A film review by Craig J. Koban February 21, 2017

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 jjjj

2017, R, 122 mins.

 

Keanu Reeves as John Wick  /  Bridget Moynahan as Helen Wick  /  Ruby Rose as Ares  /  Ian McShane as Winston  /  Laurence Fishburne as The Bowler King  /  John Leguizamo as Aurelio  /  Lance Reddick as Charon  /  Thomas Sadoski as Jimmy

Directed by Chad Stahelski  /  Written by Derek Kolstad

"Your descent into hell begins here, Mr. Wick." 

When Keanu Reeves' unstoppably lethal hitman is told this late in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2...it feels like both a literal and figurative statement.  

This is, of course, the sequel to the improbably and surprisingly astounding JOHN WICK, the 2014 introductory installment that emerged as not only one of the most finely attuned action films of the current decade, but also was one of the best films of its year...period.  Its success was twofold: (1) It gave Reeves a role that fully harnessed his unique skill set as an on-screen performer of persuasive charisma and power and (2) it redefined - for the infinitely better - how action films should be envisioned and executed.  

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is a thrillingly and frequently masterful continuation of the first film's story, but it also ups the ante in terms of embellishing and improving upon the franchise's core mythology and character beats.  That, and as an unrelentingly exhilarating and ferociously intense orgy of wanton mayhem, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 has very few recent equals...with the possible exception of its antecedent. 

In case you forgot, the first JOHN WICK introduced us its retired titular character grieving over the loss of his wife.  To compound his depression, a group of despotic Russian gangsters did two things that no human being on the planet should ever do to a trained killer that has become a frightening legend in his field: they stole his prized 1969 Mustang and...they mercilessly killed his puppy.   

His...puppy.  

Of course, Wick achieved bloody comeuppance on his enemies and achieved a level of vengeance for his fallen canine companion, and this sequel picks up pretty much after the events of JOHN WICK 1 and opens with a stunningly pulse pounding action sequence that just as well could have been the climax of any other action thriller.  During it we seen Wick lay down a series of bone crunching and artery spewing beat-downs on a group of, yes, Russian mobsters that have once again tried to steal his car.  

Thankfully, they weren't stupid enough to kill his new dog.   

 

 

This opening is magnificent for how it elevates Wick's near mythological standards to his prey (that, and it finds unexpected comedic value in seeing just how ill matched these goons are even when double and triple teaming up on him).  Just as Wick is about to settle back down into a quiet re-retired life of normalcy, Italian crime lord Santino D'Antonio (a reptilian Riccardo Scamarcio) has come to Wick to enlist him to assassinate his own sister so that he can ascend to her seat on the "High Table" of a very lucrative crime syndicate.   Wick quickly declines, but is forced into accepting, mostly because Santino holds a "marker" on him, which in the hitman code of honor rule book all but precludes John's participation.  Now, Wick is forced back into the hitman life mostly because Santino and his henchmen rocket grenaded his home after he refused to accept the marker, and since Wick doesn't want any more hostilities, he begrudgingly agrees, but mostly on the insistence on the grand overseer of the vast world spanning hitman clan, Winston (a cold and calculating Ian McShane).  Wick partakes in the mission, kills his target, and the two-faced rat that is Santino decides to double cross him and orders a large contract on his head. 

Seeing as Wick has never taken kindly to being doubled crossed, he responds as only he knows how: by generating a body count so unfathomably high that even I lost track as the movie progressed.   

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is violent...almost nightmarishly so at times, but there's simply no denying the breathtakingly stylish manner that that director Chad Stahelski (returning again behind the camera) brings to the table, and the results are as ultra slick, consummately polished, and as flawlessly quarterbacked as anything in the previous entry.  Stahelski wisely understands - unlike just about every other action filmmaker today - how to frame shots and edit his sequences.  Instead of employing dizzying and eye fatiguing cuts that border on overkill and shaking his camera up to nauseating effect, Stahelski endeavors to gives us action sequences of bravura fluidity and coherence.  Spatial relationships between combatants are always emphasized here, and just how wonderful is it to see an action film like this where viewers can visibly make total sense of what's being presented?  Combined with cinematographer Dan Lausten's sumptuously colorful pallet that frequently makes the film have an ethereally impressionistic vibe and what we're left with is a film that looks like it was framed with an art house sensibility. 

Wick murders a lot of people in this film, but it's still a thrill to behold how Stahelski and company find new ambitious ways of one-upping themselves with each new kill.  One particular sequence occurs in a large subterranean catacomb in Rome (don't ask) and features Wick mowing down endless waves of thugs in one of the most ruthless killing sprees perpetrated by a hero ever committed to celluloid...and it's all done with the meticulous choreographed precision of a ballet.  John shoots, stabs, punches, and kicks his enemies in nearly every possible body part during this scene to secure his freedom (he uses a shotgun, for example, to reduce one vile henchmen after another to gooey messes on the ground in highly expeditious ways).  There's no question that those with squeamish stomachs should definitely avert their eyes during moments like this in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, but for all others - myself included - it's instances like these that generate legitimate sensations of awe and wonder.  It's one of the great action sequences of the movies. 

Reeves perhaps deserves more credit than he gets as a movie star.  To be fair, he's often been reduced to an industry punchline for a multitude of poor performances that have peppered his resume.  Yet, both JOHN WICK films immediately reinforce and remind us as to why he's a legend in the action genre because these films simply allow him to excel comfortably in his wheelhouse.  Reeves is also unfeasibly young looking at 52-years-old and, much like Tom Cruise, is only just blossoming in action films in the manner he puts life and limb on the line for his art.  It's abundantly clear that the aging Reeves is doing a lion's share of his own stunts in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, and it's that steadfast dedication to his craft that really makes him a respectful actor of incontrovertible impact.   Even though there's rarely a moment in the film when you doubt Wick's safety, you're nevertheless left eagerly anticipating the next large scale scene that will have its main star place himself in harm's way. 

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 does something else that's exceedingly rare these days, especially for sequels: It tells a fairly self-contained storyline with a definitive beginning, middle, and end that hints at more series installments to come without feeling like its a slavish placeholder effort that's just trying to set up a sequel.  I've seen far too many films lately that never seem to have a conclusion.  JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 ends on a juicy cliffhanger that reaches a crescendo of uncertainty for Wick and his future, but there's a concrete story arc for this character here.  That, and the film's hitman lore is largely expanded upon to deeply satisfying levels as we bare witness to what makes their clandestine world tick.  New characters are introduced into the mix for solid measure, especially one played by Reeves' former THE MATRIX co-star Laurence Fishburne, the latter who joyously chews through scenery in a small, but substantially important role as an ally of Wick's who comes to his aid when he desperately needs it. 

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is an action vehicle of such raw authority that once you allow yourself to fully give in to its hypnotic intensity it's impossible to shake it from your system.  It's also an uncommonly assured sequel that improves upon its prequel in multiple commendable ways.  For as exceedingly well oiled as the first film was, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 effectively goes for broke and commits itself with a headstrong and guileless tenacity in maintaining the aesthetic vibe of the first film while intrepidly laying a new foundation of intrigue for this character.  The film is a symphony of bullet spraying, blood splattered, and bruised knuckled ultra-violence and is one of the most brutally proficient pieces of action sequel cinema ever made.  

And it also intuitively relays how something a simple as a pencil can be used as a fatal weapon for a man that has been back stabbed by deplorable vermin one too many times. 

 

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