Nobody just kills John Wick and lives to tell about it. To that end, you would think, at least from a preventive viewpoint, that his reputation would span far enough to the resident killers, thugs and elitist psychopaths operating in the criminal underworld at large but… nope. Eventually some ambitious villain will come along and push things further into entropy – a realm lined well with the corpses of underlings so as to reaffirm just how much of a gluttonous, self-important asshole one has to be to witness Wick’s reputation in action the hard way, after the fact.
It is stupid, really, almost to the affect of a run-on joke, and one which makes it all the more fun and forgiveable with what we are immersed in for Summit Entertainment’s new release, John Wick: Chapter Two, a film not easy to come by these days and particularly with regard to the Bourne/Taken formula of action most studios are akin to believing works. And to answer the question before it is asked…no… No, no it is not. Much to our delight, director Chad Stahelski and his team knew this as we now come to a new stage being set in recent years by critics and vloggers who are learning more and more about what sells action and how it needs to be sold in conjunction with telling a story… Proof that Hollywood is slowly beginning to listen. Maybe.
For starters though, really, I have to give it to actor Riccardo Scamarcio; As much as they say an action movie is only as good as its villain, this theory could not be more true, as tested as it is in this newest installment of the titular hitman saga from Stahelski and the inner-workings of 87eleven Productions. Once and again from a script by Derek Kolstad, we see the return of actor Keanu Reeves as John Wick who, after avenging his wife’s legacy against the immediate Tasarov family and its criminal empire, journeys his way back into the underworld after being forcefully obligated to keep a blood oath he once made with former cohort, Santino D’Antonio (played by Scamarcio) – a precursor among many of this fruitious saga’s events that are not seen while seamlessly implied without abandon.
However, as much as a means to an end as it should have been, his newest mission grants him far from the sort as Wick lands in Rome, Italy, to carry his assignment only to find himself double crossed. Blood is spilled and carnage ensues in the most dynamic of battles against the Continental’s most deadliest of deadly as Wick’s fight for survival upends with a price on his head and a target on his back from all corners of the world. With Continental politics in play, D’Antonio gains the upperhand sigaling a looming mafia war for territorial control of New York City and it’s up to Wick to navigate the scant resources at his disposal to stop him with an ever-increasing bodycount, and a trail of blood in his wake that may never see an end in sight.
Apart from the other releases over the weekend and for numerous reasons, I was more than thrilled to be seeing an R-rated action movie on the big screen as these are things I campaign for on a regular basis and Reeves, with this role, has earned my utmost respect as a consumer, fan and film critic. Honestly however, I did go into the first film unable to shake Reeves’s dead-faced Neo look a la The Matrix Trilogy, and so the sequel suffers a little bit on that end, and that is not to say that the actor doesn’t give this role his every last ounce. He certainly puts his best foot, fist and grapple forward for a good portion of the stunts being performed in the film. For what it is worth, he makes it work.
Scamarcio, in the meantime, really vexes you in his portrayal of the crime boss with whom Wick shares his past, almost brilliantly encapsulating your interest in learning how their history unfolded and what led the D’Antonio character to be the toxic villain that he is now. He is the kind of villain whose God complex echoes that of every single person you might have hated in your life, only worse and so for this, he really does carry the film’s afflicting tone as we witness Wick during this trepidating period in his life, and essentially, the film’s story as we learn more about Wick and just why it has become so damn hard for him to leave the old life behind. And indeed, it is the story that pulls you into the movie in the first place and like the terrific screenwriter that he is, Kolstad proves just that. Even as we start meeting new characters right from the top, the film never forgets its roots, and almost every key thing you were introduced to in the first film is brought back in the sequel, from Wick’s memory of late wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), his circle of limited acquaintances (supportint actors Thomas Sadoski, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick and Ian McShane), to the notorious method he implements in killing people with a pencil. Yes, we finally get THAT scene.
We meet actor Common who stars as Cassian, along with actress Ruby Rose in the mute role of Ares, both who are bodyguards to their respective wards and are familiar with Wick in some capacity or another, despite this not stopping them in their endeavors. We also meet seasoned thesp, actor Franco Nero as the owner of the Continental’s Rome branch in Italy, as well as actress Claudia Gerini who plays Santino’s equally morally upended sister. This is the world Stahelski and Kolstad bring you into for The Continental and how it functions in all its levels, and it gets even deeper as well with its internal operations largely comprised of women in sleveless blouses and short skirts operating switchboards and computers printing out contracts en masse like something out of a 1950’s black and white featurette. This probably won’t sit too well among some, but for a fictional criminal empire, I’ll allow it.
