ON IN CINEMAS
John Wick: Chapter 2
This sequel starts with a frantic action sequence as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retrieves his prized Mustang from the clutches of Abraham Jan Tarasov (Peter Stormare), the brother of Russian mobster Viggo from the first film. Soon after arriving back home however he is visited by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who returns the “Marker” John originally passed to him in order to break free of the criminal underworld. Passing the Marker back means that John has to return a favour to him - something the latter refuses to do as he wants to stay out of his previous life. This angers Santino and causes him to destroy John’s home with a rocket launcher. Both John and his new dog survive and head for the Continental Hotel which was introduced in the last film as the front for the organisation he works for.
Front desk clerk Charon (Lance Reddick) agrees to take in John’s dog while the latter goes to Winston (Ian McShane) for advice on how to deal with Santino. Winston tells him that dishonouring the Marker is an offence punishable by death according to the underworld’s highest committee (known as the “Table of Twelve”). He advises John to go to Santino and agree to carry out the favour. It turns out that Santino wants John to assassinate his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) as she has inherited her father’s seat at the Table of Twelve, and if she is done away with Santino will get the place instead.
John heads to Rome’s own branch of the Continental and gets kitted up with the finest weapons and bulletproof suits. He then hunts Gianna down in her hideout in some ancient ruins. Things seem super-easy for him when she resigns to her fate and commits suicide by slitting her wrists in her bath. However on his way out John discovers that the mute Ares (Ruby Rose) is after him as he’s been marked as a loose end to be cleared up. He discovers that Santino has put a $7 million contract on his head, bringing every assassin in the underworld out of the woodwork.
The original John Wick was a surprisingly good low-budget action movie that helped to revive Keanu Reeves’s ailing career. Director Chad Stahelski showed himself to be one of the few directors working in America to be able to stage action sequences with a balletic grace similar to East Asian filmmakers, while the quieter moments were steeped in a sense of arty style reminiscent of Nicholas Winding-Refn. The plot was a fairly standard Punisher-style revenge piece but it delivered the testosterone-pumped thrills action lovers crave, and then some. This sequel has been granted twice the budget ($40 million vs. its predecessor’s $20 million), a wider range of shooting locations (Montreal and Rome in addition to the original’s New York) and a far more ambitious storyline that delves further into the complicated political machinations within the shady organisation John has found himself drawn back into against his will.
Once more it positively drips style with its dark, neon-lit environments and artily-framed master shots. Again the screen is filled with garish comic book subtitles for the non-English pieces of dialogue (which now include Italian and sign language as well the original’s Russian). There’s also a subtle wit derived from the classy surface details glossing over the organisation’s business - such as a weapon salesman presenting his wares as if they were an array of fine wines, or the manager of Rome’s branch of the Continental enquiring (in Italian) if John’s after the Pope. The cast again well-chosen. Keanu proves to be an engagingly grounded screen presence in addition to performing a lot of his own stunts. Ian McShane has pure suaveness and veteran acting chops as Winston. Lance Reddick effortlessly steals his few scenes as the world’s most politely accommodating hotel desk clerk. The supporting roles for Franco Nero (an Italian action star of the 1960s, 70s and 80s) and Laurence Fishburne (who starred with Keanu in The Matrix and its sequels) are a clear nod to the film’s heritage, but are so well integrated into the story that they sidestep the excessive sense of hip referential self-consciousness that inflicts so many films nowadays.
It’s unlikely that any audience members will be left shortchanged on the action front either. There are four lengthy sequences, and the final two in particular - featuring John evading and taking down one assassin after another in New York’s transport network in a manner that Jason Bourne could only dream of, and a bloody shootout in a museum culminating in a Lady from Shanghai/Enter the Dragon-style showdown in an art exhibit that functions as a hall of mirrors - surely merit at least being shortlisted for some kind of “desert island all-time action favourites” list. The level of violence and blood seems to have been pushed up a notch or two for this one, with a lot more splatter from the ubiquitous headshots this time round, plus an actual demonstration of John’s legendary ability to kill using only a pencil (something the original merely discussed in dialogue). The BBFC may have passed this one with a “15” rating after requesting cuts to Gianna’s suicide scene, but even after the snips it definitely borders on the level of violence that might be expected from an “18”.
So - why don’t I like this one quite as much as the original? For one thing those complex plot machinations tend to cause the proceedings to drag a little at times, particularly during the first half. Overthinking the story also tends to result in it falling apart; surely John, being one of the most feared characters in the underworld, would already know full well that rejecting the Marker would land him in a whole heap of trouble. There’s another scene near the end where he makes a similarly obvious oversight. Still, despite these reservations it’s an undeniably superior piece of action entertainment.
Runtime: 122 mins
Dir: Chad Stahelski
Script: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Franco Nero, Peter Stormare