John Wick: Chapter 2
Pleasingly brutal. That’s about as succinct a recommendation as I can give John Wick: Chapter 2 (JW2 hereafter). I think that’s probably enough for you to know if this is your cinematic poison or whether you need to run back to the safe confines of your local French rom-com playing arthouse. Sure, my tongue is in my cheek, but after the first Wick instalment completely sidestepped theatrical release in NZ and then went on to stun many of us via home video, I’m actually very glad that NZ audiences—myself most assuredly included—have the opportunity to see its sequel on the big screen. Hats off to Studio Canal for bringing quality mid-budget action outings like JW2 into NZ cinemas!
Driven by the same fantastic cast and creative crew that fronted the original, JW2 picks up from where JW1 left off. Loose threads are quickly tied off via smartly applied exposition, which fills in enough character and world detail to make this work as a standalone for any who didn’t catch the first outing. John finds himself sucked back into ‘the life’ c/o an outstanding ‘marker’ he owes, the paying of which puts him in the cross-hairs of an entire slew international assassins spread between Rome and New York. Uninterested in the politics at play John delivers on his quiet warnings of imminent mayhem with Ian McShane’s urbane ‘hotelier’ Winston keeping a fatherly eye out for him in a similar way that Willem Dafoe’s aging assassin Marcus did in JW1.
Remember when we all saw The Matrix for the first time and were blown away by an action-Keanu we never expected? Speed did not prepare us for Neo. And so, fifteen years, and mostly more sedate pictures, later, Keanu shocks us again with his boogeyman assassin John Wick. For a guy who has a somewhat awkward physicality Reeves is electric to watch in fight mode. Cause guess what? He knows ‘gun-fu’! JW2 ups the ante on its predecessor in almost every way: narrative scope, support cast, and most importantly, Wick’s many, many action sequences. For those, like me, who’ve followed the various Keanu-in-training YouTube videos, all his dedicated preparation pays off. Director Stahelski, along with fight choreographer Eric Brown (and their stunt team), give Keanu plenty of tactical gun work, high speed car chases, and fights galore to showcase his newly minted skills. And in a variety of exotic locales. Regardless of playing at a ‘higher volume’ the one arena in which the sequel has lost ground is in the raw intensity of the character. No matter how genre-stereotypical Wick’s motivations, and how out of proportion his response to the perpetrators of crimes against his person, in JW1 the character was compelling as an unstoppable force. The film’s core driver was Wick’s grim inexorable desire for revenge. JW2’s necessary narrative expansion has diluted Wick’s motivations as he finds himself responding to the more esoteric machinations of others, and is less intensely focused as a result. This trade-off of scope-vs-energy can also be seen in The Raid films a few years before, where The Raid 2 also contextualised the first film within a larger politicised saga where increased action met decreased tension. Despite these quibbles, the action in JW2 remains super visceral, very well-choreographed; definitely most worthy of big screen viewing. Additionally, many of the new side characters prove a real treat. I particularly enjoyed Peter Serafinowicz’s dry turn as the Rome Continental’s ‘Sommelier’ in a creatively executed ‘tooling up’ montage. And it is grand to see Keanu and Laurence Fishburne reteamed for the first time since The Matrix trilogy, in a similarly uneasy partnership.
What JW2 lacks in singular focus it makes up for in creative world building and enjoyable characterisation. Stahelski retains a light comedic layer to keep the tone of the film from getting too grim and his blend of the immediacy imbued by practical effects heavy stunt-work with the heightened reality of secret international assassin societies continues to play very nicely.
P.S. Canine concerned viewers will be pleased to know that (unlike JW1) no dogs were weaponised or used as revenge-motivation in this film.
Rating: R16 Graphic violence & suicide.