Some of the action has issues at times looking less staged and there is at least one moment where the gun action does seem a little stifling. However, neither of these are hugely distracting to the average viewer and I guess it depends on who is watching; I personally enjoyed it for the many moments I was left beside myself with the calamity that ensued and with each fight scene encapsulating Wick’s instinctive movements. Much ado was the hype surrounding the viral videos circulating online showing Reeves’s extensive firearm training and certainly establishes his coolness among most fans as part of the payoff. The choreography is often repetitive but straightforward and does have its intricate moments, and Reeves undoubtedly gets down and dirty in this movie and he never lets up. As a plus, the camerawork couldn’t be more consistent and stable when it needed to be, and exemplifies just how important it is to see the action that is going on in the movie, making the John Wick saga everything that Taken and Bourne should have been in their respective sequels.
Rose’s character was a bit mininal in presentation which may irk some folks as big as she is as an actress to many of her fans. That said, if you’re a fan, you might find yourself pining for more of her only to be a bit more disappointed than otherwise, although I rather got a kick out of her character as Ares and didn’t really feel much was taken away from her, or Common for that matter as they both hold their own in this film. The elephant in the room of course is the obligatory class reuinion between Reeves and actor Lawrence Fishburne since starring together in the Matrix Trilogy, wherein he now plays reluctant bedfellow to Wick as old enemy-turned-questionable ally, The Bowery King. Synonymously, we get a small moment that almost mirrors one from The Matrix Revolutions almost beat for beat, though thankfully the film doesn’t wander too far in this minor nod to mutual career history and nostalgia between director and cast.
The John Wick saga, surprisingly as much as it is an R-rated affair geared toward its audience, is not for everyone, I am afraid. Clearly people have their different tastes and I know lately I’m not about to pander to certain crowds just to help sell a movie and win the approval of a targeted niche. In all honesty though, I love a serious action movie that isn’t afraid to embellish a little bit, or even just mindless in the most fun of ways (flying cars a la Furious Seven and what have you), and with this, I love what the John Wick universe has to offer in all its prospects – from its players to the grand settings and maybe even the overall fanfare. Yes, I am fan. I love that we have, in Stahelski, a director among a handful in this day and age who is not only good at what he does when it comes to working stunts into film, but is coming into himself as a fully-fledged filmmaker however which way he moves forward.
Some would say that Reeves isn’t the best pick for a role like this and I agree to only a few areas on this, but that doesn’t lessen the amount of effort the actor has put in and the effect it has accrued on screen. I love that we have a film that, for all intents and purposes, gets much right when it comes to making an action movie with elaborate fight choreography and stunt set ups, and filming it all in a way that does its performers AND viewers justice as opposed to a way that makes you want to punch Olivier Megaton and Paul Greengrass in their faces, Ip Man style. I love the music and energy that this flourishing saga presents, as well as the compelling nature of the world that is established with a protagonist desperately seeking a way out only to get pulled back in and with almost no reprieve; I’m reminded of the last shot in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight with Christian Bale’s portrayal Batman turning fugitive and speeding off into the night on the batcycle after the death of Harvey Dent. That was a sick cliffhanger ending.
Points for perfection notwithstanding – be them gained or lost however which way you choose to measure, if there is a filmmaker or screenwriter who can come up with an even greater hitman saga than this (don’t cheat and say Sicario 😉), I humbly welcome him or her to the challenge. John Wick gives you a world of violence, action and thrills with a character who has all the purpose and reason in the world to keep fighting no matter how much it hurts and he never stops moving. The dynamics differ here, but it feels pretty symbolic in a way with respect to how one generally cope with adversity. You feel it weighing on Wick, especially in one scene where he’s sitting in the incinerated pile of junk that used to be his room with his beloved dog next to him.
He is in despair and almost to an extent where it feels nearly imminent that he ought to give up and yet still, he keeps going Why? Because there’s no point in giving up your life and dying on someone else’s terms, so why should you? This theme, I think, truly gives meaning to the John Wick saga. In that sense, I guess in the same way that you don’t just try and kill John Wick and live to tell about it, you don’t just leave the criminal underworld just to get back in and expect an exit with no strings attached. Rest assured, Wick has a fight ahead of him.