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Monday, March 20, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

I'm sorry, but really: ho freakin' hum.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Picking up a few days after the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 finds our eponymous hero once again drawn out of retirement for one last job but when that job doesn't go as planned, he ends up at the top of the hit list for every assassin in the city and beyond.

What we thought

John Wick, released way back in 2014 (it seems more recent), was one of that year's most surprising hits, scoring big with both critics and at the box-office, but having the kind of geeky appeal that resulted in the emergence of a bonafide fan movement for the quietly lethal killer at its centre. The unimaginatively titled Chapter 2 has, if anything, been even more of a success, with sky-high rating from critics and audiences alike and an even bigger box office take.

Frankly, it's all a bit of a mystery to me.

I'd almost credit the huge success of these films as simply being the product of a Hollywood that has largely lost interest in such straightforward action films but that's far less accurate than it might appear at first glance. Yes, most action films these days are wrapped in other genres like science fiction or superhero fantasy but that does a disservice to charismatic action stars like Jason Statham or the Fast and Furious franchise, which has only become more and more enjoyable as it has gotten more and more bonkers. More than that, only a fool would write off major 21st century action films like Haywire, Dredd or the Raid, which easily stand as major milestones for the genre.

I also, sadly, can't really explain the success of John Wick as having to do with its leading man. Keanu Reeves has never been the best actor in the world but between the fact that he is, by all reports, a total mensch in real-life and usually an immensely likeable screen presence, it has always been something of a pleasure to watch him do his (admittedly limited) thing. John Wick, however, gives him very little to work with, as this stoic, largely personality-free killing machine seems better suited to the extremely minimal screen presence and acting abilities of a Steven Seagal than a charismatic leading man like Keanu Reeves. Listening to Keanu talk about John Wick in interviews is a hell of a lot more fun (“it's quantum, baby!”) than actually watching him portray this turgid anti-hero.

Where the film does clearly and quite undeniably succeed, though, is in its action scenes. Admittedly, even here, I did lose patience after a while as the endless barrage of violence ultimately became numbing, but that doesn't change the fact that they're a welcome respite to the over-edited, headache-inducing action scenes that have been the norm in most action films since Paul Greengrass took over the Bourne films. Even the best modern day action flicks suffer from trying to ape Greengrass' patented “throw you in the action” directorial style, while the worst are rendered all but unwatchable (hello, Resident Evil 78 or whatever it was) by it.

The action scenes in John Wick 2, on the other hand, are carefully choreographed and portrayed with minimal editing or quick cuts. This gives the film a definite step up above most of its contemporaries as no amount of shaky cams or rapid editing could ever beat old fashioned action filmmaking where coherence and immaculately delivered stunt work go hand in hand to create something truly gripping.

Along with the action scenes, the film also transcends its uninteresting lead character, under-developed world building, instantly forgettable bad guys, uninspired story and indulgent runtime through a nice sense of the absurd. For all of the seriousness of its blank main character, the film is definitely not without a sense of humour as it's filled with small touches that let you know director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (both returning from the first film) understand just how silly this stuff is and aren't afraid to have some fun with it. It's not exactly Crank but it definitely deserves a few extra brownie points for not taking itself too seriously.

None of this is ever quite enough to make me actually look forward to the all but guaranteed John Wick: Chapter 3 but I'm clearly very nearly all alone in that.




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