FILM REVIEW; JOHN WICK: CHAPTER TWO

John Wick: Chapter Two left me with a lot to muse on for a film ostensibly with the simplest of narratives. For one, it is the first R-rated film I’ve seen in a packed theatre. The squeals of girls at the plentiful head shots were a welcome addition to the experience. There was a uniform wince as our eponymous hero tried his version of the Joker’s disappearing pencil magic trick and a lot of faces were buried in palms when knives were whipped out for thrilling close quarter duels.

But for the most part, the audience was undoubtedly transfixed by another visually alluring adrenaline fuelled action romp from Director Chad Stahelski. John Wick: Chapter Two picks up shortly after the first film, where we see Wick (Keanu Reeves) is still dealing with the loss of his wife. In the first film, it was his dog that required avenging and for the first few minutes, he tries to recover his stolen car. A fearful Peter Stormare cameos as the brother of the main Russian baddie in the first film to remind us of the mythos of John Wick – the Baba Yaga – as his men squeal in pain as they fall to the stealthy and incisive manoeuvrings of our protagonist.

The only step forward Wick appears to have taken in the time since we saw him is getting a new dog – a trusty, disciplined Pitbull, though he hasn’t taken the time to name it. Everything else seems to be pulling him back to a more unconscionable period in time. It doesn’t take long for the plot to kick into action when an Italian crime boss, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at Wick’s suburban home to cash in on a blood oath that paved way for his retirement. The film introduces more edicts and minutiae to this assassin underworld as we learn it is never a good thing to go back on a blood oath. Wick understand he has no choice but he needs and gets a little more convincing.

As expected, fulfilling his end of the bargain requires Wick execute a near-impossible hit. From this point, it becomes a show piece for the prowess of the stunt work and months of gun-fu cum judo chorography. Intense action scene after action scene is hurled our way as Wick unlocks a black hole of treachery and violence. And yeah, everything we see bests the first John Wick, which ushered in a new era of standards for action films. Stahelski’s camera work is exquisite, highlighting the fact there is a lot more to a great action sequence than impressive stunt work. At times the action feels like an entrancing dance number. Wick’s movement is fluid from kill to kill captured in a lot of wide angles with impressive mean lengths. Probably the first thing one is likely to notice in John Wick: Chapter Two is the projection of a silent film showcasing some physical pratfalls and it sets the tone for Stahelski’s direction and the film’s pacing. A lot of the time, the visuals do all the talking and our director effortlessly infuses moments of genuine humour in between intense action sequences.

Aside from the action, dare I say John Wick: Chapter Two just simply looks cool and there are joys to that. Stahelski expands the world he created in 2014 impressively and each new corner we visit is just an enticing visual feast to behold. Yes, we visit the Continental with the glorious Ian McShane and steely Lance Reddick returning as the manager and concierge of the New York branch. But the bump in budget means we get to travel to Italy to suck in more components of this world. McShane’s counterpart in Rome is played by Franco Nero, who adds to what is a festival of delectable supporting character actors. Let’s not forget John Leguizamo, who spends too little time onscreen.

We also have some of the coolest looking baddies since Agent Smith. Wick has to contend with Santino’s mute enforcer Ares (Ruby Rose) who is projected as an imposing presence and never lacks for menace despite her petite frame, at least in comparison to Keanu. There are no physical mismatches when it comes to Cassian (Common), the guardian of the mark at the centre of Wick’s blood oath mission. There was a time I had a man crush on Common after been awed by his gangsta debonair in Smokin’ Aces and boy, would I want to see him anchor an action film in the right hands. Cassian and Wick have a terrific battle of brawns and wit on the streets of Rome in a lush exhibition of hand to hand combat of the highest order. Later in the film, the two imposing figures are at the centre of one of the finest action sequences since Paul Greengrass’ glorious execution of the Algiers sequence. Listen out for PA system telling commuters to report suspicious activity as bruised and bloody wick stumbles through the station dispatching foil after foil with Cassian on his tail.

If the impressive expansion of this world or the action, for some unworldly reason, doesn’t move your needle, surely the mini Matrix reunion will leave you warm inside. Laurence Fishburne shows up as the eccentric Bowery King, yet another addition to this fascinating world. The Bowery King commands a network of deadly hobos armed with tin cups and silenced glocks, and Wick finds himself needing assistance from Fishburne’s character despite their less than cordial history. It may be the nostalgia bias but there is an outpouring chemistry in their short time together, and yes, feel free to re-visit the Matrix, which had a similar impact on the action genre almost two decades ago.

I guess I should pinpoint some bumps in this road too. The action, undeniably exceptional, at times, feels like it’s on auto-pilot just droning on mindlessly. A lot of the henchmen slowly start to resemble your faceless baddie types from superhero movies. And frankly, the “last show” drops before our feet with a dull thud. Stahelski nods to Enter the Dragon in the final set piece but after the concerto of audacious filmmaking earlier, I was underwhelmed. On the flip side, as the action wanes, the pathos to Keanu’s Wick becomes more apparent. As the final shot faded away, I felt a like I had just sat through a neo-western – albeit one with a twisted conscience and lot more bodies.

John Wick: Chapter Two basically takes it predecessor and ramps everything up; tighter suits, deluxe gun porn, more scenery chewing sprinkled throughout, mesmerising cinematography and more Keanu. There is also an impressive degree of cine-literacy exhibited by Stahelski, raising the bar immensely high for the action genre. JCVD, Arnie, Stallone debates were rife when I was growing up. It’s a bit of shame Keanu doesn’t really have contemporary to fuel similar debates. By a function of his era, I reckon Keanu trumps those three action icons from the 80s and 90s. Mind you, he isn’t done. He still has that old man Denzel, Neeson period ahead to cement his status as a great institution of the action genre.

By: Delali Adogla-Bessa/delalibessa@yahoo.com/Ghana

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