Directed by: Chad Stahelski || Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee
Screenplay by: Derek Kolstad || Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Franco Nero, Claudia Gerini
Music by: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard || Cinematography: Dan Laustsen || Edited by: Evan Schiff || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 122 minutes
Peruse the Internet for websites catering to film criticism or cinephilia in general, and sooner or later you will find the uncommon bemoaning of the modern state of the American, specifically the Hollywood, action film. Western action filmmaking has suffered its reputation in recent years for a variety of reasons, from the (until recently) ubiquity of the sanitized PG-13 rating for international blockbusters to sloppy handheld camerawork (i.e. “shaky-cam”) to incoherent editing used to disguise lackluster choreography or aging movie stars’ nonathletic stature.
While I am as much a stickler for proper action filmmaking technique as any, I often rebut those anti-Western accusations by pointing out the converse tradeoffs of East Asian cinema: Over-choreographed fights that look more like dancing than actual combat, static, boring wide-angle camerawork locked on tripods that never move, and terrible “wire-fu” special FX. If Western action cinema has become too much bark and no bite, then Eastern action cinema has become too stale and full of itself. If only there was a filmmaker capable of combining the dynamism and grit of old-school Hollywood action films with the grace and choreography of Hong Kong and Korean filmmaking.
Enter Gareth Evans’ masterful film, The Raid (2011), a bloody, brutal ballet of an action film that mixed and matched complex editing, dynamic handheld photography, intricate choreography, and endless blood ‘n gore to great effect. In addition to impressive hand-to-hand combat, The Raid and its 2014 sequel showcased memorable shootouts and equally intense car chases, completing the international trifecta of action filmmaking. Would other filmmakers take notice?
It looks like that is the case. In the years since, we’ve seen the release of one of the best action films ever made in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), as well as the incorporation of capable action cinematography into mainstream franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and the Mission Impossible series.
To that end, John Wick (2014), an unabashed thoroughbred action film produced entirely by an American Hollywood studio, released to sleeper box office and home video success, as well as critical acclaim. Even more surprising was its action rebirth of Keanu Reeves, a once proud Western action staple who’s been searching for high-profile hits since the original Matrix (1999). Produced on a moderate budget of $20 million and no franchise (re: sequel) preconceptions, John Wick sneaked up on most everybody and earned its 2017 sequel the old fashioned way — by grossing way more than it had any business to, and righteous audience demand.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (henceforth John Wick 2 or JW2) is the perfect sequel to the original 2014 surprise action fiesta. Not only does it solidify its place as Reeves’ (probable) final action franchise of his career, but it is in all likelihood the best action sequel in which he will ever star. It’s also his best film and the best pure American action movie released since The Matrix. To put it simply, the American action film is back.
John Wick 2 lacks the singular emotional buildup of the original’s straightforward revenge tale, but to its credit, weaves an even more emotionally engaging tale against an even deeper canvass of underworld assassins, global organized crime, and a luscious color palette of cool hues, neon lights, and classical architecture. Like its predecessor, JW2‘s premise, diegesis, and narrative structure are akin to dropping an action movie protagonist into a crime drama, much like how Predator (1987) and Predator 2 (1990) played like science-fiction horror films with action and cop drama characters, respectively. JW2 is the extension of every action junkie’s desire to take control of a classical crime opera and turn every setpiece into Al Pacino’s final stand in Scarface (1983). Ok, maybe that’s just my desire, but it’s a fair explanation…
To those of you unfamiliar with the first John Wick (see it right away!), much of the sequel’s charm relies on Derek Kolstad’s brilliant world-building and extensive off-camera diegesis. A franchise like Star Wars or a television series like Game of Thrones (2011-present) are famous for creating original, lived-in worlds with depth and history to them, an exotic landscape that feels mysterious with regards to its origins yet relatable enough through its tangible realism. No hyperbole is necessary when I say John Wick’s universe of clandestine assassin organizations and intelligent, dare I say “classy” organized crime protocol, is comparable to the likes of those pop culture milestones. John Wick’s very genre limits its broader appeal, but its diegesis is no less impressive or personable. JW2‘s solid casting, reliable performances, memorable set-designs, and terrific wardrobe lend charisma and deadpan comedy to this devious world of professional murderers.
To that end, much of JW2’s inspiration and personality stem from its connection to classical Hollywood slapstick. The film opens on a projection of a Buster Keaton comedy short and further utilizes extreme violence for comedy purposes for the rest of its running-time. Like The Raid films and unlike the venerable Jackie Chan, however, JW2’s physical comedy is a dark combination of bloody mayhem and blunt force, as opposed to goofy facial expressions or lighthearted gymnastics.
JW2’s lighting and cinematography are superb, exceeding the impressive visuals and dynamic combat from the first film. The rapid-fire handheld camerawork and brilliant low-key lighting of the film’s Rome centerpiece are complemented by the grungy, bluntly edited opening warehouse sequence as well as the unforgettable finale inside a modern art museum and hall of mirrors. Within these setpieces are some of the most fluid transitions from close-quarters combat to shootouts you will see in a motion picture, arguably perfecting the judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu heavy “gun-fu” showcased in the original. Despite these many working parts, intricate choreography, and complex lighting setups, JW2 becomes arguably the first action film to master grappling (i.e. wrestling, jiu-jitsu, judo)-based combat photography. It’s about damned time, in my opinion!
John Wick 2’s action sequences and intriguing criminal underworld are the primary selling-points of the film, but its charismatic lead, tight overall editing, and slick musical score seal the deal on this action masterpiece. Though he is propped up by his admirable supporting cast throughout, Keanu Reeves was born to this role the same way he was meant for Neo in the late ’90s and early 2000s. His brooding, almost sullen demeanor permeates every frame, contrasting the production design’s colorful backdrop yet complementing its overall dark, noir-like appeal. Reeves’ one and two-liners are as strong as ever (“You wanna war, or you wanna just give me a gun?“), and the man’s screen presence remains unparalleled. Add to that a smooth, two-hour run-time that feels more satisfying than its predecessor, yet far from the overindulgent, bloated excesses of the likes of Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Spectre (2015), and another powerful soundtrack from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, and you have the complete action experience.
John Wick 2 is a great action film with no meaningful weaknesses. While the original could be nitpicked for its rushed ending or low-budget faceoff between Reeves and that film’s antagonist, Michael Nyqvist, there’s nothing philosophically or artistically lacking in this picture whatsoever. It goes without saying that the film isn’t for everyone, but like the greats of any genre from any generation of filmmaking, you can recommend it to most anyone. Most anyone should be able to appreciate it as the finest American action film of the 2010’s so far, and the best of its kind since Laurence Fishburne took us down the rabbit hole into Keanu Reeves’ last high-profile action movie. It is time action junkies gave up their cynicism for modern action filmmaking and celebrated its official return. Things can only get better from here.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: John Wick: Chapter 2 is as stylish as the coldest noir crime drama and as action-packed as the most visceral martial arts or shoot-’em-up flick. Keanu Reeves is integral to this story’s chemistry, but he’s helped by an admirable supporting cast, slick production values, a terrific audioscape, and meticulous editing. Its narrative conveys a fascinating world that enriches its characters and extends naturally from its impressive prequel. Not only is this a terrific action film, it is also the perfect sequel.
—> John Wick’s second chapter receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? You know what, John? I think you’re addicted to it, to the vengeance. No wife, no life, no home… vengeance is all you have.