. Chapter Two is a longer proposition, prone to the occasional dalliance but where it’s predecessor seemed to run out of steam in the third act, this sequel regroups and ups the momentum, peaking with a hall-of-mirrors showdown that nods to Enter The Dragon and The Lady From Shanghai. The film runs for the exits promising more – Dark Knight style. And after such an adrenalised two hours of hyper-reality you may find yourself struggling to shift gears back into real-world rhythms. That’s transportive cinema. John Wick Chapter Two is action gunporn as absolute escapism. I want to live in its word except I don’t because I’d die immediately.

Doesn’t it just glamourise violence? A slicker variant on the plague of irresponsible bullet-ridden ugliness churned out by Hollywood ad nauseam? It’s aesthetic prowess gives and gives but there remains a strong argument that Stahelski’s gratuity is no better than that doled out by the likes of Zack Snyder or Matthew Vaughn, but beneath the veneer the film actually condemns the violence it waves like a bloodied straight razor.

Kolstad’s script pushes (at times awkwardly) the sense that Wick – and everyone else here – are caught in some infernal purgatory at the behest of Winston. Wick’s goal is to escape violence – it’s a righteous quest – yet he is already caught in its whirlpool. It’s a catch-22. Chapter Two suggests that a checks and balances system of retaliation and vengeance can only lead to reprisals and escalation. The story is incomplete – roll on Chapter Three – but it’ll be interesting to see how Kolstad and Stahelski resolve the damnation nipping at John’s heels. It feels real-world relevant. How do you end a cycle like this one? A cycle like ours.

In the meantime, this is about as good as action cinema is likely to get this year (even a second act Laurence Fishburne detour can’t capsize this bad boy). My sage advice to you is to catch up or you’ll simply fall behind.

Score:  4

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