Tuesday, February 21, 2017

'John Wick: Chapter Two' review

In today's modern cinematic landscape, hype and anticipation are everything. People wait for months, for the biggest blockbusters of the year, increasing excitement with every new plot detail, trailer, or image. This leaves very little room for genuine surprises, which makes something like John Wick much more special. Back in 2014, nobody really thought much about the latest Keanu Reeves action vehicle. It seemed like a generic hitman flick, a stylish movie that would basically work as a direct-to-VOD hit. But after the film premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, word began to spread that Wick was truly spectacular. With two experienced stunt directors (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch) at the helm, the brutally gorgeous action film served as a return to form for Reeves, and the birth of a brand new action icon. Box office was solid ($43 million in the US), but this was something that really took off after its theatrical release, gaining cult status with plenty of new fans. With the immersive assassin world that Stahelski and Leitch established, a sequel was simply inevitable.

Just over two years later, John Wick is back and he's bigger and better than ever. Thanks to an inflated budget, Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter Two is a true action spectacle, a badass string of setpieces housed in a fully realized world of assassins, hitmen, and femme fatales. The emotional hook might not be quite as strong this time ("Keanu Reeves horrifically murders the gangsters who killed his dog"), but the scope of the adventure is on an entirely different scale, making for a more thrilling, epic journey. Wick's operatic style of hard-boiled violence never fails to dazzle, and there are some sequences that are simply invigorating. Clever, sharp, and mesmerizing at every turn, Chapter Two is one of the more purely entertaining action films in recent memory, a classic blast of spectacular cinematic combat.

Just when John Wick (Reeves) thought that he had escaped the nasty, oddly refined world of gangster and assassins, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives to pull him back in once more. Wick completed his revenge mission against the Tarasov family at the end of the original film, but it turns out that when he originally left the game, he signed a blood debt with Santino. Now, the Italian crime lord is back to fulfill the mark. Wick initially turns him down, but after Santino blows up his house with a few rocket launchers, the Boogeyman of the criminal underworld realizes that he doesn't have a choice- he has to complete his mark for Santino. His mission- kill Gianna D'Antonio (Claudia Gerini), Santino's sister and the representative for the D'Antonio family at the High Table. If Wick kills Gianna (a former friend of his), he'll be out forever. If not, he'll die in the process. That's the deal.

Wick travels to Rome, hoping to outwit Gianna's team of security and her gang of assassins, led by the steely, loyal Cassian (Common). Meanwhile, Wick also has to watch out for Ares (Ruby Rose), the mute henchwoman of Santino who tails him at every turn. In the immediate aftermath of his mission (I'll leave the final result ambiguous, even though it happens early in the film), Wick soon learns that Santino is out to kill him as well. The crime lord puts out a contract of $7 million, and within minutes, it seems like the whole world is out to take the famed hitman out. With the entire criminal universe out for blood, Wick goes rogue, breaking the rules and sending plenty of rivals to the grave along the way.

The original John Wick was a success for three primary reasons- Keanu Reeves, insane action choreography, and inventive world building. It was still a scrappy flick made on a shoestring budget, but Stahelski and his co-director showed plenty of chops. Chapter Two is what happens when people with great ideas are given free reign to do as they please, and this sequel takes everything awesome about the first film and dials it up to 11. Very few sequels manage to top their predecessors in any meaningful way, but it always seemed like the continued adventures of the Wick universe would allow Stahelski and Reeves to up their game. Chapter Two is a delightful explosion of violence, and it's such a pleasure to watch such an intricate, innovative universe unfold on the big screen. John Wick may dabble in familiar action territory, but this vicious world of organized crime feels like a breath of fresh air in the grand scheme of Hollywood.

The world building is the main concept that distinguishes this franchise from the rest of the Tinseltown schlock, and the way that Chapter Two expands what the original film established is nothing short of perfect. In the 2014 film, we learned that there was a whole shadow society of assassins, with their own hotels, money, and code of rules. The world of John Wick envisions violent criminals as ancient knights, civilized and meticulous in their devotion to principle. In Chapter Two, Stahelski unleashes the bold universe he created, taking things global and injecting the Assassin-verse with more excellent ideas. In all of its bizarre beauty, Chapter Two introduces us to a call center of women who process contracts, as well as a classy dealer of weapons, an obscure group of violently talented vagrants, and a crazy hierarchy of criminal power. Oh, and it seems like half of New York belongs to this society, as they all start coming after Wick during one of the film's most beautiful sequences. As we've watched several studios struggle to put together a shared universe of characters in recent years, it's amazing to watch Stahelski create such a careful, brilliant world without even breaking a sweat.

John Wick gave us clear, spectacular scenes of cinematic bloodshed, but thanks to the inflated budget, Chapter Two delivers the kind of visionary setpieces that fit the character perfectly. The opening scene is perhaps one of the best character introductions in an action film in recent years, as Wick tactically murders a crew of bad guys in the hopes of getting his car back, all while Peter Stormare's Russian mobster speaks fearfully about the legend of John Wick. It takes a little while for Stahelski to set the plot up from there, but as soon as Wick suits up for round two, it's practically a non-stop assault of bullets and bodies. The choreography on these fight scenes is never anything but astounding, and there are some moments of pure cinematic bliss in this movie that I wish I could revisit again and again. The first setpiece in Rome is dazzling and thrilling, but just wait, it's only the teaser for what's to come.

These action scenes really open things up in a fresh new way, which is what I love about the setpieces in Chapter Two. In the original, the general idea was to have Wick quickly dispatch a bunch of bad guys in a confined space. Chapter Two does some of the same, and don't get me wrong, they're incredible sequences. But when this movie puts Wick into the real world, facing down an army of unknown assailants that could be lurking around every corner, things really take off. Something happens about halfway through, and Wick is faced with an array of regular people who suddenly turn into assassins, ready to collect the bounty on his head. It culminates with a showdown between Wick and Common's Cassian, as the two trained killers fight their way through a New York subway. This stuff may sound conventional on paper, but in execution, Stahelski delivers something that is truly exhilarating.

Reeves is once again the perfect choice for this character, and he's supported by actors who know what kind of movie they're in. The Wick universe is fully developed and cohesive without ever being self-serious, and it's that sense of ludicrous fun that keeps it going. Is this technically a great movie? Probably not. Is it a good time? Hell yes. John Wick: Chapter Two is about as much fun as you can have at the theater right now, an inventive, wickedly good bit of classic action cinema. The Wick franchise manages to combine the world-building of today's cinematic universe landscape with the brutality of 80s shoot-em-up flicks, and the results are simply jaw-dropping. Chapter Two is superior to the original in just about every way, hard proof that sometimes sequels can be bigger and better. With almost $100 million in worldwide box office off a relatively small budget, we're undoubtedly going to be seeing John Wick: Chapter Three in the near future. And if it's even half as good as this absurd blast of gleefully violent fun, I'll be grinning from ear to ear.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Images courtesy of Lionsgate

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