Thursday, December 7, 2023

John Wick Is High Octane Fun At Its Best

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Finally a sequel I actually wanted. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a bullet filled, action packed hell of a good time.

Chad Stahelski brings a grit and single-mindedness to the sequel.  The action is well photographed and choreographed. It’s also just a visually stunning movie to watch; there’s an ecstatic glee to the camera work by Dan Lausten. Stahelski and Lausten have not just crafted a well-made film, they’ve made a visual delight of a movie. The recent glut of action movies have been so visually tacky and, honestly, just plain dim and ugly, it’s refreshing to see Stahelski and company play with color and perspective. There’s a fight scene at the end at the Lincoln Art Center that has shades of Enter The Dragon as well as John Boorman’s Point Blank.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. John Wick: Chapter 2, much like the first John Wick, is a pared down minimalist version of the action hero trope. Derek Kolstad has whittled the extraneous down to the nub. Whereas the first movie dealt with John Wick coming out of retirement to avenge the murder of his puppy and the theft of his beloved car; Chapter 2 is an equally sly parody of the genre.

After retrieving his car from Abraham (Peter Stromare), John Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns to his house. He has a new dog, a fully grown pit bull this time, with no name. He puts away his guns and Assassin’s gold, buries them in the basement floor once again, and takes a breather. Sadly for men like John Wick, the phone will always ring when they’re in the bath tub.

An old friend has come to visit, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), and he’s come to collect on a marker. It seems John made a deal with Santino to leave his life as the most feared hit man. By coming back, even temporarily, he’s now required to abide by the Code of Honor. He refuses.

Santino blows up his house. If we’ve learned anything from the first movie, it’s that John Wick does not like people stealing, killing, or blowing up his things. Unfortunately, he did give Santino his marker. As Winston (Ian McShane) informs him, he has little choice but to honor it.

Side note, I loved how at almost every step of the way John Wick runs into more and more Rules and Codes of Conduct he must obey. I would never have imagined that a secret underground society of assassins could be so larded with rules and regulations.

Wick goes to Santino and reluctantly agrees to honor the marker. We, of course, know that as soon as John has completed his task, he will kill Santino. Santino knows this as well. We also know that somehow or other Santino will double cross him. Wick does not seem to know this, or if he does, he is unconcerned. Both are probable.

Santino wants his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), killed. It seems their father left her the seat at the High Table in his will—the High Table being the governing body of the underground society of assassins. Wick agrees. All this is done, of course, with a straight face. Stahelski never shows his hand. With every code that must be honored and every rule that must be followed, Wick sighs and complies. It’s as if we can feel the filmmakers smiling at the edges of the screen at the absurdity of it all.

The real tour de force in all of this is they manage to grind out some actual pathos. Wick truly doesn’t want to come back. There’s even the obligatory scene where he screams in anguish as he makes his decision. He doesn’t want to return to the life, but he has no choice. Not just because the screenplay demands it, but it’s really the only thing he does well.

So Wick flies to Rome to kill Gianna. When the two meet, she knows exactly why he’s there. After all, no one ever sees John Wick unless he’s there for a job. Gianna smiles; she also knows who sent him. Wick for his part, is regretful. Though it’s never spelled out, there is the implication that the two hold a great fondness for each other.

The scene has a surprising emotional heft as Gianna slits her wrists. Wick holds her hand, as she lays dying. I do love that in all the absurdity of the John Wick movies, John Wick himself, a harbinger of mass death though he may be, is a nice guy. There’s no cruelty in his kills.

As Wick leaves he passes Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common), and the two men eye each other. Cassian is wary. After all, no one sees John Wick…you get the idea. The two men hold a terse conversation shrouded in code and innuendo. Of course, Cassian must avenge the death of his ward.

After Wick escapes Cassian, he calls Santino. Santino informs Wick he has to open a contract on Wick. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t avenge the death of my own sister?” It took all of my power not shout at the screen “That’s some catch that catch-22!”

So John Wick must outrun Cassian who must avenge Gianna’s death. He also has to hunt down Santino for making him come back while also evading Santino’s avenging hit men for killing his sister. And so it goes and so it goes.

Keanu Reeves is so good as John Wick it’s a wonder he’s ever played anything else. Rarely has an actor and character fit so perfectly together. Reeves is pitch perfect as the terse and fatalistic virtuoso of violence. He’s constantly fighting against the tidal wave of expectations and ideas of what he should be doing. Yet, when he makes a decision, he commits to it.

He’s’ still human. Among all the superheroic gun play and all of the jaw-dropping hand-to-hand combat scenes, he bleeds. He gets tired. He sighs when he realizes a fight he thought was over isn’t. Reeves’s hangdog face is in a constant flux between intense concentration and tired resignation.

As a sequel, it does everything it needs to do. It answers questions we had from the first one while raising more questions that most certainly will be answered in the inevitable third movie. But above all, it’s fun. It’s expertly made fun. The people behind John Wick: Chapter 2 have a deep abiding love for their craft and us, the audience. Which is more than I can say for some other movies currently in theaters right now.

Image Courtesy of Summit Entertainment


  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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