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Film review | John Wick Chapter 2: Bone-breaking, head-exploding perfection

John Wick: Chapter 2 is an action movie done right, with a simple but classically validated storytelling structure that establishes an over-the-top world and embraces its overt ridiculousness while doing serious work of crafting a well-paced orgy of violence • 4/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
15 March 2017, 7:45am
Man on the run: Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick
Man on the run: Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick
The retired hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) thrilled audiences looking for some lean, mean action back in 2014, when the original instalment – written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski – saw him blast his way through his former employers in the Russian mob after one of their number murders his new puppy – a final parting gift from his deceased wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan). 

Now, Wick is once again rattled out of peaceful seclusion when a fellow assassin, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes knocking to call in a favour. The Italian hit-man wants John to help him ascend to the highest rank in the Camorra by clearing the path… of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). After being strong-armed into doing the deed – he is bound to Santiago by blood oath – Wick finds himself in a severely compromised position… with possibly the entire international cadre of assassins he used to call his colleagues now hot on his trail.

One thing that’s striking above all in the ever-expanding John Wick universe – a threequel has already been announced – is, well, just how mythical the whole thing is. Taking the classic action heroes of the 80s and 90s as its springboard – and hence succeeding where Sylvester Stallone’s well-meaning but ultimately flat Expendables saga floundered – Kolstad and Stahelski, who return to steer the sequel, go to great pains to create a heightened world that operates within its own logic. A logic which, as this second ‘chapter’ confirms with increased conviction, points to Wick being less of a semi-lobotomised hard-man in the Steven Segal tradition, and more of a multi-linguial, multi-talented hero whose quest rivals the likes of Odysseus in its symbolic import. 

Ian McShane’s Winston is nothing short of a Gandalf/Merlin figure, and the ‘safe space’ for assassins he helps ‘manage’ – it has a strict code of ethics, and even its own currency – made it clear to us from the original film that realism isn’t quite what Kolstad and Stahelski are going with here. This helps them to eschew some of the grating and infantile machismo that dogs films of this type – and that is likely to be thrilling only to boys up to the age of 15 or so – and plunges us into a clearly fantastical world, allowing us to dive into the over-the-top ridiculousness of it all. 

Hobo king: Lawrence Fishburne
Hobo king: Lawrence Fishburne
For make no mistake, Reeves’s Wick – the ‘wooden’ actor finally having found a role that fits his imposing presence and kung-fu skills like a glove – is pitched as someone who is undergoing nothing short of a spirit quest, with religious language generously sprinkled across the film’s lean running time. A betrayal among hit-men is referred to as nothing less than “[stabbing] the devil in the back”, while bazookaing their home is elevated to “burning down the temple”. When a character takes a fateful journey on a rusty black lift, he is reminded that he’s “descending into hell”, while the Roman ‘catacombs’ – really the Baths at Caracalla – that Wick has to weave and shoot himself through in a crucial sequence in fact evoke the underworld… with a bit of a Minatour vibe capping it all off. 

This extends to the wonderfully cartoonish characters that populate the film’s cast – to say nothing of the central ‘parliament of assassins’ conceit – and Laurence Fishburne’s The Bowery King, a pigeon-rearing criminal kingpin whose spies are disguised as New York hobos, would not appear out of place in something as fantastical as Neil Gaiman’s urban fairytale Neverwhere.

Of course, despite the air of loftiness these trappings suggest – whose classical allusions are bolstered in this case by the D’Antiono’s myth-rich and ancient sculpture collection – the ‘Wickverse’ remains a pulp playground first and foremost – with over-the-top characters littering the landscape at crucial plot points while Wick vanquishes an assorted array of gun-and-knife-wielding grunts and henchmen with his trademark ruthless efficiency. 

But if this is a playground, it’s one built with clarity and aplomb: all the toys are chosen and placed carefully, and the rides are well-oiled and powered up for your maximum enjoyment. In what is something of a noble gesture in today’s risk-averse and cost-cutting cinematic landscape, Stahelski and his team eschew the easy route of filming action scenes in lazy, maddening shaky-cam (which saves on editing time to mask stunt-work and the like) and instead shoot everything as clearly as can be. Every punch, stab, kick and bullet lands clearly for the audience to take grisly pleasure in, and the experience is satisfying to the last. 

A pitch-perfect ride from start to finish, John Wick: Chapter 2 is not just a dumb action movie to help pass the time. It’s an action movie done right, with a simple but classically validated storytelling structure that establishes an over-the-top world and embraces its overt ridiculousness while doing serious work of crafting a well-paced orgy of violence. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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