Skip to main content

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2
(2017)

(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.


The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the intervening three years – “aspirational buttocks” about sums up her take) that does on a modest budget what most blockbusters fail at with four or five times that amount.


One thing that failed to occur to me following the original was how John hadn’t got his car back. Perhaps because he had a new pooch to fill his void. I wrote that I “suspect he might have let the car go without… serious reprisals” but the opening sequence works entirely to relinquish such notions, as John pursues it to Peter Stormare’s chop shop, gets it seriously dented (to the returning John Leguizamo’s consternation) and lets Stormare live to change his ways; one wonders if Stormare, like Common, is set to return in the final instalment, having been shown mercy. Although, as Larry Fishface’s appearance as the Bowery King shows, there’s no guarantee that the once spared will feel indebted.


Stormare’s on fine cigar-chewing form (he narrates John’s mythic status effectively, for those who didn’t see the original, but for whom such details don’t really matter, any more than needing to see Mad Max or The Evil Dead did before their sequels), but the scene itself might be the movie’s weakest action piece (I say that purely relatively). Maybe this is because it’s largely auto-related, rather than the up-close-and-personal deployment of gun, knife and fist (although they do get a look-in), or maybe it’s because it’s narratively such a conscious overhang of the first film, but it’s only when Riccardo Scamarcio shows up as Santino D’Antonio, looking to cash in John’s marker (which John secured with him on leaving the game; returning to the fray gives D’Antonio the right to call it in) that the picture truly takes off. And then some.


I don’t know D’Antonio’s work, but he makes a feast of being a hateable little so-and-so with a New Romantic quiff (the only disappointment, performance-wise, is actually Fishburne, who admittedly isn’t serviced with the most riveting of roles but still seems to be going through the motions whenever I catch him in anything these days). And the job he gives John makes a welcome break from the linearity of the original (I’ve seen this complained about as a momentum killer, but I’d argue it rather ensures a more appropriate rise-and-fall pacing that suits the relentless, exhaustingly-sustained action sequences; if nothing else, the Bowery King episode gives the viewer a much-needed break where fatigue might otherwise have set in – this is 20 minutes longer than the first, but fully justifies its extension).


The “jaunt” to Rome enbales an invigoration of setting, ideas and editing. John is fitted for suits, for guns (courtesy of Peter Serafinowicz, on much better form here than his Guardians of the Galaxy turn) and checks in to Franco Nero’s Rome Continental (eliciting one of the movie’s choicest lines: “Then humour me with but one question. Are you here for the Pope?”) When it comes to the assassination of D’Antonio’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), whose snuffing will enable D’Antonio to take her place, returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad has the dramatically compelling idea of her taking her own life – going out on her own terms, just as she lived – and Stahleski shows the same kind of care with a subdued, atypical character scene like this as he does with his action (it might be the picture’s most unexpected and affecting interlude).


And, when the action revs back up, it’s an almighty tornado, as John shoots, stabs, kicks, punches and wrestles it out amid an operatic, moshing techno heaven (there’s a marvellous moment when the crowd cheers as John takes out several assassins on stage: all part of the performance), to the accompaniment of Ciscandra Nostalghia’s songstress and a guitarist who appears to be modelling his posturing on the Doof Warrior (another area where Chapter 2 scores significant points on its predecessor is that returning musos Tyle Bates and Joel J Richard offer more variety on the soundtrack, rather than a non-stop metal dirge). Retiring to the catacombs, the delirium of the dead and dying piles ever-higher, with perhaps the only (only? there are, admittedly, numerous, if you wish to resist the picture’s heightened lure) question mark being that John manages to place his supporting weapons in exactly the places his retreat requires.


Common also offers a strong showing as Gianna’s ward Cassian, the most formidable of the assassins on John’s trail when D’Antonio decides not to honour his agreement and puts a $7m hit on Wick (which will also tidy any loose ends). Stahleski offers some interesting – as well as very funny – choices during this return to New York, the aesthetic refreshment of Rome apparently having done him the world of good (although, it was actually vice versa, production-wise, so put it down to the influence of his director of photography).


