“John Wick: Chapter 2” Movie Review


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     One of the most respectable aspects about “John Wick: Chapter 2” is director Chad Stahelski’s deep rooted connection with the martial arts world as a former instructor at the famed Inosanto Martial Arts Academy in Los Angeles, California.  Teaching Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts system created by none other than Bruce Lee, Stahelski would go on to work as a stuntman and martial arts choreographer for over 20 years before making his feature directorial debut with 2014’s “John Wick”.  Though the original film was admired by most, it also happened to hit screens within a similar timeframe of “The Raid: Redemption” and “The Raid 2”, both of which set the standard and expectations for modern marital arts choreography as the genre moved away from lumbering stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme and made way for an entirely new brand of brutal action led by ultra athletic stunt performers who let their actions speak louder than the one liners we had become accustomed to.  You get the idea Stahelski and his screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, looked to bring this same kind of mayhem to an American audience, but the results seemed nothing more than average.

     Sequels are rarely better than the original, and I don’t exactly recall anyone asking for a followup to “John Wick”, but there are clear exceptions to the rule and Stahelski might just be on to something.  Expanding on the world introduced briefly in the first film, “John Wick: Chapter 2” peels back the onion further and reveals a multilayered underground hitman society that significantly boosts the all important foundation for the story and brings meaning to the endless array of carnage depicted on screen.  And though the martial arts sequences still come no where near surpassing the glorious action in “The Raid” films, Stahelski has certainly upped the ante for the sequel, unleashing his lead character with all the bravado of the very best action heroes in all of cinema, while harking back to John Woo’s early films like “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled”.

     That character, of course, is John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves with all the charisma, confidence, and physicality necessary to win over the audience as he dispatches bad guys at a rate not seen since Arnold was starring in 80s action flicks like “Commando”.  In the opening sequence, Peter Stormare appears in a cameo he can now do in his sleep as the brother of the Russian mobster John battles in the first film.  You may recall the Russian mob is quite familiar with John since he worked for them prior to his self announced retirement and through those exploits had developed quite a reputation while earning the nickname “The Boogeyman”.  Taking place shortly after the first film ends, John goes head first into the compound where his beloved classic Mustang is located and proceeds to cut through wave after wave of variously skilled henchman on his way to the top.  Taking a page out of the opening sequence from “Desperado”, Stormare’s character provides descriptive narration as John moves in and out of the shadows, killing all who stand in his way, until he reaches the narrator and provides his terms of official retirement.

     Essentially, “Chapter 2” remains thinly plotted.  In the hitman world, fellow combatants may find themselves indebted to one another for various reasons, but in this case John owes a life debt to a former co-worker named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio).  When Santino arrives on John’s doorstep intending to collect, John informs him of his recent change in employment and refuses to honor the request, which leads to a highly predictable second and third act.  But what separates “Chapter 2” from the usual mindless action fodder is the inclusion of several well drawn new characters who help bring clarity and sharp detail to a hitman world said to exist among us right before our eyes.  In some cases, these characters, such as Peter Serafinowicz as a weapons “Sommelier”, engages us with witty banter about guns, knives, and bullet proof designer suits as if they are in a fine restaurant ordering directly from a delectable and enticing menu.  In addition, several of John’s adversaries bring real substance and emotion to their roles, particularly Cassian (Common), a high level body guard of a John Wick target, and Ares (Ruby Rose), who manages to create a larger than life presence without uttering a single word in the film.  And did I mention we finally get an onscreen reunion between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne?

     Not to be understated, the work by Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“Crimson Peak”) is a visual feast for the eyes and provides a colorful and cinematic setting for these characters to occupy and kill each other in.  The action comes fast and furious, rarely allowing the audience to breath before the next tough guy challenges John, only to find himself on the losing end of John’s muzzle at point blank range.  Now if that’s all “Chapter 2” was about, we’d be talking about yet another forgettable exercise in over the top action filmmaking.  But like another revenge minded film, “Kill Bill”, “John Wick: Chapter 2” surrounds its violent set pieces with characters who exhibit plenty of personality by way of some clever dialogue which just might lead to you actually caring about whether they live or die.  And with that comparison comes one of the highest compliments I can give a film.  Also, at the very least, we know Bruce Lee would’ve been proud. GRADE: B+