Review: John Wick: Chapter Two

Another great sequel, John Wick: Chapter Two unfortunately wasn’t as good as the first for me, but that said that it’s far better than most action movies.

Not long after the events of John Wickthe titular assassin (Keanu Reeves) resolves some unfinished business before retiring again. Unfortunately a debt tying him to Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) reels him back into the shadowy, strange culture of assassins, where he alternately butts heads or just shoots returning and new characters, including assassin hotelier Winston (Ian McShane), fellow assassins Cassian (Common) and Ares (Ruby Rose), and a new entrant to the game, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).

You can see if you check my review above just how much I enjoyed the first John Wick. I rewatched it before seeing Chapter Two, and it’s absolutely fantastic – the problem with Chapter Two is it loses the novelty and quite a lot of the humour from writer Derek Kolstad’s original, and tries to make up for that with more action. For a large part of the first half, this was enough to keep me entertained, but the second half meanders towards its conclusion, the only part that adds some vim. In the first film we had no idea who John was, and his stunning vengeance for his puppy works perfectly, with mobsters and assassins speaking of him in hushed tones and reverence (before being murdered).

Here, we know only too well what he’s capable of, there’s no particularly stirring reason for him to get back into it (revenge is always more fun for the audience when it comes to motive), and the comedic reverence appears straight away in one of the funnier scenes, and is then dropped, John appearing diminished compared to the unbelievable amount of assassins coming his way. I loved the action, but towards the end it almost starts to drag, which is never a great thing – a tiny bit of editing might have solved that particular issue. However, in fleshing out the world of Wick (the assassin hotels, currency and other idiosyncracies) Chapter Two plays a blinder – other things were set up for future movies, or were hidden asides, and it’s this side that brings the film up a notch, particularly in a great montage when Wick arrives in Rome – we see other assassin hotels, special tailors and armourers.

johnwicknewDirector Chad Stahelski handles the action fantastically – if you’ve seen the first you know what’s coming, but if you’re new (why would you watch this one first?!) the former stuntman knows exactly how to shoot action for film. There’s no shaky cam, no quick edits – everything is choreographed, shot clearly and brutally by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, so Reeves, the other actors and stuntmen are vibrantly lit as they gorily, violently fight and kill. What Stahelski might do with other action movies is very exciting to think about (imagine his take on Bond, for example), and beyond the less-gripping central plot, it’s the set-pieces that drag the movie up in my estimations.

Reeves loses a little of the first film’s charm because there’s no introduction, no character building. We’re thrown in with him immediately and he’s all business (more or less), so the character becomes more of a cipher, when before he had wisecracks, his ridiculous abilities and a strong motive. The actor is still fantastic, particularly in a number of smaller, talkier scenes and in his 100 percent commitment to the action (Tom Cruise has nothing on Reeves and his ability with a gun). It’s just that he loses out by having less about him this time around, and less to actually “act” with.

The supporting cast is filled with scenery-chewing character actors as before, and some newbies. McShane continues to occupy a corner all to himself in Hollywood for gruff, fatherly and suave British gents, while Fishburne is on crazy form as the egotistic and shouty Bowery King (all we need is Carrie-Ann Moss in the inevitable Chapter Three for a Matrix reunion). Common has little acting to do but takes part in some bone-crunching action with Reeves, and stands toe-to-toe, while Aussie actress Ruby Rose is a pleasant surprise as the mute, signing henchwoman Ares, making more of an impact without even speaking. Scamarcio is devilishly Italian as D’Antonio, who is new for the series as a character that honestly knows what Wick is capable of, but isn’t really fazed, which makes him interesting (though he jumps in and out of the movie unfortunately).

Clark Peters makes a welcome and funny return as hotel doorman Charon, with other comedic characters of his ilk added including Peter Serafinowicz’s wine-punning quartermaster in one of the film’s funnier scenes. Additionally, crazy Nordic actor Peter Stormare (a natural addition to this series) appears early on as a Russian mobster very quickly and amusingly aware he’s in some Wick-related trouble. Other notable appearances include John Leguizamo as the long-suffering mechanic for assassins, and Franco Nero as Winston’s Italian hotelier counterpart.

Musically, Tyler Bates’ soundtrack is a missed opportunity, having worked perfectly in the first but rehashing many of the same beats here, and not taking advantage (bar one excellent scene) of musical marriage with the bone-crunching action. This hurts the film, particularly in long action scenes or fights where the events onscreen could have been made even better with a well-picked slice of score. The film expands beyond New York into Rome, and the contrast between the two locations (gritty, neon and urban versus marbled, polished and historical) is well thought-out. The staging of one particularly fantastic action scene in catacombs only adds to the sense that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing in their first expansion from the recognisable NYC.

A few tweaks, some more music, and a proper motivation – all three would have made this a truly better sequel. As it is, it’s an excellent action film – but I still prefer the first. And look, not one pun on Wick being “back” in this whole review…

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