Monday, 20 February 2017

Film Review: John Wick: Chapter 2 is the best action film since Fury Road

Back in 2015's John Wick, characters talked about how the titular character once killed three men in a bar using only a pencil. In one of this sequel's earliest scenes, a new character once more brings up the time that John Wick (Keanu Reeves) once killed three men in a bar using only a pencil. It sounds like a retread, a fun inclusion from film one pointlessly brought forward into film two. It signals a lack of creativity, and it grates. Fast forward about eighty minutes, and we see Wick fighting an assassin that's been sent after him. Mid fight, the camera pans down. There's a pencil on the table. The second we put two and two together, Wick grabs the pencil and, through a multitude of nifty little tricks, takes out two guys with it. It's gruesome and it's violent, and if it doesn't make you grin like a kid with a candy cane at Christmas then maybe John Wick just isn't the film for you.

It's a perfect way to sum up the manner in which Chapter Two utilises its predecessor to create something even stronger. It is very easy to make the case that this sequel lacks narrative creativity or character development, but to focus on these as issues is to miss the point made by the film's title. This is chapter two. We aren't meant to view this as its own story with its own work to do. Chad Stahelski's sequel instead acts as a continuation, all we've done between instalments is turn the page. Would you criticise a book's second chapter for not developing characters if chapter one already did that so well?

We pick up almost immediately after the final moments of film one. John takes a quick detour to get his car back, but before he can hang up his coat someone's knocking at his door again. It turns out that to get out of the game prior to film one he made a pact (symbolised by gold markers) with a man called D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). That blood oath has now come back to haunt him, forcing him back into the game no sooner than he left it...again. He decides to honour the marker, as all respected hit men in this universe would, and then get away before anyone can find him. Obviously, things don't go that smoothly.

Already, the film is taking the best kind of approach as a sequel. It's adding depth to film one while expanding on the world it created, forming a new chapter at the same time. It lacks the refreshing simplicity and fun, genre-defying nature of the original's story of a man avenging his dog's life, but it's a step in the right direction. The world is expanding, so it's only fitting that the story should too.

Derek Kolstad's script doesn't source new emotional material, it rather takes what we already know and allows us to see it in a bigger, harsher light. John Wick painted its protagonist as a cold and empty man, to go back on that promise would be unreasonable. Instead, it lets us see that same man again under bigger circumstances. It's almost as if the script is asking us "You saw what John Wick did when someone killed his dog, you wanna see what he does when someone blows up his home?" You're goddamn right we do.

And, much like last time, Reeves is more than up for the task. His stone cold charisma works wonders for this character type - scarcely letting a drop of emotion cross his face and delivering even the film's cheapest lines with such grit that they get away with it. In a film filled with standout supporting characters - Lawrence Fishburne's loud, flashy crime lord is a highlight, as is Ruby Rose's eerily silent bodyguard - Wick remains the man of the hour, and it's all thanks to Reeves.

One of the original John Wick's defining traits though? It handled action better than anything else of its type. And, much like it does in every other category, Chapter 2 just gets even better. The film's violent outbursts are grim but well handled. Small flashes of humour prevent things from getting too top heavy - Wick and a rival engage in a silent and inconspicuous shootout in a crowded place, and the result is hilarious.The best set piece is even saved until last: a disorientating and visually gorgeous shootout within an art installation made up of hidden doors and endless mirrors. It's almost dizzying in its intensity, but the film has fun with it too. That pencil sequence would make Heath Ledger's Joker very proud.

It's also refreshing in that it understands basic editing, something a lot of action films can't lay claim to - I'm looking at you, Taken 3, we all saw that 15 cut fence sequence. When characters fight, there's no need for the film to throw the camera all over the place. Instead, cinematographer Dan Laustsen holds his camera in mid shot, displaying full bodies with surroundings. The slick and almost effortlessly cool choreography is brilliantly exciting, and the way the action is shot gives us the best view to take it all in - it is like watching a ballet of brutality.

As well as being brilliantly executed in every technical way, Chapter Two even pushes its action into unpredictable territory. When Wick finally reaches his target in the middle act, the ensuing scene couldn't be further from what you'd expect - it catches you off guard but maintains its focus. We know that John is going to survive the film, it's not hard to work that out, but the fun lies in how he will do so, and boy what fun can be had with that. Technically impressive? Yep. Thrilling? Sure. Violent? You betcha. The best action film since Mad Max: Fury Road.

In A Sentence

The rare action film to surpass its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 rings skillful carnage and gleeful violence out of its impressive sequel construction, all led by Keanu Reeves' reliably commanding performance.

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