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Friday, February 10, 2017

Movie Review: #JohnWickChapter2

The further adventures of John Wick bring more guns, punches, and an actual story in a memorable follow-up to the original.

Review by Matt Cummings

If anyone would have told you that 2015 would feature Keanu Reeves in a career-defining movie, as well as one of the best films of that year, you would have thought me crazy. But that's just what happened with John Wick, a gift to action film that brought about the word "Gun-Fu". Audiences were blown away by that film's brazen violence, incredible hand-to-hand combat, and the absolute gut punch of its titular character experiencing incredible loss. But when the credits rolled and we got off that amazing rollercoaster, the next question that inevitably arose was "What's next?" Luckily, that answer brings with it an expansion of this universe that makes John Wick: Chapter 2 so appealing.

Assassin John Wick (Reeves) has a hard time retiring, whether it's in the pursuit of his stolen Mustang or in the "offer of employment" that comes soon after he has car back in hand. That offer comes in the form of a blood mark from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who helped Wick escape the life years before. When Wick denies Santino's request, he comes under (literal) fire from his kill squad and the dangerous mute Ares (Ruby Rose), which devastates his house. Forced into a contract that he must honor, Wick is pitted against the skilled bodyguard Cassian (Common), whose defense of Wick's mark is more personal than professional. After D'Antonio offers a warrant for Wick's head, The Boogeyman must parry his way through multiple assassins, leading to a bloody showdown at the famous Continental Hotel. There, manager Winston (Ian McShane) must make an impossible decision whether or not to honor the hard rules of the Continental: no blood be spilled on its floors. The result will lead to chaos, pitting Wick against the entire assassin community, with the promise that anyone who comes after him will die.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is an absolute thrillride, a cinematic blast of fresh air that builds on the previous film, surpassing it in many ways while retaining its B-movie schlockiness. This isn't a February dump but a strong statement of the franchise's power (and brains) to open so early rather than wait for what's usually a crowded Summer. That plays out in so many ways throughout the 122-minute slugfest that's far more than punching and explosions. We learn more about Wick's previous life, including the honor code that at first allowed him to escape the hitman's world but what ultimately drags him back in. Wick re-enters this world pitted against truly bad people who manipulate him into impossible territory, which explores a corner of the character's life that we didn't even think we wanted to know.

Chapter 2 also takes us deeper into the Continental - perhaps the biggest surprise from the original - expanding it into a worldwide organization. But it doesn't stop there: we learn more about its rules of war and what happens when someone violates them. It's a powerful moment near film's end when Wick must make a choice as D'Antonio claims asylum inside the Continental; we know how such assassinations worked out in the original, so when this sequence unfolds our curiosity is understandably peaked. We're also treated to a several unforgettable sequences in which Wick gets 'weaponized' for the hit, which includes a pseudo-cameo by Peter Serafinowicz as The Sommelier, although he's unlike any wine connoisseur I've ever met. Call him a Q figure, but Wick also utilizes a special tailor, a fact that makes so much sense based on how the story unfolds. In every way, Chapter 2 feels more like a brutal version of a Bond film, right down to the cinematography by Dan Laustsen, who bathes it in sumptuous colors.

It's not too far to go to suggest that Reeves is John Wick, right down to the tailoring of his dark clothes and choice of high-powered vehicles and weapons. Chapter 2 gives Reeves something he hasn't enjoyed much of - a guaranteed opener - and he proves his mettle by merely doing what he does best. He plays Wick with a sardonic wit, choosing quiet substance over style (although his suits are quite exquisite). He also demonstrates a level of humanity that we knew existed within the character but who comes alive as he tracks down a mark that he does not wish to kill. That's unexpected, and a strong indication that this won't be your typical B-movie gun show. Other supporting characters like McShane, Lance Reddick as the Continental hotel desk man, and even Common play their parts perfectly. Add to that the re-teaming of Reeves and Laurence Fishburne as The Bowery King, and it's as if the two have emerged post-Matrix and realized that life is just more fun if you shoot and joke your way out of things. These moments are never too long, and the dry comedy behind the supporting trinity offer moments for the audience to take a much needed break from all the Gun-Fu.

And boy is there a ton of that in Chapter 2. It's clear that this film racks up more bodies than in the original - including how you can really kill someone with a pencil - but everything still feels more amped up. Director Chad Stahelski is smart to let off the gas just long enough to plug some story in before getting us to the next action sequence. Believe it or not, there is a story within Chapter 2, a fact which makes every fisticuff, every gun battle, and every brutal throwdown so much better. John's consolation of the mark (played by Claudia Gerini) is in stark contrast to the vicious response in a subway car; another cameo at the beginning ties up a loose end started in Chapter 1. Through story and action, we see that Wick come under genuine distress, that leads to a great ending but an uncertain future for once-retired assassin. He will have to fight his way out of every moment from now on, and that sea change resonates as the credits roll. Without these, this is just another really good action movie; Stahelski knows that he must infuse story here, and the script by Writer Derek Kolstad adds a ton of jokes and witty banter, all of which sets up the next moment of visceral violence.

John Wick: Chapter 2 checks off every box for me: it expands the universe of The Continental, absolutely feeds our desire for "Gun-Fu" violence, and places John's life in amazing peril as the film ends. Reeves embraces this role, making it as much a part of him as Ted Theodore Logan. It's impossible now to imagine our world without John Wick, and I hope his next adventure is not his last.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity and has a runtime of 122 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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