Friday, May 12, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Later this month, John Wick Chapter 2 will be available for digital download, followed in mid-June by its release on Blu-Ray. So it's time to acknowledge that Chapter 2 is a master class in how to make a sequel. While building on the events of 2014's John Wick, it expands in logical fashion and generally avoids the pitfalls of just trying to repeat itself. The result is that I love both films, but for very different reasons.

John Wick's (Keanu Reeves) rampage over the murder of his dog has signaled the dark world he left behind that maybe he's back and not really retired. As a result, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a marker, compelling Wick to once more become a gun-for-hire. Massive running gun battles, legendary feats of gun fu, betrayal, lots of betrayal, and general, all-around great mayhem ensue.

JW was a delight for anyone in love with physical acting and action. Not only was it praise-worthy that Reeves did most of his own stunt work, the extent to which director Chad Stahelski revived the almost lost art of physical, practical effects was extraordinary. The film joyfully embraced the ideal of keeping action/reaction in the same, long take, rather than hiding moves within quick edits (the Honest Trailer for JW illustrates this perfectly). The result was a visceral thrill ride of a revenge flick combined with jaw-dropping action sequences, resulting in one of my favorite films of 2014.

Chapter 2 seeks to build on that and succeeds brilliantly. Yes, all of the action is over the top. The opening sequence, wherein Wick gets his car back, is just a non-stop feast of slamming cars, snapping necks, and tumbling motorcyclists, with gunfire thrown in as a sort of garnish. At the same time, the film takes time to poke fun at itself. As Abram (Peter Stormare), brother of the late Russian gangster kingpin in the first film, tries to tell one of his underlings about Wick’s singular focus and how he once killed three guys— "Yeah, yeah, with a pencil," the underling interrupts. "I've heard the story."

The conclusion of this opening has Wick and Abram making peace over a shot of vodka. Wick drives off in his trashed Mustang, hires Aurelio (John Leguizamo) to repair it, and goes home to once again drift off into retirement. Then the opening credits roll. All of this is how the film opens, the real fun hasn't even yet begun.

Within JW, it was clear that the world Wick was retired from is large and dark, but it's pretty undefined. Chapter 2 demonstrates how to make a sequel by taking those little moments and expanding the world they hinted at. When Santino comes a-knockin', it's because he holds Wick’s marker, a blood debt that Wick must repay. Wick initially refuses, and Santino blows up his house (not a spoiler, it's in the trailer). Wick consults with Winston (Ian McShane), owner and operator of the bad guy motel The Continental. Winston does not take Wick's side, he scolds him. Wick must honor the marker. And so Wick takes up the task Santino wants accomplished.

In this way, we are guided into a vast, international world of intrigue. At the same time, it's impossible to tell just what sort of endeavors this dark world is engaged in. It's often discussed as being a league of assassins,  but for all we know these are all members of shadow organizations within world governments. Or the enforcement arm of the Illuminati. Or a more brutal version of the Men in Black. At this point in the series, we really don't know. Even my reference to the Continental as a "bad guy motel" isn't necessarily accurate. All that's clear is that you're not allowed to conduct business on Continental grounds because to do so is to court your own death.

This is what I love about this film. Yes, all of the action is (once again) brilliant. Yes, Reeves (once again) does pretty much all his own stunt work. The cinematography is beautiful, the settings exotic, the general acting all more than required for the task at hand; everyone is invested in their role, no matter how small. Stahelski has said he'd love to direct a Bond film and why not? All of the usual Bond elements are here, only turned up to 12, 11 being insufficient.

The film is filled with brilliant touches. There's a walking, silenced gun fight in a subway, with all but the two gunmen oblivious to what's going on. Subway bums become murderous members of an even more subterranean organization. There's a telephone exchange you call to order a murder contract on people and they are, to wondrous effect, using old school telephone switchboards. There are rotary phones, for crying out loud.

The editing is superb. There's a sequence which shows that the director and editor understood that the audience could suffer fatigue from just being shown a series of fights. Rather than edit it as ambush-fight-death, ambush-fight-death, ambush-fight-death, it's edited ambush-ambush-ambush, fight-fight-fight, death-death-death. It's a marvelous way of breaking things up in order to keep the (endless) action fresh.

I can only scratch the surface of the layers upon layers of world building on display here without getting into spoilers. It is all wonderful. It makes the Marvel and DC comic notions of worlds within our world seem pale and lifeless in comparison. This isn't anything we haven't seen before, but with the film's stunt work and action, as well as a full commitment to the world they've created, Stahelski & Company take this trope, brush it off, polish it to a high sheen, and successfully present it as something new and wonderful.

Albeit, with lots (and lots) of violence.

Is it a spoiler to say that they're already doing the pre-production work for Chapter 3? No? Then it won't be a surprise if I say that I'll be lined up on opening day to see what Wick does next because I'm sure it will be epic.

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