We have already seen the retro processes of the assassin’s trade (tattooed secretaries utilising untraceable analogue typewriters for communication), and the one-shot transition to the urban locale becoming a human minefield, in the space of a simple message being received, is electrifying – all hell breaks loose. But, instead of sticking to a straightforward succession of opponents, Stahleski mixes it up. The interactions of Cassian, a massive Sumo-looking guy (impossibly, ludicrously hard to kill) and a female violin-wielding assassin cut about, before settling on Cassian’s pursuit of John (in between, more dazzling manoeuvres ensue as we’re given evidence of how Wick kills with a pencil – albeit, two rather than the three victims of legend). This entails a wickedly cheeky, casual, two-tiered shootout across the pristine white expanse of the Oculus, judiciously avoiding any members of the public, and culminates in a brutally-enthralling subway fight that leaves Cassian with an impacted aorta.


I’ve seen it suggested that some of the fights fall down on a viewer involvement level in comparison to the first outing, because they lack the sense “they’re happening to real people in real places”. What I think they’re getting at is there isn’t always a visceral vitality; that – as with the first, so redundant if it is claimed this diminishes the sequel – there’s occasionally the sense of bad guys just walking into John’s path as cannon fodder, putting up no defence, which I put down to the realities of the extended one-take technique. That’s something that isn’t untrue of the Hong Kong cinema that influenced this approach, though. And honestly, on that level, Chapter 2 works for me more alluringly than the first; for all the video game, virtual shooter feel that rears its head at times (the series could certainly do without the reliance obvious CGI squibs), it’s aesthetically more inspired and enticing (notably, the article singles out the opening for praise, which as I’ve said, is the least arresting sequence; it also throws out the kind of comments that makes me wonder why some people go and see action movies – like why does no one aims at John’s head).


That review/chat also draws attention to the fight with Ruby Rose’s Ares as a disappointment, on the grounds that she’d been built up as the true nemesis. I felt this was exactly the point, however. Ares darts about like a crazy mosquito, but like so many others (even Cassian, ultimately, and definitely D’Antonio – no one ever listens to Winston) she has been hoisted by her own petard (and why wouldn’t she be, she’s from a younger generation who probably didn’t think all that talk about Wick stood up to scrutiny). The backdrop to this confrontation, the hall of mirrors of the Reflections of the Soul exhibit, is overtly set up as John’s descent into hell. Which might be a bit naff on paper, but Dan Lausten’s cinematography is so striking (a definite step up over Jonathan Sela’s samey palate) that it works in the picture’s favour rather than against it (this is, after all, a series not really interested in subtleties – it invokes its protagonist staring at a photo frame for motivation –  only in iconography, and should continue to be so).


Chapter 2 features many natural progressions from the first, however, such that the development translates organically rather than dictated by sequelitis. It feels entirely appropriate that, having established how much Winston favours John (what is their connection?), and – in the first movie – the penalty for killing on Continental turf, John should finish the picture burning his last bridge, a scene made so very satisfying for Scarmarcio smugly scoffing his dinner as it takes place, just as we know John has just imploded his world by doing so. So too, the “Be seeing you” signature sign off of those bound for the great beyond (spoken in sign language by Ares, another nice character touch: the subtitling is as distinctive as ever), and the returning Lance Reddick, this time fulfilling the Charon role by ferrying Wick to his demise (well, metaphorically) at the hands of Winston. John Wick can’t die yet, of course. He still hasn’t named his dog.


More of exactly the same aesthetic would have become boring, and Klostad and Stahleski have succeeded in increasing the scale without sacrificing the essentials, a very difficult juggling act. Perhaps the greatest dividends a reaped from the further exploration of the existentially fascinating world of the assassin. Even to the final scene, in which John’s meeting with Winston is seen to take place amongst a throng of passers-by, all potential killers, recalling the paranoid milieu of The President’s Analyst, but also the altered-world of The Matrix test programs, where time can be stopped with a wave of the hand, before slipping into Invasion of the Body Snatchers urban agoraphobia). John Wick: Chapter 3 has been set up to deliver and then some, and given how Chapter 2 has improved on the first, I don’t think we’re due a Matrix Revolutions in terms of that rare beast of Keanu trilogies. Now, if he can only get Bill & Ted 3 financed. 





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

When primal forces of nature tell you to do something, the prudent thing is not to quibble over details.

Field of Dreams (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s a near-Frank Darabont quality to Phil Alden Robinson producing such a beloved feature and then subsequently offering not all that much of note. But Darabont, at least, was in the same ballpark as The Shawshank Redemption with The Green MileSneakers is good fun, The Sum of All Our Fears was a decent-sized success, but nothing since has come close to his sophomore directorial effort in terms of quality. You might put that down to the source material, WP Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, but the captivating magical-realist balance hit by Field of Dreams is a deceptively difficult one to strike, and the biggest compliment you can play Robinson is that he makes it look easy.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…