Saturday, March 4, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 was written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski.

Kolstad previously wrote The Package and the original John Wick. Stahelski is a former stuntman-turned director. He previously directed John Wick.

Somehow I missed the original John Wick when it was in theaters (I was probably too busy watching the many lukewarm PG-13 horror films that litter the cineplex these days). I caught it on home video and became an instant fan. Finally, an action movie that lived up to the name! 

I've always been a fan of over-the-top action movies. I love the exaggerated fights, the gun play with infinite ammo, the impossible physics and best of all, the cheesy one-liners after a significant kill. The bigger and dumber they are, the more I like 'em!

The John Wick franchise is actually a bit smarter and more refined than the average action film. I love these movies!

In particular I'm a big fan of the amazing action scenes and fight choreography. Most action heroes spray several thousand rounds of ammo at an approaching army of thugs. Not so with John Wick. He tends to use one bullet per bad guy, taking out dozens and dozens of opponents with surgical precision.

Happily, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a worthy followup that's every bit as good as the first one. If not better! It does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do. It continues the action, expands upon the story and opens up the film's world. It's practically perfect as a follow up. Kudos to the creative team!

Last month in my review of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, I said my biggest complaint wasn't the non-existent plot, lack of characterization or dodgy acting it was the camera work and editing of the subpar action scenes. Actually the action may have been fine in the film, but there was no way to tell. The camera was constantly zoomed in on the actors as far as it could go as it shook and vibrated like it was strapped to a paint mixer at Home Depot. The average length of every shot in these fight scenes was probably five frames, maximum. It was extremely disorienting, not to mention annoying. Every time I watched one of these scenes, it honestly felt like someone was slapping me about the face. It got so bad I finally had to close my eyes. 

In John Wick: Chapter 2, the camera is set up a discreet distance away from the actors, and stays relatively still. This allows the audience to actually see and enjoy the intricately choreographed stunts and action. Many of the fight scenes were filmed in one continuous take, which again allowed the audience to marvel at the skill of the actors. Imagine, a director actually filming his movie in such a way as to allow the audience to see it! What a radical concept!

It probably helps that director Chad Stahelski started out as a stuntman. He toiled away in numerous low budget martial arts movies such as Mission Of Justice and Bloodsport III. In 1994 he got the chance to stunt-double for Brandon Lee in The Crow

Stahelski's big break came in 1999's The Matrix, where he was the martial arts stunt coordinator. He also stunt-doubled for star Keanu Reeves.

Maybe that makes all the difference. Hiring a former stuntman to direct a movie means he knows how to properly stage and film action scenes!

Supposedly there's a John Wick TV series is in the works. Meh. That sounds like a bad idea to me. The appeal of these movies is their extreme and outlandish violence, which would likely have to be toned down even on cable. On the other hand, The Walking Dead gets pretty violent, so who knows?


The Plot: 

For those of you who came in late, John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is a former hitman for the Russian mob, with a highly justified reputation as a brutal and efficient killer. In fact he earned the nickname "The Boogeyman" after killing three men in a bar with nothing more than a pencil. Wick lives in a fantasy version of New York City, where virtually everyone is a deadly assassin. These hired killers all operate under strict rules overseen by a Guild, whose headquarters are in the Flatiron Building (!). The police are paid to look the other way, so the assassins can all go about their deadly business unobstructed by the law.

Several years ago John Wick fell in love with a civilian woman, got out of the "business" and tried to settle down in a normal life. Sadly, soon afterward his wife Helen died of an unknown illness. Wick then crossed paths with Iosef Tarasov, the psychotic son of Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov. Iosef stole Wick's prized 1969 Mach 1 Mustang and killed his beloved dog, the last thing given to him by his wife. Wick then went on a brutal rampage, seeking vengeance on Iosef and Viggo, ultimately killing them both (along with eighty two others, according to an internet kill count).

OK, we're all up to date.

Several days after the events of the first movie, John Wick tracks his Mustang to a warehouse owned by Abram Tarasov (played by Peter Stormare), brother of Viggo. Wick wipes out several dozen of Tarasov's men before finding his car. He takes it back and roars off. He's immediately attacked by more of Tarasov's men, who shoot at the car and repeatedly slam into it. Wick's thrown out of the car and fights the thugs hand-to-hand.

Tarasov sits in his office, listening to the ruckus below. He's terrified when he hears footsteps coming up the stairs, and Wick enters the office. He pours a drink for himself and Tarasov, offering a truce. A shaken Tarasov agrees, and questions whether John Wick will ever find peace.

