Saturday, 18 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) (Review)


John Wick: Chapter 2 offers more of the same but ups the scale, the budget, the number of kills and blood on display. The first Wick pic became a modest success, earning over $80 million on a $20 million budget but inspired a legion of support, so much so that the second instalment reversed the curse of the 'sequel downfall' and improved on its debut efforts. With a third chapter all but confirmed, this seems like simply the next step in the tale of 'The Bogeyman', so has Chapter 2 inspired continued consumption of this action thriller franchise?

After finally retrieving his stolen car and putting to rest the idea of his assassin-ways, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is approached by Italian crime lord Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants to cash-in a blood-oath owed to him by Wick after helping him with the "impossible task" of leaving the assassins secret society behind him. After his initial refusal, he quickly realises that he must accept but after seeing it through, he discovers a price on his head and must evade capture by the other assassins. Essentially, it is a two-narrative story merged into one and appeared very promising on the surface.

Stylish and flashy, Chapter 2's action scenes are easily the strongest element of the film; they are well-choreographed, untamed and unapologetically brutal. A number of critics have commented on how it resembles somewhat of a ballet and their claims are justified - everything about the combat scenes feel both precise and frantic, bloody and elegant, very often in the same, tight camera frame. It carries an artfulness, an aesthetically-striking air of grace, totally ironic as headshots splatter blood over white walls and the camera screen. But it's all the more refreshing because it refuses to water down the action in the name of commerciality *cough Taken franchise cough*, unapologetic in its blood-shed and gore. While a little ludicrous, the 'hall of mirror' sequences is beautifully shot, genuinely intense and a joy to watch, as the corridors are smashed and the lights intensify, delivering an often breath-taking set piece that isn't alone in the film regarding its impressiveness (see also, the loud and brash opening scene). Editing is really slick, camera movement is focused and shots are purposeful, making for a generally well- rounded and solidly crafted picture; it is a well-made action film delivered by director Chad Stahelski whose background is in stunts and body doubles means he really knows how to capture a fight sequence with effect and impact.

Keanu Reeves returns as the titular character with a committed performance that encourages audiences to warm further to his anti-hero figure; his background is fleshed out a little further, the mythology of the series developed slightly and it's great that we live head-first into the criminal underworld - it makes the prospect of future instalments promising, especially given the open-ended nature of the finale. Chapter 2 never quite conveys the emotion of the original Wick's first act but does manage some genuinely touching moment in the second's first ten minute stretch, with Reeves delivering some anguished emotion that sets the tone for all that follows but at least it's admirable that the film doesn't feels like a rehash. Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard compose a solid score that elevates the film's intensity on occasions, with pulsating beats and piercing sounds wonderfully matched with the film's razor-sharp, truly terrific cinematography reminiscent of The Neon Demon. One grand scene (which kicks off the film's second story) is stunningly poetic and somewhat disconcerting amongst the frenzy of the piece; however, as with the rest of the piece, it eventually rears its head to the idea of 'beauty drenched in blood', and it is exactly this moment that demonstrates how boundary-pushing this film can be, willingly dipping its toes in the neo-noir genre and extracting its beauty and poise to demonstrate why the John Wick series has worked up until this point - its willingness to push conventions and challenge expectations. Sprinklings of humour and comedy add to this, usually dealt in a typical (but not always quite as subtly) dead-pan way, which helps replace some of the charm lacking in this second go-round. It's a nice balance that hits more than it misses, but that's not always the case with Wick 2...

Despite the blood and gore left, right and centre, sparks of inspiration and terrifically-tailored action sequences, what use is it when the film inflicts us with drought of boredom? Honestly, on occasions, it was not only testing but really quite dull: that should never, even be the case, particularly in the action genre and I didn't expect it of John Wick 2, considering the rave reviews from critics and general audiences. Rarely above average and only surpassing when it is filling in gaps and the admittedly solid minor details found in first act, the script frequently becomes monotonous and even fails to afford one character the art of conversation, attempting to be smart and quirky when it instead appears as nothing short of a cop-out, as if the writer's were giving up at times - as I came very close to. This, even with a fantastically promising core concept - Wick has money on his head and all the assassins in the area after him - deserves a more sturdy script to execute it. As mentioned, it not only lacks the emotional tug of the first film but also the notion of consequences, never delivering the stakes you so want it to and by the time the film wraps up with a nod to John Wick 3, it all appears as a courtesy. Chapter 2 is just not as compelling as the first, unfortunately a victim of its own success and struggling to even pass the bar. Sorry to be the kill-joy, I just don't think the Wick was burning as brightly this time out.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is not without its merit; it certainly is one of the most creatively-shot and striking action sequels in memory, with a genuine brutality that compares boldly with its less-able stablemates. 'Style over substance' is a phrase banded around by film critics like a dirty word but it absolutely applies here and the narrative, while promising from the outside, seems only designed to serve the most stylish action pictures you've seen, rather than for any other reason, like, y'know, ensuring the audience are engaged at all times and not just every now and then, as we jump from set piece to set piece sometimes aimlessly. There's a real beauty found amongst the headshots and blood splattering but John Wick: Chapter 2 is an otherwise empty spectacle of a franchise that deserved to be much, much more. If this is a particularly harsh review, do know that you can absolutely find enjoyment in this film, but considering the first made my top ten of 2015, I expected more than this the second time around...

(6/10)

Summary: John Wick: Chapter 2 is an insanely slick and stylish action sequel that gives you all the blood and gore you could want, but it struggles in the execution of its main mission - to deliver a compelling story.

Highlight: The terrifically choreographed and captured action.

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