(Note: This extended review contains a synopsis and, y’know, spoilers)
I’m not sure what to think of John Wick Chapter 2.
The original was a lovely little revenge tale about John Wick, a man who happened to be, like, the former best hired killer in mobland (because he retired), hunting down the snot-nosed son of his former Russian Mafia Don employer (and then eventually the former employer well). The snot-nosed kid, played by Theon Greyjoy, sets off the storm of vengeance in this film by murdering Mr. Wick’s dog, and stealing his car. You may be thinking, as many characters in the movie do, that it is just a dog, and just a car, so maybe don’t murder everyone and risk your own well-being in terminally intense pursuit of bloody, bloody vengeance. But, you see, the dog was a final gift from Mr. Wick’s wife, who, at the beginning of the film, has just passed away from some unspecified illness. The dog is to help Mr. Wick’s path through mourning the loss of his wife—largely to enable it to go on in a healthy manner. So Theon, by killing the dog, has removed Mr. Wick’s ability to mourn—has taken away his capacity to recover from the loss of his wife. And it is over this he seeks his vengeance. And thus we are treated to see Mr. Wick’s aggressively pointed second stage of mourning.
I adore this film. I saw the thing three times in theatres. The film had excellently choreographed action, had excellent music much of the time, and had a very strong, unified visual aesthetic. I particularly liked the interesting, largely conceptual motive for a revenge film. It was not the tired-by-1985 motive of the murdered wife, or child, or both. And it is all quite wonderful—except for the Marilyn Manson song. I skip over that going-to-New York scene it blares over every time I re-watch the film at home.
And when the sequel was announced, I was uneasy. What were they going to do? Mr. Wick had got his vengeance about as fully as he could in the original…
In Chapter 2 we find Mr. Wick called back into the criminal underworld by an Italian Dandy with whom he was acquainted in his old life, and to whom he is apparently terminally indebted. Mr. Wick took out something of a blood debt—a ‘marker’ with this man. The marker is marked in a hollowed-out pocket watch or locket by Mr. Wick’s bloody thumbprint. In exchange for this oath Mr. Wick received some unspecified aid to execute the ‘impossible task,’ which he had to perform in order to free himself from the Russian mob, and then take up with the woman who became his wife. The oath requires Mr. Wick to perform whatever task he is asked to perform, or face some dire consequences—be hunted to death.
Mr. Wick refuses. The Dandy blows his house up, destroying all physical memory of Mr. Wick’s wife. Mr. Wick broods. Mr. Wick talks to the Lovejoy/Al Swerengen hybrid in his life, and relents. Mr. Wick acquiesces to the Dandy’s request in his art gallery. The Dandy, unsurprisingly, owns an art gallery.
After agreeing, John learns of his new task: Wick must murder the sister of The Dandy so that he can take her seat at some large table of underworld bosses. She is presently in Rome about to ascend to her portion of the criminal throne and throwing herself a very large party.
So, John (Mr. Wick) travels to Rome, infiltrates the party, then part murders/part watches the suicide of, The Dandy’s sister.
Common was bodyguarding the sister John has just murdered. And, after seeing John post murder/suicide, he asks John if he’s working (which is like a thing now I guess—the third film will consist of 30% of people asking if John is working). John says, ‘Yes I am!’ Common figures it out—who John worked. The sister’s underworld paramilitary forces and Common now try to kill John, and we get something of a reprise of the scene in the first film where John walks onto the dance floor from the DJ stage and shoots various attackers among the throng of revelers. Except this time, it’s a live band, not a DJ, and the music is less dance-y, more metal-y.
And then we learn that Ruby Rose—a very attractive woman with Anime Character hair, and one of the best-tailored suits I’ve seen in film—has been tailing him at the behest of The Dandy (she works for The Dandy) for purposes more sinister than just tailing our hero to ensure he fulfills his end of the blood oath.
Ruby Rose and The Dandy’s near endless supply of paramilitary troopers are also after John. The Dandy requires ‘No loose ends.’
John fights his way out of both ambushes, kills a score or two bad guys, limps down the streets of Rome until Common finds him. And then it’s on. Personal Stylez.
They crash into the Assassin Hotel Rome, where they are not permitted to finish their fight. So, they have a drink together. John likes bourbon. Side note: I like bourbon!
Common is all, like, “I’m going to kill you.” And John’s all, like, “You can try.” And Common buys the drinks, because he’s a swell guy like that and clenches his jaw angrily and leaves, angrily.
And look! Ruby Rose is sitting there on a couch (love seat?) behind them. John spots her. She sign languages at John. John sign languages back, and you just know that John is going to kill her eventually.
The Dandy takes out a contract on John because John is going to be coming for Extreme Vengeance.
John heads back to New York. Lots of contract killers out for John. John fights them. He runs into Common again. Stabs him in the aorta. Gets roughed up. Finds help amongst the homeless criminal network and Laurence Fishburne (Maybe they were making a meta-level pun on the Fisher King, I don’t know).
