Review: John Wick: Chapter Two – A beautiful, visceral dance of death
I’D BEST warn you all, before we get started: This is not going to be an objective review. I normally try adhering to some remote, serene impartiality in my reviews, but not this time. John Wick: Chapter Two is one of the most awesome films to nut-punch cinemas in a long old time. It is so stupidly, relentlessly badass and so eager to cater to my teenage conception of The Best Action Film Ever that it regularly trips over itself in the process of finding new, compelling, creative and visually stunning ways to shoot people in the skull. It is the action aficionado’s idea of loud, grunting, suit-wearing, rib-snapping, pencil-stabbing Nirvana, and I goddamn love it.
For those who watched the original John Wick, Chapter Two doesn’t add much to the plot – there’s a new dog in John’s tow, but canine-lovers need not fear. In fact, Chapter Two kicks off by tying up loose ends from the original. It’s fitting that the first thing we see is a projected clip of Sherlock, Jr.; as Buster Keaton dropkicks a villain through a wall, a sports car slams into a motorcyclist and the volume rises to a deafening roar while the rubber burns. It’s a perfect summation of the film’s ethos: Heavy physicality, shattering impact and a wry, knowing sense of humour.
This time, the titular “Baba Yaga” (Keanu Reeves) finds himself embroiled in a feud between underworld titans, when he is hired by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to assassinate his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). As was the case with the original, however, the “fists and fury” is bolstered by a genteel hitman bureaucracy, one where Continental hotels act as a safe refuge for assassins around the world. This nameless network of killers provides an impeccably mannered counter-point to the insane, ever-mounting violence of John and his opponents.
The moments where said violence spills over into this society are some of the film’s strongest moments, and the fact that they are played so straight, despite the inherent absurdity, is hilarious. Ian McShane’s Winston is the anchor to these scenes – at least in New York – where he acts as an unflappable sage chastising his younger upstarts. In Rome, it’s Franco Nero, who cuts a dashing, Byronic figure amid the Italian frescoes and fountains.
Nero is one of many delightful cameos in the film. Some are more substantial and surprising than others, like Peter Serafinowicz’s dulcet-toned Sommelier. Peter Stormare’s Russian accent is a thing to behold in itself, but his performance is suitably Stormare-ish and dripping with camp hilarity. David Patrick Kelly even pops up, along with Laurence Fishburne’s amiable Bowery King, who resides over a city-wide coterie of hobos and carrier pigeons.
Reeves, meanwhile, has always been an underrated actor. Though heavily exposed when miscast, he’s picked his parts very wisely over the past 20 years (47 Ronin notwithstanding), and John Wick might well come to be his defining role, or at least not look out of place next to Neo and Ted. He’s monosyllabic and deathly calm, but his reticence masks a silent fury that very occasionally rushes to the surface, revealing shades of “the old John Wick” that the film’s characters regularly evoke, often with a shudder.
There are ample reasons for that fear. This sequel takes the ferocious, balletic action of the original John Wick and cranks it up even further. Not only is the choreography even more fluid and laser-precise than before, but the visuals have been heightened just to keep up. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is strikingly clear and defined, washing the frame with glistening neon and, in one particularly superb sequence, a hall of endless, crystalline mirrors. It’s like the finale of Enter the Dragon on crack cocaine. Crucially, at all times, it keeps the action at the heart of the picture, where the surreal imagery only enhances the snapping bones and exploding skulls. Unlike the nauseating shaky-cam bollocks of films like Jason Bourne, the action here is clear and perfectly captured.
The choreography is almost unmatched in the action genre, save for select Hong Kong film-makers and The Raid‘s director Gareth Evans, and never has a Western action hero seemed so unstoppable and yet so vulnerable. John Wick is a remorseless killing machine a la Schwarzenegger, certainly, but he also gets the shit kicked out of him in battle, which lends the carnage a sense of urgency and tension that would otherwise have been absent.
This is where John Wick 2 either falls down or transcends, depending on the viewer. The original’s pace was near perfect, achieving a constantly climbing sense of escalation. The sequel is almost relentless in its desire to lay the smack down, and though slower, expository scenes are sporadically placed for the audience to catch their breath, it might feel overwhelming for some. These slower scenes do provide a deeper understanding of the labyrinthine network of gentleman killers and their customs, but the action is ultimately what we’re all here for.
The sound design is a perfect complement to the visuals it’s paired with, knowing when to ramp up the bass and when to scale back to silence. Every punch, kick and puncture wound reverberates throughout the cinema, and Tyler Bates’ score is loud, brash and adrenaline-pumping. It’s an exhilarating tour-de-force of composition, and the whole melange of sumptuous violence, when put together, is a symphony in itself.
In its headshot-laden, bone-snapping, barnstorming, shovel-shit-insanity, John Wick: Chapter Two redefines what Western action films are capable of and lays down an imperious gauntlet to its followers. The inevitable, already-greenlit Chapter Three (or whatever they call it) will probably involve Wick vs. God by the end, but if it’s half as good as its predecessors it’ll be walking on hallowed ground.
It’s gratifying to know that action films like this – brimming with love, wit, care and slavish attention to detail – can be made in the modern era and still make a fuckton of money on a relatively low budget (by Hollywood standards). What’s Michael Bay’s excuse? What’s anyone’s excuse? John Wick: Chapter Two is a headshot to the brain of its genre, and I’m beyond elated it’s graced us with its presence.