Friday, June 02, 2017
My review of the first "John Wick" is here. You may recall that I was fairly unhappy with that film, whose only redeeming quality, in my opinion, was the fight choreography. The plot and dialogue were limp, lame, and preposterous, and Keanu Reeves found himself outclassed by a stable of far-superior dramatic actors.
In "John Wick, Chapter 2" (JW2), Reeves's acting hasn't improved much (if at all), and he's still outclassed, but the sequel is, overall, a marked improvement over the original. The very thing that turned me off about the first movie—the notion of a shadowy, globe-spanning assassins' guild—became a major selling point in the second. I came away a believer, given how much effort was put into the world-building this time around. Credit for my change in attitude goes mainly to the writers and to actor Ian McShane, whose Winston reveals himself, near the end of the film, to be something approaching a god. That reveal, executed with deft minimalism, nearly gave me goosebumps as I realized what I was seeing.
JW2 begins pretty much where the first film leaves off: in the original, Wick (Reeves) takes down a large chunk of the New York-based Russian mafia for having stolen his car and killed his dog, a tender-hearted little beagle puppy that had been a final gift from Wick's wife, something she had arranged to be sent to John upon her death as a way to help him grieve "unalone," as he puts it. As JW2 begins, Wick is just about to recover his stolen car, which is being held in a chop shop by Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare, in a "Constantine" reunion with Reeves), the brother of mob boss Viggo, who was killed at the end of the first movie. Wick ruthlessly murders all of Abram's henchmen but leaves Abram himself alive.
At home once again with his now-battered car, Wick receives a visit from Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a man who, some time ago, had helped Wick get out of the hitman business. He comes to Wick with a job to do, and he pressures Wick by revealing a special medallion called a Marker, which represents a blood-debt that must be honored on pain of death. Wick sees the Marker but refuses Santino's request without even asking what the job is; Santino responds by destroying Wick's home with a grenade launcher. Wick once again visits the Continental, a luxe hotel exclusively for assassins and other underworld figures in New York. While there, Winston (McShane) persuades Wick to reconsider his obligations, as the refusal of a Marker means the breaking of one of two cardinal rules, the other rule being that no "business" must ever be conducted on Continental grounds (think: the "no combat on holy ground" rule in "Highlander").
It turns out that what Santino wants is to have his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) killed: she sits at the High Table, a sort of board of directors for the global underworld, and Santino wants her seat for himself. Wick and Gianna are old friends, however, and this complicates things. Gianna is also no slouch in terms of her retinue: while Santino has the young-but-fearsome mute bodyguard Ares (Australian pixie Ruby Rose) at his side, Gianna has stone-faced Cassian (taciturn rapper Common, the only actor in this film more wooden than Keanu Reeves), who is extremely loyal. Wick reluctantly accepts the job and goes to Rome, where he stays at the Roman branch of the Continental, this branch being run by flinty-eyed Julius (Franco Nero, the original Django, doing an inadvertent World's Most Interesting Man impression). At the hotel, Wick arms and armors himself with help from the Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz, playing his role as if he were in "Kingsman") and a vaguely sinister tailor (Luca Mosca) who rivals Garak the tailor of the Obsidian Order on "Deep Space Nine."
Without our going more deeply into the plot, it should be obvious, at this point, that John Wick has no pleasant choices ahead of him. If he kills Gianna, he's murdering a longtime friend and earning the eternal enmity of deadly Cassian, her bodyguard. If he kills Santino, who has forced Wick's hand by flashing the Marker at him, Wick will spend the rest of his life running from a global network of assassins—Ares among them—thanks to the fatwa-like contract that will be put out on him. If he refuses to kill anyone, he desecrates the agreement represented by the Marker, and his life is forfeit. This, friends, is a much better plot than what we got in the first chapter, and the movie is much more interesting for it because Wick's dilemma significantly increases dramatic tension. It helps, too, that we get a "Matrix" reunion, as Laurence Fishburne steps out to help Wick in the role of the Bowery King, a shadowy power in New York City whose life Wick had spared years ago.
JW2 pays homage to Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" with a hall-of-mirrors fight near the end, and it even has some moments of goofy comedy, such as when Wick and Cassian are surreptitiously trying to shoot each other while walking in a crowd. Mostly, though, the action is simple and straightforward; director Chad Stahelski stands aside and lets the story unfold for us. Again, though, I have to come back to the world-building: while the notion of a global assassin's guild is hokey and comic-bookish, the sequel imbues this shadowy demimonde with dignity and gravitas. The guild makes more sense in this film because it's been fleshed out, and all of this detail leads us up to the moment when Ian McShane's Winston reveals the true extent of his power. Granted: if you think about that scene too literally, without suspending your disbelief, it does come off as ridiculous and corny. But in the context of the story, it works, and I for one enjoyed the hell out of it.
Conclusion: JW2 does much to redeem the limp and soggy mess that was JW1. This isn't a profound film that's going to win any Oscars, and Keanu has all the dramatic range of a pet rock, but in terms of action-movie entertainment, it's a fun way to spend two hours.