THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2"
John Wick became a minor sensation when it was released in 2014. Action fans felt it perfectly executed an age-old formula with style and energy. And then there were those of us who thought it didn't amount to much more than ninety minutes of star Keanu Reeves shooting people in the face. (For the record, we were the minority.) John Wick: Chapter 2 doubles down on everything its predecessor did. That turns out to be a very good idea. The sequel is a fun, frenetic action picture.
Reeves returns as the title character, an ex-hitman who came out of retirement to exact revenge against the people who killed his dog. This time, Wick is approached by Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime lord who wants him to assassinate his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). She, it turns out, has usurped Santino's position on a council comprised of the world's top criminal leaders. Carrying out the mission entails a perilous trip to Rome, where things do not go as smoothly as planned. Wick soon finds himself the subject of a worldwide manhunt when a bounty is placed on his head as a result.
The important thing to realize about John Wick: Chapter 2 is that it is not just an action movie, but also an extremely deadpan comedy. Preposterous events are portrayed totally straight-faced. The movie imagines a world where hired killers lurk around every corner, often dressed in expensive tailored suits. Hitmen purchase weapons in a high-class shop, run by a prim-and-proper salesman (Peter Serafinowicz). Characters interact with each other in very formal ways that are completely at odds with the cinematic stereotype of criminals. When a hit is placed on someone, it's phoned in to an old-fashioned switchboard operator office, where the workers enter the information into '80s-era computers and shoot instructions out through pneumatic tubes.
This comedic-but-not-comedic tone extends to the action sequences themselves. One amusing bit finds Wick and Gianna's bodyguard Cassian (played by the rapper Common) brutally fist-fighting their way through some beautiful Rome locations. Later, the two have a confrontation outside of New York's Lincoln Center. They prepare to shoot one another when the fountain turns on, obscuring their view, so they blindly open fire through the water. The finale, meanwhile, is set in a creatively-lit hall of mirrors where no one is quite sure whether they're shooting at people or reflections. None of this is played for laughs. At the same time, it certainly functions as a semi-satire of action movies in general. Remember how, in This Is Spinal Tap, all the amps went to 11 instead of 10 because, as Nigal Tufnal said, “that's one louder”? The same philosophy applies to John Wick: Chapter 2. The joke is that everything is just one step above convention.
Understanding the comic (or anti-comic) nature of the film is essential to appreciating it. Viewed as a straightforward action movie, it seems thin. Recognize it as something that takes a satiric viewpoint, with overt efforts at achieving laughter intentionally repressed, and it suddenly reveals an entertaining sense of creativity.
Keanu Reeves has found a great role for himself in this series. He is often accused of being a little “blank” as an actor. It's not true – the Bill & Ted pictures and My Own Private Idaho disprove the theory – but he is exceptionally good at playing blank characters. That quality is well-utilized for John Wick, a laconic man who prefers to let his lethal actions speak for him. As with the first movie, director Chad Stahelski uses a lot of longer takes, so that we can see it's Reeves doing his own fighting. Without a doubt, the actor is the glue that holds everything together, both physically and performance-wise.
At two full hours, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a little stretched out at times, and the paper-thin plot doesn't provide any substance. Nonetheless, this is a superior sequel that showcases inventive action scenes and a solid turn from Keanu Reeves. The last scene sets up a third chapter. The implications of this magnificently-staged conclusion suggest another step forward for the franchise. That may be the most exciting thing of all.
( out of four)
John Wick: Chapter 2 is rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
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