There’s banter. The homeless king helps John. Because. Reasons.
John goes on to Exact Extreme Vengeance in an Art Gallery. There’s an art installation take on the classic funhouse mirror climactic movie scene.
John kills a bunch of henchmen. And Ruby Rose. Poor Ruby Rose… She won’t be in the sequel. Such potential—A mute, sign languaging, ice cold, well tailored murderess all gone to waste in a not particularly memorable mirror hall dance of death.
The Dandy escapes the mirrordrome to the Assassin Hotel, New York Branch.
John tracks him there. And after a little hesitation, and discouraging from the Lovejoy/Al Swearengen in his life, shoots The Dandy.
John has stepped in it. They don’t like that sort of thing at the Assassin Hotel. They will straight up murder you for ‘working’ there. (Of course, John wasn’t actually working. He just murdered a dude. He wasn’t paid to murder the dude.)
John is banned for life from the Assassin Hotel and all of its Assassin amenities. And the big table, or someone, for some reason, has now put a hit on John for killing The Dandy. The amount placed on his life is no mean sum. This means John will have no access to criminal institutional assistance when facing, or fleeing, the flocks of murderers soon to converge upon him.
The end is John running with his Dog. Because he has an hour’s grace before all the assassins descend upon him again. Because. Reasons.
And so John will now, it seems, be hunted to death. It seems like he could have just refused the blood oath and he’d at least had to deal with the assassin hordes dogging him without carrying the beating he took throughout the action of this film around with him.
The film, in a certain way, exhausts the viewer, because the motivation for the vengeance in this film is not as interesting as in the first film. It’s just contracts and betrayal. Maybe there’s a bit more to it, like a man succumbing to his worst impulses after having been pushed too far, after having lost all material ties to his new life, and is essentially self-destructing. But I don’t feel as though the action of the film really conveys that drama effectively. And I think this is in part because the film has its head too far up its own ass. It is a bit too concerned with showing you this cool criminal world, and does a lot of this instead of spending time putting you in John’s head-space. (I left most of that stuff out of the above recounting of the film’s events).
This is not to say, however, that John Wick Chapter 2 is a bad film, or that it is without merit.
Things I liked:
Common did a good job with the portrayal of his character. And I liked Ruby Rose’s mute henchman/assassin.
The opening scene. It still had some attachment to Mr. Wick’s motivation in the first Film — he’s out to get his car back. The one that Greyjoy kid stole in the original. And it was possessed of a sense of humor.
The action in general is well-choreographed, well-shot, and well-performed. The original is especially well-known for this.
But. But. But. The action is not so good in places. In part because Keanu Reeves has slowed down a bit since the last movie. And because neither Common, nor Ruby Rose, are experienced fight movie performers. Their scenes with Keanu have a toned down version of the quick edit style that plagues the modern action film. Basically, each move in the fight gets its own shot, but then we cut to the very next move. This next move is completed, and we cut to the next one. You virtually never see two moves in a fight sequence happen within the bounds of a single edit, like it was with pretty much every fight scene in the first film.
It looks like they shot each move separately and then strung them together, because they did not have performers who could carry out sequences of movement believably.
This, I think, is an unfortunate trade off when one casts well for character in this sort of film (which I think they did). An actor one can afford and is a good fit for the character is not necessarily one who is well suited to the action the character will be involved in. They at least got the casting ‘right’. This is not something most Hollywood movies get right, and then they go do shaky-cam fast-cut to hide the fact that their actors can’t physically perform at all (even to carry off one move in a sequence effectively), and are booooring in the talky parts. I’m mostly talking about comic book movies…. I don’t like very many of them… But that is a matter for another time.
Things I expected not to like, but did:
Laurence Fishburne’s performance. I was kind of dreading this. It struck me, when I learned of the casting, as a little too Lucille Bluth winking at the audience.
But I liked him quite a bit. His performance made me think of fatter-day Orson Welles’ slight tendency to chew the scenery. I’m rather fond of fatter-day Orson Welles. (This is not a comment about Fishburne’s weight. He’s a big guy. But he looks rather healthy—Orson Welles never really did. We know, of course, that he seriously struggled with his weight.)
Speaking of Welles—I am sensing a Wellesian theme in this film—the ending in the funhouse mirror like art installation reminded me of the final showdown in The Lady from Shanghai, one of Welles’ Noirs, which takes place amongst the mirrors of a funhouse, and has been parodied, referenced, and imitated on more than one occasion—like in Enter the Dragon, for example. You know, they probably just got it from Enter the Dragon.
You know what? Go see the movie. If you like tales of betrayal and bloody vengeance, you will enjoy this film rather a lot.
Simon’s Rating: (8 / 10)
Director: Chad Stahelski
Writer: Derek Kolstad, Derek Kolstad (based on characters created by)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne
Release Date: 10 February 2017
Runtime: 2h 2m
MPAA Rating: R