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Second Verse, More of the First

Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves
Summit Entertainment
 122 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane
John Wick: Chapter 2

Dancing great Fred Astaire was responsible for changing the way in which motion picture directors filmed dance scenes, which, at the time, typically involved the ballroom dances popular in the 1930s when Astaire held sway. Astaire insisted that the director film his and his partner full body, in continuous long takes, rather than focus only on on his head or engage in the type of editing that might mislead the audience. As a result, watching Astaire dance became a thing of art, alone worth the price of admission for many. Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick movies, obviously learned from those old movies. Of course, no one will mistake Stahelski’s star, Keanu Reeves, for Fred Astaire, but Stahelski films his fight scenes the same way that Astaire’s dance scenes were shot, and the result, for action fans, is a welcome blast.


Reeves and Stahelski are back in John Wick: Chapter 2, the sequel to the surprise 2014 action film hit that helped revive the star’s flagging career. John Wick (Reeves) is a hit man, possibly the world’s best, but in the original John Wick movie, he tried to give up the lifestyle for good for the love of his wife. Unfortunately, his wife died, and some particularly vicious and obtuse gangsters managed to anger Wick enough to get him to seek revenge. And, as the film demonstrated, a vengeful John Wick is a force of nature.


John Wick: Chapter 2 offers more (emphasis on the excess) of the same. Once again, Wick attempts to retire, only to be thwarted, this time by Santino d’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a mobster who helped Wick engineer his earlier exit from crime. Unfortunately for Wick, in doing so, he gave Santino a marker, which, according to the formal rules of their underworld society, requires Wick to repay the favor. Santino simply wants Wick to do what he does best… kill Santino’s sister so that he can gain her seat on an international ruling council.


Wick reluctantly agrees and carries out the contract, only to find himself hunted on both ends. First, the sister’s loyal associates, including her bodyguard Cassian (Common), want revenge. Second, Santino wants to clean up loose ends, so he puts out a multi-million dollar contract on Wick, feigning affection for his sister as an excuse. Wick’s only hope of saving his skin is to somehow avoid the army of would-be assassins after him and cancel the contract at its source, by eliminating Santino.


Frankly, there’s even less of a storyline to John Wick: Chapter 2 than there was in the first film, and the emotional underpinning by now is completely gone. And that’s not all bad, since Keanu Reeves has never been the most expressive of actors. However, Reeves and Stahelski recognize these limitations, and the script by Derek Kolstad incorporates them. Instead of Al Pacino bemoaning being pulled back in, from Godfather, Part III, Reeves is far more low key, given to minimal dialogue and almost none of the witticisms that frequent action films nowadays. Instead, he speaks in occasional sentences of five words or less (I doubt he has 50 lines of dialogue in the movie).


To make up for Reeves’s relatively stoic performance, the filmmakers wisely surround him with some very hammy, outgoing personalities, including Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne (Reeves’s co-star from the Matrix films), and Peter Stormare. These actors do the bulk of the heavy lifting as far as dialogue and exposition are concerned, and all deliver flashy performances that stay just this side of total camp. I got the feeling that these actors were pretty much winging it as far as how far to go in their roles. Another flashy co-star does not have a single word of dialogue. Ruby Rose, who is rapidly making a name for herself in this type of movie, plays a mute hitwoman named Aries and proves herself quite a match for Wick. By contrast, Scamarcio, as the film’s main heavy, comes across as more of a sniveling brat than a criminal mastermind.


The original John Wick movie was noteworthy for two things, and this sequel goes the next step in regard to both of them. First, the script by Derek Kolstad expands on the underworld mythos created in the first movie. Everyone in the movie operates in accordance with a strict code, in which payment is in the form of specially minted gold coins that can be exchanged for various illicit goods and services, and an elite hotel called The Continental (run by McShane’s Winston, who serves as the society’s de facto chief justice), a sort of underworld Switzerland, where violence against the guests is strictly prohibited. In Chapter 2, we learn about the markers, which are literally sealed in blood, and whose satisfaction is formally recorded by Winston. Also, somewhere within the Continental (which has branches worldwide), Winston operates an elite armory and tailor shop, specializing in bulletproof formal wear, and he has a host of bookkeepers keeping track of the various contracts awarded and earned.


But all of the mythos, elaborate and entertaining as it is, pales in comparison to the gloriously over-the-top stunt work. The movie has three massive set pieces, the last of which is set in a museum with an elaborate hall of mirrors exhibit, through which Wick, Aries, and a host of other thugs make their way, in an homage to Orson Welles’s Lady from Shanghai. Director Stahelski is a former stuntman, so he knows how to stage elaborate sequences (such as the car chase shown below), and Keanu Reeves has the benefit of significant martial arts training of his own that allows him to do much of his own stunt work. The emphasis is on style and overkill (in more ways than one), as the body count easily goes into triple digits. For action fans, any one of these set pieces would be the highlight of most movies. Here, we get four of them, plus some other, shorter ones.


John Wick: Chapter 2 is an example of a simple story, surrounded by an elaborate framework and accompanied by some top notch effects work from a crew that realizes that people want to see actual stunt work, rather than an over-edited montage of bits and pieces of film. There has long been a movement to add an Oscar category for stunt work; movies like John Wick: Chapter 2 are the best argument for the award. You don’t want to mess with John Wick, but you will want to mess with this movie.  

In this scene, Keanu Reeves gets involved in a car chase at very close quarters.

Read other reviews of John Wick: Chapter 2:


John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) on IMDb