‘JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2’ REVIEW: MILLION DOLLAR BABA YAGA

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2 (2017)

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

The Plot: We pick up pretty much immediately where we last left John Wick in, uh, John Wick. After decimating a major chunk of the Russian Mafia in New York, Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns to home to continue his retirement – mourning his wife, his dog, the near destruction of his beloved 1969 Mustang Mach 1 – when a criminal colleague (Riccardo Scamarcio) contacts him and demands he honor a marker for a high risk assessment hit in Rome. A marker, by rules of the international coalition of contract killers known as The Continental, John Wick is not allowed to turn down. So just when he thought he was out…. they pull him back in.

The Film: Do hitmen have souls? Do they even have hearts? Though I doubt anyone would ever accuse these John Wick films of being overtly thoughtful, or sophisticated in any capacity outside of the craft of death choreography, John Wick Chapter 2 is flirting with its own deeply flawed existential crisis. John Wick, our uber-effective vessel of cathartic violence, is a reformed white-knuckle pacifist, desperate to put his days of contract killing behind him. Not that we would ever put the same level of value on John Wick The Homemaker as we do on John Wick The Homewrecker, or that we’ll have any real anxieties that his life is in jeopardy a single instance in this motion picture, (we fret over his elevated station in his posh union of hired killers more so than we ever do his survival) or even that his soul may be damned for all time for his previous/current career in commercial bloodshed – but this sequel gently insists that maybe we should think it over.

If we can credit this Wick scripter (Derek Kolstad, who I’m wholly convinced was struck with a franchise epiphany during the Club Fever sequence in Michael Mann’s Collateral) with anything, it’s that he has eschewed the tendency to complicate things on his sophomore effort. (IE: The Matrix Reloaded) He simply adds dimension to the savage modesty of the first feature. With John Wick Kolstad and Stahelski have somehow decriminalized the dumb action movie and have given it panache in a way that Vin Diesel’s handlers in the XXX camp will never grasp, nor realistically achieve. Ruby Rose’s participation in both or not.

John Wick is death dressed to the nines. With his battered, pie-eating-contest face creating asymmetrical accord with his tailor made Italian suits, John Wick gives gravitas to the mismatch of butterfly bandages and Brioni neckwear. Indeed, the sommelier sequence in John Wick 2, (if not the best scene in this movie, in the running for the position) all but confirms our sneaking suspicions that Wick, and the people behind his existence, are cleverer blokes than maybe we gave them credit for back in 2014. John is still mostly hyper-stylization over substance. Still apathetic toward traditional plot hooks and credibility. Though I firmly now believe we could argue – as hinted at in the first paragraph of this review – that by including one particularly punishing action set piece in a new age art installation called ‘Reflections On The Soul,’ that Wick 2 is courting divinity and violence in a manner we haven’t seen since John Woo plugged late 80’s/early 90’s Hong Kong cinema into the American zeitgeist.

Then again, maybe it is all about avenging dead dogs, stolen muscle cars, and burned down mansions. That’s the beautiful paradox of this premise. In John Wick’s universe life is cheap. Living however? That cost is at a premium and trending upward all the time.

John Wick, and now, John Wick Chapter 2 are the matinee battleground where mythos and pathos collide, where all a spectator can do is kick back and applaud the sensational wreck of it all. Wick films are fun films – this one specifically. Cheeky films. (treasure every moment Peter Stormare has in this sequel) Categorically insane films, (Sumo wrestling!?) begging us to relieve ourselves of our duty toward ethical proprieties, political acuteness, and our own genetic sympathetic urges, and just really get off on the forced mass extermination of hired guns and underworld royalty by the coolest homicidal hombre this side of Leon The Professional – all propped up by a ridiculously galvanizing soundtrack.

John Wick 2 extends the lore of The Continental’s international concern of hipster hitmen and their taxes and charters. Those well heeled assassins of the Tortuga Pirate’s code, with their favor markers, parlay rights, and platinum bullion. Easily the most interesting relationship in Wick 2 is the one between John Wick and Common’s Cassian. Competitors to the death they share a relationship in the same vein as the Warner Brothers animated exploits of Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog. (“Morning Ralph…” “Morning Sam.”) There are scenes between these two in this film that are so compelling, and so spectacularly orchestrated between high violence and high comedy, we regret that there ever has to be a victor at all.

In the corporate enterprise of filling body bags for maximum gross dollars possible we stumble onto an operation unknown in Wick lore till now. A prosperous scab outfit running Intel and contracts at street level ran by Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King. Matrix fanatics might be giddy at the prospect of watching Neo interact with Morpheus on the silver screen again in this lifetime, and indeed, Chad Stahelski milks the scenes between these two for maximum Matrixicity. But The Bowery King adds a neat facet to the legend of John Wick, strengthening the mythology of this soon-to-be trilogy without wreaking havoc on the attention spans of the viewership. Also, it’s nice to finally see that Fishburne has at last wrestled free of his Morpheus pigeonhole, to find a comfortable hovel in his new Bowery King pigeonhole.

The Verdict: John Wick Chapter 2 is straight up tactical pornography. To the subscription base of Recoil Magazine it is celluloid Viagra. Though it may have aspirations to be a Woo-esque ballet of violence, this is rave culture cinema. Thumping beats and bodies nearly non-stop from opening credits, through its so-outrageous-it-deserves-its-own-Springer-episode middle section, till closing cliffhanger. Which is, I guess, all we’re really looking for. John’s signature moves are starting to feel slightly overused at this juncture, but it’s almost a non-issue in a film with very little issues at all – outside of its own morally inconclusive ones.

The original John Wick was cool. I believe John Wick 2 is even cooler.

GRADE: B+

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