John wick: chapter 2

review by wei jie lam

The first John Wick film was a relatively straightforward story of an ex-hitman who seeks revenge on a Russian mob brat that killed his dog and stole his car. Its premise gave enough emotional weight to justify its wonderfully kinetic action scenes where titular character John Wick (Keanu Reeves) dispatched a multitude of Russian mobsters, while in the background was its self-contained comic book-like world-building of a criminal underworld from which John sought to retire. The emphasis was placed on Wick's quest for vengeance, and largely succeeded. John Wick: Chapter 2 aims on upping the action and building upon its own lore, and largely succeeds.

In John Wick: Chapter 2, Wick finds himself drawn back to the underworld when crime lord Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Smarcio) comes to collect a debt from him. Ironically this debt was what helped allow Wick to retire from the underworld to live with his late wife. Wick is tasked with killing Santino's sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that Santino can take her seat at a council of crime syndicates. However, soon Wick finds himself double-crossed and a large bounty is placed on his head. 

Wick is not only hunted by Gianna's personal bodyguard, Cassian (Common) but soon finds himself hunted by various assassins and Santino's personal security team lead by a deadly mute assassin, Ares (Ruby Rose). We kind of get the hint by this point that it's not a question of whether Wick will make it out alive, but rather how will he kill everyone that gets in his way. It's a set up that allows us to get excited for an unsurprisingly stacked body count. 

The film is surreal at times, taking place in a universe where two skilled gunmen take silenced shots at each other while strolling casually in a brightly lit subway station completely unnoticed to the public. There is a sommelier that recommends ideal weapons for Wick like fine bottles of wine, there are assassins out in the streets receiving contracts from their phones. A network of homeless assassins are hidden in plain sight, lead by an underground crime lord titled The Bowery King, played by Laurence Fishburne, reuniting Matrix stars in amusing scenes which showcase their chemistry. 

Not to mention the returning faces from the first film, such as Winston (Ian McShane), the enigmatic owner of The Continental Hotel in New York, which has a strict "no business" rule. Coloured subtitles dramatically pop up for characters speaking in various languages (including sign language), Wick's bulletproof suits absorb gunshots and Wick himself gets hit by a car, just ending up a bit winded. If the film had taken itself any more seriously, disbelief might have been suspended a bit too much. Thankfully Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad are aware its not meant to be taken seriously and interspersed moments of humour, including dog reaction shots.

Director Stahelski showcases some incredibly inventive action choreography with Wick quickly dispatching enemies with precise head shots, breaking limbs and disarming weapons from his assailants, even throwing firearms at them when he runs out of ammunition. He's almost too impervious. At times it does become questionable why anyone would think their henchmen would stand a chance against this one man army. Although Wick efficiently killing nameless goons is rather enjoyable, it's too easy for him. 

Wick's battles with more capable individuals are however a bit less one sided and definitely the superior between the two types of action. All this is highlighted through gorgeously lit locales such as dark blue Italian catacombs, a bright fluorescent lit white Subway station and even a modern art museum of mirrors, the latter which comes off as an extremely revved up version of the mirror maze seen in The Man With The Golden Gun. The action is balletic, captured by precise cinematography that focuses on showing off the actors' and stunt crew's finesse. Wide shots establish the geography of scenes, rendering the action easy to understand and more importantly, relish. 

It is however a bit of a shame that main villain Santino is forgettable. When comparing him to previous film's villain Viggo, it comes off as a regression in a sequel where many aspects of what made the original film great are improved. The dynamic between Viggo's immense respect for Wick conflicting with his love for his son, coupled with Nyqvist bringing interesting quirks to the character, prevented making Viggo just a Russian mobster stereotype, and turned him into a more compelling villain. Santino's motivations are however serviceable enough for the plot. It isn't a major problem, but more work could have been done in fleshing out his character, given that the rest of the cast give flashy performances assuming distinct personalities that really make us embrace the customs of the underworld. 

Overall Stahelski delivers a thrilling piece of action cinema. The film ends with its sequel's premise clearly laid out, and without spoiling it, I will say it's teasing something quite ridiculous. John Wick: Chapter 2 was just so much damn fun to watch.