John Wick somehow drives the virtually destroyed car back home, where he's greeted by the unnamed dog he picked up at the end of the first film. He calls chop-shop owner Aurello (played by John Leguizamo) to come pick up the car. Aurello examines the car and declares it a total wreck, but smiles and says he can fix it
 for a price, of course. Wick then goes to his basement, and buries all his weapons under cement yet again. He sits in the basement and rewatches a video of his wife on his phone.

Later, Wick is visited by fellow assassin Santino D'Antonio. He's the one who helped Wick complete the "Impossible Task" that Viggo Tarasov set for him years ago, which allowed him to leave the assassin life and marry Helen. As a reward for helping him, Wick gave D'Antonio a "marker." In the assassin world, a marker is a blood oath, or a promise that can't be refused. D'Antonio presents the marker to Wick, cashing in the favor he owes him. 

D'Antonio says his sister Gianna is set to inherit a seat at the High Table, a worldwide governing body of assassins. D'Antonio wants Wick to kill Gianna, so the seat will pass to him. Despite knowing the consequences, Wick refuses the marker, saying he's retired from the business. D'Antonio is disappointed, but understands. In fact he understands so well that he leaves and then fires a rocket launcher at Wick's home, completely destroying it. Fortunately Wick and Dog survive.

John Wick goes to the Continental (the aforementioned assassin headquarters inside the Flatiron building) to meet with its owner Winston (played by Ian McShane). He explains the situation to Winston, who says refusing a marker is unheard of in the business, and there's nothing he can do to help. He tells Wick if he doesn't change his mind, D'Antonio will put a contract on his head, and every assassin in the world will be gunning for him. Wick realizes Winston's right. He leaves his dog with Charon (played by Lance Reddick), the Continental's concierge, and flies to Rome.

Once there, Wick heads for the Rome branch of the Continental, which apparently means there's one in every major city worldwide. He's greeted by the owner, Julius (played by Franco Nero). Wick visits the Continental's Tailor, who outfits him with a customized, bullet-proof suit (?), and the Sommelier, who arms him with dozens of specialized weapons.

Wick then attends Gianna's "coronation." He introduces himself to her, and she dismisses her bodyguard Cassian (played by Common) and steers Wick into a large room with a sunken pool. He tells her he's there to kill her on behalf of her brother, but assures her it's nothing personal. Realizing there's no escape, Gianna says she wants to go out on her own terms and slashes her wrists (!). She then lies down in the pool and dies. Wick shoots her in the head anyway, to fulfill his obligation.

Cassian finds Gianna's body and goes after Wick. He runs into the catacombs under Rome, where Wick previously stashed numerous weapons and set up scores of traps. Dozens of Cassian's goons follow Wick into the catacombs, but he quickly kills them all in a huge action setpiece. Wick exits the catacombs and heads for a crowded shopping center. Cassian catches up and the two discreetly fire at one another as they run through the center.

Their epic battle takes them into the lobby of the Continental. Winston appears and reminds them that the rules say no blood can be spilled inside the hotel. Wick and Cassian stop fighting, and have a drink in the bar. WIck explains why he "killed" Gianna. Cassian understands, but says he can't let it go unpunished and leaves. Wick spots D'Antonio's mute bodyguard Ares (played by Ruby Rose). She ominously signs to him that she'll be seeing him soon.

Wick returns to New York, as D'Antonio puts out a $7 million contract on him, which is received by hundreds of assassins worldwide. Suddenly assassins appear from everywhere, all trying to kill Wick. He flees into a subway car, where several men follow. He dusts off his old trick and kills all three of them with a pencil (!). Cassian boards the train and the two fight yet again. Ultimately Wick gets the upper hand, stabbing Cassian in the aorta. As Cassian slumps to the floor, Wick tells him not to pull out the knife or he'll bleed to death. Wick then approaches a homeless man in the subway, who of course is secretly an assassin, and asks for sanctuary.

The homeless man takes Wick to see the Bowery King (played by Laurence Fishburne). He gives him a gun with limited ammo and tells him where to locate D'Antonio.

Wick finds D'Antonio in a museum. D'Antonio's thugs attack, and of course Wick brutally kills them all. He chases D'Antonio into a disorienting "Hall Of Mirrors" exhibit. Ares attacks, and Wick stabs, but doesn't kill her, leaving her free to return in the third film. Meanwhile, D'Antonio slips away unnoticed.

