Should I Watch..? 'John Wick: Chapter 2'
What's the big deal?
John Wick: Chapter 2 is an action thriller film released in 2017 and is the sequel to the 2014 film John Wick. Directed by Chad Stahelski, the film sees a professional assassin coerced out of retirement in order to settle a debt but soon finds himself with a bounty on his head. The film stars Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose and Riccardo Scamarcio. Like the first film, the movie feels like a blend of action scenes influenced from other films like The Matrix and Enter The Dragon most noticeably. Released to critical acclaim for its action sequences, direction and visual style, the film went on to earn $171 million worldwide - more than twice the amount the first film made. It was followed in 2019 by the third film John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum.
What's it about?
Four days after the events of the first film, legendary criminal assassin John Wick visits a garage owned by Abram Tarasov - brother of the late Russian crime boss in New York, Viggo Tarasov. After Wick dispatches several of Abram's men while retrieving his beloved 1969 Ford Mustang, he returns to his isolated home where he still quietly mourns for his wife Helen while caring for his unnamed dog. Determined to stay retired this time, Wick buries his weapons and equipment under concrete in the basement.
His peace doesn't last, however. The next night, he is visited by Italian crime lord Santino D'Antonio who reminds Wick of a blood pact that Wick undertook to help him retire and marry Helen. Forced into completing the deal, Wick is aghast to find that Santino want him to assassinate his sister Gianna who holds a seat at the High Table - a gathering of crime lords. As Wick prepares to fly out to Italy in order to complete the job and return to retirement, he has no idea that he is about to unwittingly open a Pandora's Box of assassins who are eagerly waiting for him.
Jonathan "John" Wick
The Bowery King
Release Date (UK)
17th February, 2017
Action, Crime, Thriller
What's to like?
I enjoyed the first John Wick for being more than just another dumb shooter. There was an urgency about it, a frenetic pace that rarely let up for the duration as well as a sense of harking back to action films of yore. Thankfully, Chapter 2 is more of the same but with less puppy-killing. The action is wonderfully choreographed and shot with care and attention, benefiting from the occasional splash of digital gore to really heighten the impact. We know Reeves can do action films as he's been doing them for a long time. But this feels like a coming-of-age for him, relentlessly plugging baddies with every type of firearm imaginable, a variety of kicks and punches and even a damn pencil. The last guy I saw capable of stationary-based violence was Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight and Reeves is just as good here. Frankly, it's exhilarating - the movie rarely lets the pace drop for more than a few moments and even a veteran of action movies like myself audibly reacted at times.
The film's secret weapon is the setting - an urbane and secret world existing alongside our own where a strict moral code is mostly adhered to by the criminals operating within it. From the safety of the Continental Hotel (and who knew there was one in Rome too, managed by the great Franco Nero nonetheless!) to the mysterious High Table and the shadowy figures that pulls strings from the darkness. It might seem a little corny but it allows the film to have a little fun such as Peter Serafinowicz's softly-spoken Sommelier who happily provides Wick with something for 'dessert'. It all helps to make Chapter 2 feel bigger than it is, much like the background characters you see in Star Wars hint at a much bigger galaxy than the one we know far far away.
But the very best thing, and why this is the first action movie I've given five stars to in a loooong time, is that despite all the brutality and almost senseless violence at times, the film works hard to try a combination of new ideas for action scenes along with sequences that also hark back to other films. The ending, set in a vast hall of mirrors, is an obvious lift from the ending of Enter The Dragon but there are other examples too. A knife fight in a brightly lit train concourse reminded me of the silhouette of Uma Thurman battling the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 while the train scrap felt reminiscent of the same scene in From Russia With Love. Even the casting of Nero as the Continental's manager Julius is meant to remind viewers of his star-making turn as the original Django. Stahelski, who previously worked with Reeves as a stunt double on The Matrix, clearly has a deep love for action in cinema and it shows here. It's as though he made this film specifically with a movie nerd like me in mind, trying to guess which way the film's influences are going to go next.
- With the exception of stunts involving getting hit by a car and falling down stairs, Reeves performed all of the stunts himself.
- Like the first film, Chapter 2 contains a number of references to Greek and Roman mythology. Ruby Rose's mute assassin Area is named after the Greek god of war, the receptionist at the New York Continental is named Charon who is a ferryman in Greek mythology who transports souls to the underworld, Cassian could be derived from a Roman saint and even John's wife Helen could be a reference to Helen of Troy.
- Reeves trained for the role for three months in judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, driving and marksmanship - all skills Neo would have learnt in seconds in The Matrix. This film marks the first time that Reeves (Neo) and Fishburne (Morpheus) are on screen together since Matrix Revolutions in 2003.
What's not to like?
There will be some that pour scorn on films like this, simply for being a pure-bred action film. Action films aren't the place for character development, multi-layered story-telling or emotive performances from actors demonstrating their award-winning range. Not necessarily but Chapter 2 doesn't need to focus on such things - this is a simplistic and two-dimensional action film in the old style, more content to deliver mind-blowing action scenes instead of having Keanu crying in the rain and staring into the middle distance. Stahelski knows exactly what his audience wants and is only too happy to provide it.
The only real niggles I had are so slight that I'm almost tempted to not mention them. Wick, as a character, might be amazing to watch in action but he's not the smartest of folks, making decisions which seem at odds with the cool, calm manner we've seen throughout the film. The guitarist on stage in Rome alternates between playing normally and playing with a fiddle like Jimmy Page but the track (which wasn't great anyway) never changes its sound to reflect this. And I didn't like the scene where two characters are discreetly firing silenced pistols at each other in a crowded train station but nobody reacts to the gunfire or ricochets or impact on the scenery around them. Silly. Other than that, I loved this film.
Should I watch it?
Chapter 2 offers the same brutal, hard-hitting action that made the first film such a great action film. But it broadens its horizons, making this criminal underworld feel expansive and intriguing. And best of all, it reminds you of so many other films by recreating or imitating classic scenes and even trying to better them. This should go down as one of the best all-action films this side of the Millennium and it certainly makes me eager to catch the third film.
Great For: action fans of all shapes and sizes, dog lovers, nerdy movie critics
Not So Great For: anyone expecting a quiet night, nervous commuters, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum doesn't just extend the title unnecessarily but provides another thrill-a-minute action thriller that adds the likes of Halle Berry, action veteran Mark Dacascos and even Angelica Huston. Despite only being released earlier this year, it has already taken more than twice the amount Chapter 2 took. But there is nothing wrong with the first film either which delivers a crisp and cool action film that surprises as much as it excites. For anyone who thought they had seen everything an action film could do, the John Wick series is a great place to rediscover your enthusiasm.
There have been many action films over the years that have become iconic, their titles becoming by-words for the genre. The likes of Commando, Die Hard and Keanu's other blockbuster Speed are all fantastic examples of action movies that helped establish the benchmark for action in their respective eras. Terminator 2: Judgment Day adds a time-travelling flavour to the mix but contains some of the best and most imaginative action sequences of all time. And while it's more of a spy thriller than an action blast, the action depicted in The Bourne Identity is hard-hitting and well shot and has proved influential to numerous film-makers in the years since.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox