Director: Chad Stahelski
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan, Lance Reddick, Thomas Sadoski, David Patrick Kelly, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero
Running Time: 122 min.
By Paul Bramhall
As a stuntman, it’s not every day the opportunity comes along to direct the actor who you’ve been doubling for the last 20 years, but that’s exactly what happened to Chad Stahelski, when he took the directorial reigns for the 2014 Keanu Reeves action vehicle John Wick. Stahelski first doubled for Reeves on 1991’s Point Break, and has continued to be his stunt double ever since, featuring in the likes of The Matrix trilogy, The Replacements, and Constantine. The pair have maintained a close working relationship, so when Stahelski founded the 87Eleven Action Design group (along with David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick) after his experience of working under Yuen Woo Ping on The Matrix, Reeves was the obvious choice for the leading man of their directorial debut.
In a market saturated by action movies intent on resorting to how many pixels can be destroyed onscreen, John Wick was a revelation, a lean and mean production that relied on bullets to the head and bones being broken rather than CGI spectacle, with Reeves delivering admirably. It wasn’t without its faults though, the brain numbing repetition of the Marilyn Manson track ‘Killing Strangers’ over an original score, and a rather limp finale, both made it fall short of being a certifiable classic in my opinion. But what it certainly did do, is give audiences an appetite to see more of John Wick, and in 2017, their wish has been granted.
Sequels are always a tricky proposition, and considering the originals wafer thin plot, which revolved around Wick seeking revenge for his murdered (is that the correct phrase?) dog, stretching the story of a retired hitman for a second instalment has plenty of room for error. Should the filmmakers go for (a) the Taken approach – have another one of his pets killed and have him seek revenge, or (b) go the Tom Yum Goong approach, and simply have the gangsters kill the dog he adopted at the end of the original, and recycle exactly the same story. Thankfully both Stahelski (this time minus Leitch) and original writer Derek Kolstad are back on board for Chapter 2, and while the plot is still flimsy, it does its duty perfectly well.
Essentially it can be boiled down to this – it’s revealed that when Wick left the hitman world behind, he did so with the help of a mafia boss (played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio), and as per the hitman code of honour, he owes Scamarcio a marker – basically an IOU. What this event was and when it took place is never revealed, however when Scamarcio visits Wick out of the blue to claim his favour, Wick’s stubborn refusal to adhere to the rules quickly sees him in a world of pain. After a visit to the Continental, the hotel from the original which acts as a luxurious refuge for the hitmen of the world, the hotel manager (played by a returning Ian McShane) talks him around. It’s the code of honour after all. So Reeves sees himself on a plane to Rome, on a mission to fulfil his obligation – to assassinate Scamarcio’s sister.
Before we get to any of that though, John Wick: Chapter 2 gets straight down to business in a blistering initial scene, taking place even before the opening credits have rolled. In a sequence that fits in more action than Steven Seagal’s whole post-2000 filmography, Reeves lays waste to an endless stream of attackers in an old warehouse, breaking bones and cracking skulls like they’re going out of fashion. Reeves is beaten, knocked around, hit by a car, thrown out of his own car (which is the purpose of the scene by the way, to retrieve his stolen 1969 Mustang) and generally ends up on the receiving end of impacts that would put the average human in hospital for the rest of the year. But Stahelski uses the scene to put his cards on the table early on, much like the route that The Transporter 2 (successfully) took, Chapter 2 is going to give us super-John Wick. The action is going to be more exaggerated, more bloody, more brutal, and more lengthy. Take it or leave it.
For fans of action of course, this is a dream come true, but there is also an audience out there who won’t appreciate the ramped up action quota. Those same voices that didn’t appreciate Jason Statham having a fight in a free falling plane, probably will be the same ones that don’t appreciate Reeves ability to keep getting back up after being beaten half to death. However, my voice is not one of those, and while John Wick: Chapter 2 is definitely more pulpy than its predecessor, it’s arguably the only direction to go in. Writer Kolstad wisely decides to expand on the idea of having a hotel that caters to hitmen, here revealing it to be an international organization with branches across the globe. The hotel even has its own tailored-to-the-hitman’s-every-need set of facilities, from a gun showroom (where Reeve’s goes for a “tasting”) to a Kevlar lined suit bespoke tailor service.
When I first watched John Wick I’d noted how it was essentially an early Steven Seagal movie for the post-2010 generation. Just like Out for Justice, it even ended with Reeves taking care of a dog, a sign from above if ever there was one. I maintain that statement for Chapter 2. Here Reeves roams around the globe, but no matter where he goes everyone seems to know his name, such is his reputation for being the baddest ass on the planet. The difference of course is that Reeves has the moves to back up the huge respect the characters he bumps into silently bestow upon him. For the second round Reeves also shows the character to be adept in a variety of languages, happily conversing in both Russian and Italian without batting an eyelid. Maybe Seagal doesn’t bat an eyelid either, but it’s hard to tell behind those orange tinted glasses.
The action itself is a joy to behold, and is choreographed by J.J. Perry, another member of Stahelski’s 87Eleven Action Design group, heavily incorporating the use of Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu. Several action sequences show both influences and nods to other action classics, with one particular scene in the catacombs having Reeves plant guns along the way to use later, clearly referencing Chow Yun Fat’s similar scene in A Better Tomorrow. When the weaponry is called upon to be used, there’s an influence of the Scott Adkins one-man rampage in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, as Reeves weaves in and out of the cave like structure, rarely taking his finger off the trigger. Perhaps the most recognizable nod of all though is the finale, which takes place in an art installation that includes a hall of mirrors. As Scamarcio taunts Reeves out of sight, the reference to Bruce Lee stalking Shek Kin in Enter the Dragon is a worthy one.
The supporting cast also provide plenty of action talent, with Reeves having two wonderfully protracted fights with rapper turned actor Common (they also notably played enemies in Street Kings), delivering some wince worthy impacts and falls. Current actress-of-the-moment Ruby Rose also gets a one-on-one against Reeves in a hallway, playing a deaf mute bodyguard to Scamarcio. Yes, Ruby Rose is to John Wick: Chapter 2 what Julie Estelle is to The Raid 2, only fails at coming across as either intimidating or dangerous. Away from the action front, Reeves and Laurence Fishburne reunite for the first time since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions, meeting on a rooftop to share such lines as “So I guess you have a choice”. The nods to The Matrix may be obvious, but they come across as playful rather than cheap like in The Expendables series. Plus, as the expression goes – when in Rome, cast Franco Nero in an extended cameo.
If there’s any detractor for John Wick: Chapter 2, it’s that Reeves’s acting performance pales in comparison to his action talents. With a remarkable number of his lines relegated to the likes of “yeah” and “sure”, rather than coming across as brooding, he instead feels a little flat. Indeed while we learn a lot about the world John Wick lives in, we don’t actually learn anything new about the character himself. He still watches videos of his wife via his phone and looks sad, and still treats his dog better than anyone else he meets. It would have been nice to add some additional characterisation, but as it is Reeves delivers a performance which mainly feels like filler to bring us to the next action scene. In this case, the action is so good that the wait is always well rewarded, however I do wonder how much it will stand up to re-watches. Minor gripes aside, there’s no doubt Reeves will get to announce “I’m back” for a third instalment, and when it hits, I’ll be there.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10