Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity

Score: 4 out of 5

The sequel to one of the best action films of the decade so far, one that's already (rightfully) being appraised as a classic, John Wick: Chapter 2 lives up to the high bar set by its predecessor. It may not have wowed me the same way the first one did, seeing as how I went in knowing what to expect, but it's still an absolutely badass movie. Keanu Reeves proves once again that he's still got it in his fifties just as he was when he did The Matrix, while the action scenes are some of the best I've seen this side of The Raid and a great supporting cast, from veteran character actors to young new stars, holds up the rest of the big tent. We're a long way from where we were just a few years ago when I was writing an obituary for the hard-R action movie; if you're a fan of violent, straightforward awesomeness, don't let this one slip by.

We start by being pulled right back into the criminal underworld that the first film established, with Reeves as the title character launching a one-man raid on a Russian mob-owned garage in order to reclaim the classic Mustang that the brat from the first film stole from him. After taking it back (not entirely in one piece), John is greeted by Santino D'Antonio, an Italian mob boss who he still owed a debt to when he retired. Given that John's actions in the first film pulled him out of retirement, Santino feels obligated to collect on his side of their debt, demanding that John assassinate his sister Gianna so that he can claim her seat at the "High Table" of international crime lords. John's initial refusal leads Santino and his goons to burn down his house and leave him with only his dog, and upon realizing that continuing to refuse to honor his debt could lead to even worse consequences, John flies out to Rome to do the deed. Predictably, Santino betrays him immediately afterwards and calls in a $7 million bounty on John's head, forcing John into a fight for survival against a veritable army of assassins while he seeks revenge against Santino.

Much like in the first film, the plot is there for one reason and one reason only: to give an expert assassin a reason to murder as many people as humanly possible for two hours. Everything I said about Keanu Reeves in my review of the first film still holds true here, with this film, much like the last, making the most of his particular talents as an actor by giving him a cold, steel-hearted executioner to run wild with while demonstrating shades of something meaner and more primal laying just under the surface. Here, he's motivated as much by simple survival as he is by revenge, but he's no less believable as a guy who may be a one-man army, but clearly isn't invincible, treading the fine line between John McClane and the Terminator. Director Chad Stahelski knows how to show off his moves in fight scenes that are simultaneously graceful and brutal, whether Reeves is blowing goons' brains out in scenes that can best be described as "gun porn" (right down to a near-fetishistic scene laying out the make and model of each of John's guns) or wrestling them to the ground in hand-to-hand combat inspired by a mix of MMA and more traditional "Hollywood" martial arts. The locales for the action are as inspired as what happens in them, ranging from a music festival to the Roman catacombs to the New York subway to an art gallery. Much like in the first film, merely describing this film's action scenes beyond their Hong Kong inspirations doesn't come close to doing them justice; they must be seen and absorbed to get the full effect.

Reeves isn't the only great player in the cast. The rapper/actor Common plays a counterpart to John who had been protecting Gianna and seemingly regrets having to go after an old friend of his, but knows that, in the criminal underworld, loyalty to your boss is paramount. Ruby Rose, meanwhile, delivers a performance that may as well be a lengthy audition for a leading role in a future film as a badass action heroine. Without a word of dialogue (her character is mute), her character, Santino's right-hand woman, is not only someone who can make a suit and tie look dead sexy, but also one who holds her own in every scene she's in, even in her final throwdown with John himself. Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio acquits himself as the villain Santino, a man who talks a big game about honor and debt but is more than happy to stab his partners in the back to keep them quiet. Beyond them, the supporting cast is filled with character actors like Laurence Fishburne, Peter Stormare, Ian McShane, and even Franco Nero who often appear for only one or two scenes, but who each leave an impression. The world of crime and assassins on display in the first film continues to be fleshed out here, producing an environment that I may not want to live in, but one that I'd definitely love to jump into for a few hours and raise some hell in before going back to my boring suburban existence. It's an underworld that feels as inspired by "urban fantasy" stories (minus the supernatural elements) as it does by more conventional crime dramas, a whole separate sphere existing in the shadows alongside our own that feels almost tailor-made for the movies but which never comes off as ridiculous or unbelievable, thanks to a fine attention to detail, a great supporting cast, and world-building that shows rather than tells.

The Bottom Line:

You don't need to have seen the first film to appreciate this one (though if you haven't... seriously?), but if you liked that film, or if you just want a good modern action film that hearkens back to '90s classics while still being its own beast, you'll have a blast with this.

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