17 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 review

I don't think it's all that unfair to say that American action films tend to suck, especially when it comes to a good old fashioned dust up. These days they're far too reliant on shaky-cam in order to mask the simple fact that their stars don't have the training required to make combat look good on screen, and there are very few films in recent years that have managed to overcome that in order to deliver a truly good fight scene. John Wick was one of the few, a film dedicated to practical action and real stunt work in a way that made it stand out amongst the crowd - and now John Wick: Chapter 2 has done it again, full of the stylish action that made the first film such a breath of fresh air while also further exploring the heightened, pulpy world that these characters inhabit.

It's a blast.

We follow legendary hitman John Wick as he is once again dragged out of retirement, this time by Santino D'Antonio, an Italian mob boss to whom he swore a blood oath many years ago. The rules of the world John once inhabited means that refusal to honour this blood oath will cost him his life, forcing him to travel to Rome in order to carry out a hit that he doesn't want to.

Even more so than its predecessor, the story told by John Wick: Chapter 2 feels like a formality, little more than an excuse for action. Part of this is a problem that all sequels see - returning to an established world is rarely as interesting as building it in the first place - but it has to be said that John's mission here lacks the urgency or intimacy of his quest for vengeance in the first film, and John Wick: Chapter 2's inability to create new side characters as interesting as the ones in John Wick is amongst its biggest failings. There are attempts, of course - Ruby Rose has a lot of screen presence as a mute bodyguard, and it's great to see John run into a rival assassin as skilled and driven as he in the form of Common's Cassian - but neither of these characters manage to leave the same kind of impression that Marcus or Miss Perkins did in John Wick. This problem extends to the main antagonist of the piece too - Santino D'Antonio is frustratingly two-dimensional in comparison to Iosef and Viggo Tarasov, the Russian mobsters of the first film.

And that's a real shame, especially when the rest John Wick: Chapter 2 is either as good as or maybe even better than its predecessor. My only real complaints about the first film were that John was so good at what he does that he rarely felt in danger and that we didn't have quite enough time to explore the vibrant, imaginative world that the film was building - John Wick: Chapter 2 addresses both of those points wonderfully, putting John on the defensive for the first time in the middle of the film while also further fleshing out this world and its customs.

It's this middle section that turns John Wick: Chapter 2 from merely a good sequel into something more. We get a much greater sense of the extent of this world, and the action sequences here take on a brutality and physicality, a sense of desperation that the first film lacked. A montage of attempts of John's life from a number of colourful, varied assassins starts to feel like something out of The Raid: Berandal, which is pretty much the highest compliment I could ever possibly give - the action doesn't just look good anymore, it feels good too. Seeing John shoot a lot of people is great, of course, but seeing John forced to improvise when he's on the back foot is something else entirely. Beware the humble pencil, for it is mightier than the gun.

It should go without saying that John Wick: Chapter 2 is just as well-shot and expertly choreographed as John Wick was, even if it doesn't quite manage to reach the heights of the first film's nightclub sequence. These action scenes are the entire reason that John Wick: Chapter 2 exists, and they don't disappoint - there are more truly great action beats in the opening sequence of John Wick: Chapter 2 than most franchises manage in their entirety, and they're all presented with a clarity and believability that other films could only dream of. Keanu Reeves reportedly underwent four full months of training in stunt driving, shooting and various martial arts for this film, and it shows - John Wick: Chapter 2 owes much of its success to the amount of faith it is able to place in its star, and Reeves doesn't disappoint.

All of which means that although baggier in terms of plot and character than its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 is still an incredibly entertaining return to this world, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that director Chad Stahelski is the real deal. If the next John Wick film manages to deliver on the promise that the final moments of John Wick: Chapter 2 seems to be making, then we could well be looking at one of the greatest action trilogies of all time - for now, we're just staring at the kick up the arse that Hollywood action has needed for a great many years.

4 stars

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