Friday, February 10, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Just when he thought he was out, John Wick is pulled back in. The eponymous hitman who first appeared in 2014's John Wick returns in John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), and he still can't stay retired. If you thought he was pissed when gangsters stole his car and shot his dog, just wait until you see what he does when they burn his house down.

Don't worry, dog lovers. This film's pooch remains out of danger for most of the running length and emerges unscathed.

Following an opening sequence that wraps up a few loose ends from the first film while re-introducing the character and his brand of violent action, the sequel shows John Wick (Keanu Reeves again) metaphorically trying to bury his past again, dumping his guns and related items back in his basement and re-sealing them under a fresh mix of concrete. But there is a price to be paid for his brief return to his old life.

Appearing at his doorstep is Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who calls in a blood debt Wick made years ago when he wanted out of the criminal underworld. Wick initially refuses, saying he's not that man anymore. D'Antonio responds with the aforementioned arson. After consulting with Winston (Ian McShane returning as well), the manager of the Continental, the hotel for assassins that's very strict about rules, Wick realizes he must do what D'Antonio asks of him: go to Rome and kill Santino's sister, Gianna D'Antonio (Claudia Gerini).

That summary covers about the first forty minutes or so. Up to that point, the movie gives us more of what we saw in the first movie: Reeves' quiet intensity, exceptionally well done action scenes that combine amazing fight choreography with graphic violence, dark laughs about Wick's reputation and character in this underworld in which everyone seems to know him, and fascinating rules and morals that govern this criminal system.

Don't get me wrong. This part of the film remains enjoyable, but the film shifts into high after Wick returns to New York from his assignment in Rome. Proving to be as trustworthy as you'd expect for a guy who put a hit out on his sister, D'Antionio puts out a hit on Wick, an open call that apparently every hitman or hitwoman in New York hears about and tries to cash in on.

Unlike another action series fronted by Keanu Reeves, John Wick: Chapter 2 keeps its protagonist human and vulnerable. True, he's the ultimate fighting machine and a master of the head shot and neck snap, and countless goons fall at his hands, but Wick himself takes a beating. He's frequently injured and bleeding, and his slick, focused style gives way to desperation and less elegant tactics. He even has to beg for help at one point.

But it's not just physical. In the original, John Wick grieved for his wife and sought vengeance when that memory was harmed. In the sequel, John is forced to question his very soul. Would his wife recognize the person he has become on his path to revenge? That question is to put to him by Gianna, and near the end, when Wick goes after Santino at a museum, he chases him into an exhibit called the "Reflections of the Soul," and it is filled with mirrors. Visual similarities to The Lady from Shanghai are no doubt intended.

The movie is essentially Wick's descent into his own personal Hell (in fact, when he takes an elevator that will lead him to the museum, he is warned that's exactly where he's going) and confronting his demons. Director Chad Stahelski baths the film in a lot of neon light and shadows, giving the film a nightmarish quality at times. By the end, as Wick pushes up against and even breaks the established laws of the underworld, he is in essence damning himself, or at least falling from grace.

For as dark and grim as the movie is, it's also very funny. The theater I saw it in alternated between laughing and wincing. Some of the laughs are callbacks from the original. Remember the anecdote about how Wick killed three men in a bar with a pencil; well, now we get to see how he uses a pencil as a weapon, and the result is both gruesome and hilarious.

Some of the character details give the movie some wonderful flavor, like the assassin who looks like a sumo wrestler, probably the most unlikely looking hired killer ever. His attempt on Wick plays like a more violent version of the fight between Cary Elwes and Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. This fight is intercut with other assassination attempts on Wick, including one by female violinist near the subway. At another point, Wick and Cassian (Common), a vengeful bodyguard to Gianna, clandestinely trade silenced pistol shots with each other while moving in a crowded place, completely unnoticed.

The action scenes are top-notch: brutal, intense, and filled with really cool moments that could only be pulled off by people who know how to do these moves. Like its predecessor, the movie favors wide shots and eschews frantic, jumpy editing, so we always have a clear view of what's happening. The film also makes great use of its locations. I mentioned the hall of mirrors, but there are also the Roman catacombs, the subway platforms, the public fountains, and the concert.

I also like the details that flesh out this world more. We see how Wick prepares for an assignment, getting fitted for a bulletproof suit and buying weapons in a secret place where the arms dealer acts like a high class bartender. Santino's top lieutenant (Ruby Rose) is apparently mute, communicating only by signing, which, if it tells you how good she is, is never a problem for her. When Wick and Cassian first fight in Rome, they crash through the window of another hotel for assassins and are scolded/threatened for conducting business on its grounds. They immediately obey and sit down to talk at the bar, where they remember each other's favorite drinks.

Reeves again proves Wick might very well be his best character, bringing the right amount of quiet, brooding intensity and a professional sense of humor and dignity. Ian McShane gets more to do than he did in the first movie, and his final moments  with Wick might be the most poignant moment in the series. The rest of the cast, both returning members and newbies, work great, but special mention must be made of both Peter Stormare, who cameos in the opening sequence as a Russian mobster, and Laurence Fishburne, who leads a criminal network that monitors the streets by disguising its members as derelicts.

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