Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: "John Wick: Chapter 2"

There was a certain feral purity to 2014’s “John Wick.” It was your standard chop-socky-and-gunplay action flick featuring a faded star, with one notable departure: the reason behind the orgy of blood made absolutely no sense.

I mean, what kind of retired assassin goes on a killing spree simply because some Russian goons stole his car and killed his puppy? Even if the latter was a posthumous gift from his recently departed wife? The sheer absurdity of the revenge motivation gave the movie a sort of bent edge -- suggesting that the eponymous killer may have just been using it as an unconscious excuse to dive back into this old life.

(Plus, I love puppies but they’re easily replaced. 1969 Mustang Boss 429s, on the other hand, don’t just grow on trees. #Priorities, man.)

The sequel takes up almost literally at the moment the last one ended, with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) wrapping things up with the Russians and reclaiming his ride -- though not without collateral damage.  (If the filmmakers did that to a real 429, we hates them forever.)

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is stylistically a retread of the first, though it takes us deeper into the lore of the underground assassins’ world that we stuck a toe into in the first movie. We learn of a “High Table” of crime syndicates, whom the assassins serve using their own complex set of rules.

This infrastructure includes “The Continental,” a fancy New York hotel that’s neutral ground where the killers can rest, heal and rearm. The manager, Winston (Ian McShane), enforces the house policy with severe exactitude. Now we learn there are Continentals in virtually every major city, including Rome, where most of the action takes place. Wick doles out gold coins accumulated during his gun-for-hire days to pay his way.

It turns out that Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime family prince, has a “marker” from John Wick, a promise to repay an old debt no matter what. Santino wants to kill his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can take her place at the High Table. Of course, Wick has sworn off his old life and will need… convincing.

Stunts are at the heart of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” so it’s no surprise it was directed by longtime stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, who made his debut behind the camera with the last movie. Derek Kolstad returns as script man.

I like that the mayhem happens at a believable speed, without a whole lot of fast editing to cover up the choreography. Wick’s signature move is spinning around multiple opponents, grappling them and disabling with shots or kicks, and then finishing them off with a cap to the head.

Wick’s good, of course, but so is everybody else, and he takes a lot of hits that slow him down. For instance, when he gets stabbed in the leg, he limps for the rest of the movie. And his face gets gradually chewed up into dog food.

New opponents this go-round are Common as Cassian, an old pro in the game with a shared history and respect, and Ruby Rose as Ares, the chief lieutenant for Santino. Rose makes an impression with her boyish suits and haircut, and the fact her character is mute. Conveniently, Wick speaks sign language, so they can taunt each other via subtitles.

Laurence Fishburne turns up as a sort of shambolic king of the homeless underground, and John Leguizamo returns in a cameo as Wick’s friend and able mechanic.

Like a lot of Keanu Reeves’ performances, this one is rather hard to penetrate. Depending on the material, he can seem cool or wooden. He under-acts to the point of seeming like he doesn’t care about the talkie scenes, and is saving his energy for the fights.

I like that he doesn’t have the sort of snarly bravado we’re used to in action heroes; his John Wick genuinely seems like he’d rather be sitting around his mansion doing Sad Keanu memes, or anything else.

This movie vibrantly carries on the John Wick story, satisfactorily expands upon its world and makes no bones about setting up a part three. It even offers a possible reason why he gave such a damn about that vehicle -- beyond the fact that it’s the greatest muscle car ever made, of course.

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