Thursday, February 9, 2017

Hitman’s Paradise: "John Wick: Chapter 2" delivers more balletic badassery


John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
122 min., rated R. 

2014’s “John Wick” was a giddily efficient, stylishly awesome action film with balletic, hyper-violent choreography and a cheeky sense of humor. It was quite the showcase for Keanu Reeves as the feared hitman nicknamed “The Boogeyman” who came out of retirement, and in a way, that was Reeves’ way back into a career winning streak. Reeves may be accused of being a blank performer sometimes, but at least with this character who never shoots blanks, he brings a ruthless stoicism to the skilled badassery. Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad return for “John Wick: Chapter 2,” a solid, if overlong, sequel that doesn’t quite top the original revenge flick but nonetheless delivers the goods. 

If “John Wick” has taught us anything, it is that there are two things that should never be taken away from a hitman: (a) his dog and (b) his car. Immediately after completing his vengeance on a Russian crime syndicate (led by Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo Tarasov), John Wick returns and he wants his damn car back. After locating it in the warehouse of Viggo’s cigar-chomping brother Abram (Peter Stormare) and sparing Abram but not his men, he goes back home, hoping to be officially retired. Just as he gets done reburying his cache of guns under the cement of his basement, Wick is soon visited by suavely coiffed Italian assassin Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) with a contract marker to which he refuses. When Santino sends him a message and burns his house down—and not to worry, the filmmakers don’t dare touch the new pet pit bull Wick rescued at the end of the first film—Wick has no choice but to honor his blood oath with the assignment: fly to Rome and kill D’Antonio’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) to delete her place at the “High Table,” a global crime society. Things don’t go quite as planned, but when will all of the other hitmen in the world learn? Don’t make John Wick angry.

In the first “John Wick,” the motive behind John Wick’s killing spree was clearly personal—the puppy posthumously left for him by his late wife (Bridget Moynahan, reappearing in sun-dappled flashbacks and photos) is killed—so the violence felt cathartic. This time, the marker demanded by Santino D’Antonio is personal, but for the man, the myth, the legend, it’s really just business. Plot-wise, the film progresses into more of the same “just-when-he-thought-he-was-out-they-pull-him-back-in” formula with several new details supplementing this vivid world, and that's never a bad thing in this case. For this go-round, Wick's mission allows him to trot the globe to Italy, and director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad get to have more fun expanding upon the clandestine universe of contract killers. There is a code in this community of killers and a darkly winking humor in their professional courtesy. Assassin mecca "The Continental" still plays a part, and in Rome, there is a fancy members-only hotel, The Italian Continental, another home base where violence will not be tolerated inside. Upon Wick’s arrival, he gets tailored and gets to try out his weaponry with a “sommelier” (Peter Serafinowicz). Another neat touch is a switchboard unit of tattooed women that handles the contracts, and apparently, the homeless should never be underestimated, either.

Being a half-hour longer than its predecessor, “Chapter 2” is less non-stop and more stop-and-start, but in a film crammed with so much gunfire and a body count that would make Jason Voorhees blush, a few respites are thankful. Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (2015’s “Crimson Peak”) still let the intricate choreography of the gun fu-inspired fights play out and not get lost in nauseating, incoherent shaky-cam or millisecond-long edits. These filmmakers know how to get the rhythm right in an action sequence, and they never once fall back on stylized slo-mo. The film kicks off to a blazing start, cleverly blending a stunt from 1924 Buster Keaton film “Sherlock Jr.” that’s projected on the building of a New York City street and then pulling back to reveal an actual motorcycle spill. A couple of the action set-pieces equal those from its predecessor, including Wick’s retrieval of his car and a knock-down, drag-out fight between John and fellow assassin Cassian (Common) with a knife, a gun and a flight of stairs (that’s all you need). The production design of this crime underworld is also more slick than scuzzy, making sterling use of setting in New York's Lincoln Center and new PATH station, the Roman catacombs and the Baths of Caracalla during a rock concert, and a funhouse-mirror art installation in a museum.

The role of John Wick is still a smooth fit for 52-year-old Keanu Reeves, getting to be stoic but agile in mixed-martial arts, gunplay and cracking a deadpan one-liner. The character is a great shot but not invincible; he gets wounded a lot but has a high tolerance for pain. Wick also gets to live up to his reputation for killing three men with a No. 2 pencil. Members of the original cast do return, too, like The Continental’s very professional front-desk concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) and Ian McShane’s Winston, the hotel owner. The appearance of Laurence Fishburne, bringing regular swagger as a crime-lord ally, will elicit comfort in seeing a reunion with his “Matrix” co-star, while Ruby Rose (Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”), who seems to be quickly making her rounds in movies this year, mostly gets to sign before proving to be worth her salt as D’Antonio’s deaf henchwoman. As expertly staged bombardments of headshots and other rapid-fire methods of carnage go, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is anything but a letdown, and based on the finale, the stakes are just going to get higher on a global scale for The Boogeyman. At this point, nobody wants to see Wick give up the ghost, as long as he doesn’t break a hip, but it’s guaranteed everyone’s new favorite hitman will kill again. Bring on the trilogy. 

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