Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Common, Peter Stormare, Lance Reddick, Ruby Rose, Laurence Fishburne
Runtime: 2 hrs 2 mins
Rating: M18 (Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 16 February 2017
Synopsis: In this next chapter following the 2014 hit, legendary hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is forced back out of retirement by a former associate plotting to seize control of a shadowy international assassins’ guild. Bound by a blood oath to help him, John travels to Rome where he squares off against some of the world’s deadliest killers.
Keanu Reeves is a very specific kind of actor. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; it just means that there is a very specific type of role that he plays and will play best. It is precisely this quality that the Wachowski brothers saw and capitalized on in ‘The Matrix’ and its sequels, and therefore for perfectly good reason that his Neo is one of his most, if not the most, memorable role of his acting career. It is this same quality that his ‘Matrix’ stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch had tapped on when casting Reeves as the eponymous assassin three years ago, and it is no coincidence that John Wick is one of his best roles in years, tapping not just on his lithe physicality and impressive kungfu skillset but also his ability to channel gravitas and wryness with intense focus. Oh yes, Reeves makes it perfectly believable that his John Wick had once killed three people in a bar using only a pencil, as Peter Stormare’s Russian crime tsar reminds us in the opening minutes. So too do we believe that the unstoppable killing machine named ‘The Boogeyman’ had embarked on a revenge-fueled warpath to avenge the death of the puppy gifted to him by his late wife.
‘Chapter Two’ picks up only a few days after the events of the first film, with John Wick retrieving his prized 1969 Black Mustang from New York’s Russian mob before trashing it in a gut-wrenching car chase and brokering a truce to put his former vendetta to rest. No sooner has he retreated back to the quiet suburban life he had created for himself than a former associate comes knocking at his door with a ‘marker’ that Wick had given in exchange for saving his life. In short, Wick owes his Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmacio) a debt, and the latter has come to claim. “Rules – without them, we live with the animals,” says Winston (Ian McShane), an arbiter of the fraternity of assassins known as the Continental to which Wick belongs. Wick has little choice but to honour his previous blood oath – disobedience would mean falling outside the favour, and the protection, of the Continental and the strict codes that bind the far-reaching network of assassins, which would hardly fulfil his intention of living a peaceful life.
Truth be told, it is a terrible double-bind for Wick, and one that would probably make little sense if writer Derek Kolstad had not demonstrated as much discipline in adhering to the norms that he sets out here. Indeed, besides showing us just who Wick is, Kolstad and his directors Stahelski and Leitch had in the first movie successfully teased a fictional universe that plays by its own rubrics, ostensibly so that there can be some semblance of order in an otherwise lawless world. Here, they expand on that universe, further elaborating on the privileges of membership – be it access to its global chain of luxury hotels, tailors of impeccable taste and exceptional bullet-proofing material, or ‘sommeliers’ of impressive range of weaponry. Wick’s debt entails assassinating Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) in order that Santino can assume her existing seat at an all-powerful council of high-level crime lords known as The Table, and upon discharging his dues, Wick finds himself pursued not just by Gianna’s loyal bodyguard Cassian (Common) but also by every other money-hungry assassin hoping to clinch the $7 million bounty Santino has subsequently placed on Wick’s head.
It is a stretch, we admit, to buy into the mythology of ‘John Wick’, especially as the extent of the Continental network extends itself somewhat too ubiquitously – from a violinist in the subway to a heavyset Japanese-looking man in the street to two working-class men in their handyman uniforms, and not to mention the alternate under-the-table ring of street-eat spies headed by Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King. There is also no semblance of police presence here, which is certainly incredulous considering the gratuity of the firepower and blood count. And yet, logic and credibility are second-order considerations here, preceded by classy kick-ass visuals that are conceived for maximum primal impact. Against pools of indigo and ultraviolent, Stahelski and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen orchestrate jaw-dropping sequences of bone-crunching glorious violence with gleeful exuberance, no doubt inspired by the sheer kinetic, balletic violence of early John Woo movies.
More so than in its predecessor, Stahelski displays greater ambition and confidence in his staging of each action sequence. The ancient Catacombs form the backdrop of an intense shootout between Wick and waves of armed attackers right after Wick fulfils his mission to eliminate Gianna. Shortly after, along Rome’s stone-cobbled stairs, Wick and Cassian engage in a fierce mano-a-mano, grunting, grabbing, punching and kicking at each other before crashing through the plate-glass windows of one Continental hotel and retiring to the lounge for a drink, in strict obedience to the first rule not to shed any blood on Continental grounds. Stahelski loves to film his action in breathtaking long takes – and nowhere is this more evident than in the relentless third act, which goes from the fountain at Lincoln Centre to the Calatrava PATH station’s gleaming white subterranean passageways to a vicious knife-fight on board a moving subway train. Saving the best for last, the riveting climax takes place in an elaborate museum hall of mirrors exhibit, where the dizzying reflections are no less a reflection (pun intended) of the meticulous and sophisticated planning that must have gone into it.
Amidst the firepower and fisticuffs, it is Reeves who holds it all together by not just performing his own driving and judo/ jujitsu stunts but also in defining a fascinating lead character whose actions and reactions are driven by his own motivations and morals. Like we said at the start, Reeves is a very specific kind of actor, and Wick is a role which is crafted and designed specifically for him. Though it may be the promise of elegant hyper-violent action which may draw you in (and which it accomplishes exceedingly), ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is ultimately a character vehicle, built on our love and embrace of the titular hitman. And like Reeves’ ‘The Matrix’, ‘John Wick’ exists in a world that turns and moves according to its own rules and rhythm, so how much you enjoy this sequel and the inevitable one after this depends too on how much you subscribe to that. In a time when much of Hollywood seems seized by the ‘Jason Bourne’ style of gritty action, the 'John Wick' franchise is a sweet reminder of beautiful stylized action and as perfect an excuse as any to put aside your conscience and indulge in some visceral bloodletting.
(Stylish, hyperviolent and viscerally thrilling, 'John Wick: Chapter 2' expands the mythology of its predecessor with breathtaking elan, and features Keanu Reeves at his laconic best)
Review by Gabriel Chong