John Wick Chapter Two is a great action film

Never in my life of watching films have I seen anything quite like “John Wick Chapter Two,” the sequel (obviously) to 2014’s sleeper hit “John Wick,” which was a pretty good film in its own right, but “Wick Two” is some kind of crazy-ass masterpiece. I doubt seriously that I’ll see anything quite as good this year, though I’ll admit, there are a few potential contenders lurking out there (“Blade Runner 2049” and “The Last Jedi” spring to mind, as far as genre thrillers/franchise entries go).

“Wick Two” is headlined by the inscrutable (some would say wooden) action hero Keanu Reeves, perhaps the biggest movie star not to have his own Marvel or DC Comics line of films. He would have made a great Batman – better than Kilmer, better than Clooney, hell, better than Bale – but DC, in its wisdom, passed him over, leaving him in a bit of a cinematic lurch since the end of the “Matrix” series way back in 2003. John Wick gives him a pair of films that stomp the living the shit out of anything starring Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Wick is a bad ass who surpasses the baddest bad ass you can think of, and Reeves doesn’t so much portray him as embody him. This is a great action performance in a film that stuns, surprises, entertains, enthralls, appalls, and tickles. It might be the best action movie since, I dunno, “Die Hard” or “Lethal Weapon 2.” Understand, I have to go way, way back to find anything that compares. It is so good that after years of having our senses dulled by CGI and Chris Nolan-style editing, we almost don’t deserve to have it in our lives. It is that good.

The first “Wick” was a lean, mean, deceptively well-built thriller about a hitman whose dog gets murdered by a soulless Russian punk and who goes on a kill-crazy rampage getting revenge. Oh, the Russian happened also to steal John Wick’s beloved vintage Mustang, and John wants it back. That’s it. That’s the plot. The film’s story is almost laughably thin, but there is nothing laughable about Reeves’ performance. His John Wick is described, in professional killer circles, as the Bogeyman, the one guy you DON’T want knocking on your door in the middle of the night, even if you, yourself, are a bad-ass hitman-assassin type. Wick hacks, shoots, bludgeons, karate-chops, drop-kicks, crushes, punches, slashes and bashes his way through an entire legion of nominal bad guys whose only crime was pissing him off. The film had great villains, great style, slow-burn energy, spectacular photography, and a particular way of showcasing Wick’s moves. You have to watch it twice to realize that its slender plot is actually its calling card. It is pure action from beginning to end. True, no one (let me repeat – NO ONE) could survive what Wick endures, but that is hardly the point. The point is energy and style, how Reeves looks when he’s killing a dozen thugs all at the same time, how he handles guns and knives and his two greatest weapons, his own hands. There’s no need for tedious screenwriting – “John Wick” is Cinema with a Capital C.

“John Wick Chapter Two” takes that aesthetic and runs it all the way up to a 12. It’s not a sequel so much as a continuation of the original story, wrapping up every last possible loose end from the first film in its opening 10 minutes before moving on to a fresh new take on the retired hitman theme. A word about those first 10 minutes: They are sensational, an entire Marvel movie condensed into a single action sequence that schools  every director in Hollywood. There are car chases and motorcycle chases and kung fu and wire fu and gunfights all before the opening credits sequence, not to mention a cameo from the great character actor Peter Stormare (“Fargo,” “Armageddon”) who chews the scenery as well as his fat Cuban cigar. We can’t help but notice that this film continues a nifty conceit from the first film: when someone speaks in subtitles, those subtitles get the STAR WARS OPENING TITLE CARD treatment, spelled out in racy all-caps that float on the screen and then disappear. There’s nothing traditional about a Wick film, though it contains a thousand other details that harken back to the days of more traditional action filmmaking.

What I mean is this: When Wick goes into action, WE CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING. Director Chad Stahelski (whose other works are unknown to me) films action so that we can see who is doing what to whom. (We also generally understand why and how.) Most of the fight scenes are choreographed and filmed in wide shot, with Reeves demonstrating why he is one of the greatest action stars at work today. Even scenes of jaw-dropping complexity, such as a chase through a subway station, or a battle in a hall of mirrors (called Reflections of the Soul!), are staged and shot so that we can follow clearly, seeing where each combatant is located in relation to all the others. Action movies used to be designed this way, but then Christopher Nolan started photographing everything a millimeter from the actors’ faces, and editing  so that we saw only individual blocks of action rather than the entire dance. If nothing else, “John Wick Chapter Two” makes action fun and balletic and comprehensible once again.

So what’s the story this time? Wick is lured back into the revenge business by a former associate who claims a marker or blood debt that Wick swore long ago. As expected, Wick is betrayed by someone he trusts, and soon he finds himself fending off hordes, legions, armies of faceless killers. A portion of the film is set in a labyrinth beneath Rome, a spectacular sequence that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any other movie. Wick (Reeves) literally battles his way through scores of bad guys who pop out of the woodwork to get mowed down by his spitting, coughing, purring automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Nothing is predictable or boring about this action; there’s the sense that Wick could make one wrong step and get totally wiped out. His victories are earned by skill and training, but Wick’s sheer force of will also helps him survive. Reeves gets all of this across with very little dialogue. He might be the new Clint Eastwood of the modern age.

Stunning, unforgettable sequences abound. There’s Wick’s tour of the criminal underworld in Rome as he orders new suits (laden with “cutting-edge” bulletproof gear), studies ancient maps and selects a handful of sophisticated weapons from a Sommelier who describes each gun as if it were an item on a gourmet menu. There’s his confrontation with a beautiful crime lord whose solution to his death threat is to violently off herself – in the most outrageously gorgeous way imaginable. There’s Common, playing an assassin who’s sorta friendly toward Wick – except when they’re battling each other in an exhausting sequence that goes on for at least five minutes. There’s Ian McShane as a crime boss, Franco Nero as yet another crime boss, and Ruby Rose as a character I’ve never seen before: a deaf-mute assassin who communicates with Wick (ominously) via sign language.

And so on. There are action sequences so good that you just sit back and delight in them, like the pursuit between Reeves and Common through a New York City train platform. Wick is on the lower level and his enemy is above. They’re both walking in the same direction, calmly shooting at each other WITHOUT ANYONE ELSE KNOWING WHAT THEY ARE DOING. The way it’s filmed, acted and edited is miraculous. I mean, Spielberg in his prime wasn’t doing this kind of direction.

Visually, the film is a marvel. Its color scheme is eye-popping. The production design is richly detailed, full of character and texture. There is not one single dull or lazily staged scene in the entire movie. James Cameron has gotten boring and stodgy in his “Avatar” age and Martin Scorsese has a tendency to go cartoonish, but Stahelski walks a fine line between outrageousness and classicism. To watch “John Wick Chapter Two” is to reflect that perhaps Hollywood action films have gone as far as they can possibly go in one direction and the pendulum is swinging back toward a more classical style, one where the camera sits more or less still, and the actors are allowed to do their work. It’s a nice thought.

I haven’t even mentioned the appearance of Lawrence Fishburne, Reeves’ cohort from “The Matrix,” or the way the film ends on a note that sets us up perfectly for a third Wick film, which I most sincerely am pulling for. I couldn’t give less of a damn about the products currently being churned out of Marvel or DC (though “Wonder Woman” was pretty good), but give me the John Wick films and I’m happy. This is not so much a franchise as a sweet package of ass-kicking goodness.

 

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