John Wick tracks D'Antonio to the Continental, where he smugly reminds him that he's safe. Winston warns Wick to think about the consequences of his actions. Wick ponders for a second, then shoots D'Antonio in the head. He then picks up his dog from Charon and leaves.

The next day Wick meets with Winston in a park. Winston tells him that because he violated the rules of the Continental, the High Table has marked him "excommunicado," and doubled the bounty on his head. Winston gives him one hour before the contract takes effect. As Wick hurries through the streets, virtually everyone he passes gets the call saying he's been excommunicated from the Guild. Wick and his dog run faster.


• There's really not a lot to say about this film. As I said earlier, it's seemingly set in an alternate world where nearly everyone is an assassin, so it's tough to nitpick. As you would expect, I will strive to do my best though.

• Man, actress Ruby Rose is having one heck of a year. In just the past two months she was in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, xXx: Return Of Xander Cage and now this film. She's quite the busy gal! I wonder if this is the first time an actor has ever starred in three movies that were all in theaters at the same time?

By the way, Ruby Rose plays D'Antonio's bodyguard Ares, who communicates through sign language. So does that means she's deaf/mute, or just mute? 

I'd think she'd have to just be just mute, as being deaf would seem to be a huge occupational hazard for an assassin. No offense to any hearing-impaired readers intended, but it seems like it'd be pretty easy to sneak up on a deaf killer.

• When Wick tells Gianna he's there to kill her, she slashes her wrists so she can "go out on her own terms." She then monologues for a bit and promptly dies. Wick then shoots her in the head, to fulfill his obligation to D'Antonio and make it look like he killed her as ordered.

So I guess that when her body was found, everyone thought, "Huh. I guess she must have slashed her wrists after her head was blown off. Weird."

• There are quite a few reunions in this movie. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne both starred together in The Matrix Trilogy.

Reeves and Peter Stormare worked together in Constantine, Henry's Crime and Swedish Dicks (?).

And Keanu Reeves and Common played enemies in Street Kings.

• When D'Antonio puts out a contract on John Wick, we see a monitor displaying the hundreds of phone numbers the message is being sent to.

Oddly enough none of these numbers contain the usual fake "555" movie prefix. Has Hollywood finally come up with some new, less obviously fake phone numbers? Or were all those numbers real? I can just see some poor sap having to change his phone number after receiving a hundred calls saying, "I'm comin' for you, John Wick!"

• Fortunately for John Wick, every one of his opponents has the decency to shoot at his armored torso, and not at his unprotected head.

• Speaking of armor, I'm pretty sure it's not possible to create a bulletproof tailored suit. At least not like the sleek, form-fitting one John Wick wears in this movie. I'm betting that was a bit of sci-fi tech creeping into the film.

Even though his suit's a bit iffy, I'm glad they did it. It would be preposterous to expect the audience to believe that Wick was somehow able to completely dodge the tens of thousands of bullets that were fired his way, without being hit even once.

Giving him a bulletproof suit humanizes him slightly, allowing him to be shot once or twice and still survive.

UPDATE: A few weeks after I posted this review, I found out that bulletproof tailored suits actually DO exist! They're made for heads of state and businessmen who work in dangerous parts of the world. And they look much like the one Wick wears in the film— sleek and stylish, not bulky. So I stand corrected!

• I really can't say enough good things about the awesome action in this film, and the wonderfully clear way in which is was shot.

That said, if they film a Chapter 3, they need to come up with a few new moves for John Wick. He has this signature move, in which he'll shoot a thug in the gut, then grab him by the neck as he prepares for the killing shot. Suddenly a couple of other thugs will enter the room, and Wick will then take each of them out with a single shot, while still holding onto the first thug. Once that threat's gone, he'll turn his attention back the to original thug and kill him.

Wick has done this same move multiple times in both movies now. Don't get me wrong, it's an effective move, and it's amazing the first ten or twenty times you see him do it. After that it kind of loses its potency.

Here's hoping Wick can come up with a new signature move in the third film.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a perfect sequel, and a worthy successor to the original film. It's filled with amazing fights and action scenes, many of which appear to be filmed in one long take. Believe it or not, these stunts are filmed so the audience can actually see and appreciate them, which is a rarity in these days of Shakey Cam™ (I'm lookin' at you, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter). And best of all, Wick's new dog actually survives the movie this time! Bring on Chapter 3! I give it a B+.

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