Monday, February 13, 2017

In Theaters: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Franco Nero, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Claudia Gerini, Peter Serafinowicz, Thomas Sadoski, Tobias Segal, Wass Stevens, Luca Mosca, Chukwudi Iwuji, Simone Spinazze. (R, 122 mins)

A sleeper hit in 2014, JOHN WICK was held in such ambivalent regard by Lionsgate subsidiary Summit that it almost went straight to VOD until someone decided to arrange some test screenings and the audience response was through the roof. An electrifying, non-stop action thriller about a retired assassin--an unstoppable killing machine known to those in his profession as "The Boogeyman" and "Baba Yaga"-- on a mission of vengeance when the son of a Russian crime boss steals his car and kills his dog, JOHN WICK was filled with memorable shootouts, quotable dialogue ("Oh..."), a sly sense of humor, and an almost graphic novel-like sense of imaginative world building. In this world, the assassins have accoutrements like their own gold coin currency and they stay at the Continental, a safe sanctuary where business is conducted and violence forbidden. Friends become foes and back again, and it's understood that it's "just business." But things turned personal for John Wick (Keanu Reeves): on the day after the funeral of his cancer-stricken wife (Bridget Moynahan), his car is stolen and his dog killed by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the sniveling brat son of Wick's former boss, Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Wick declares war on Tarasov and single-handedly wipes out his entire organization over the course of the film, all while dodging an endless parade of fellow assassins after the bounty placed on his head by Viggo. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 picks up shortly after where the first film left off, with Viggo's vengeful brother Abram (Peter Stormare) waiting in his secured office as his men try--and fail--to stop Wick, who's arrived at the Tarasov warehouse to reclaim his stolen car. Wick confronts Abram and spares his life, offering him a drink as a mutually agreed peace offering.

Wick's return to retirement is short-lived however, as Italian mobster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) presents a marker--a blood oath among assassins--demanding Wick pay a debt. D'Antonio helped Wick with the final task for Viggo Tarasov that got him his freedom, and it was under the condition that he stay retired. Since he emerged from civilian life to wipe out Viggo's organization, D'Antonio declares the marker reactivated. His demand is that Wick whack his Rome-based sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who represents the Camorra on the international council of assassins, a seat D'Antonio believes he should've inherited from his late father. Wick refuses to acknowledge the marker, prompting D'Antonio to blow up his house. Under advice from Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane), Wick concedes he has no choice but to fulfill the marker if he wants any chance of returning to retirement. He travels to Italy, where he's greeted by Julius (Franco Nero), the manager of the Continental's Rome branch. Once Gianna is eliminated, Wick is double-crossed by D'Antonio, who puts out a $7 million contract on his life to create the appearance that he must avenge his sister's murder (really, Wick should've seen that coming). Once he's back in NYC, the chase is on as Wick spends the entire second half of the movie evading every covert assassin in the city--which is everyone from homeless guys to food truck vendors to street musicians--looking to grab $7 million to take out their most lethal colleague on the planet.

With a body count somewhere between "astronomical" and "fucking ridiculous," JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 exists in a patently unreal world where no cops of any kind are visible. Returning director Chad Stahelski (going solo this time, without the original's uncredited co-director David Leitch, his name left off the film by a DGA snafu) and screenwriter Derek Kolstad go for the same approach as THE RAID 2: it's the same story, just on a significantly larger and much more grandiosely ambitious scale. The set pieces are done with even more intricate, ballet-like precision, whether it's a high-tech hall of mirrors or Gianna's top security detail Cassian (Common) and Wick having a silencer shootout in the middle of a crowded subway station where no one even hears the guns going off around them. Stahelski goes for a much more stylized look this time out, with some tracking shots that serve as some of the best Kubrick homages this side of Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES. And some garish neon color schemes coupled with the staging of the action end up concocting an unholy visual fusion of Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, and John Woo. There's amusingly bizarre touches like the call center where assassins order contracts being filled with typewriters and analog equipment and looking a lot like a 1940s switchboard exchange straight out of HIS GIRL FRIDAY. This is absolutely exhilarating and gloriously bonkers filmmaking that rewards fans of the first film with numerous callbacks (there's another ominous "Oh..." from someone and we finally get to see Wick kill multiple guys with a pencil, a story that everyone who hears the name "John Wick" seems to reference), but takes everything to a higher level of inspiration and execution. Almost everyone in the cast gets a moment to shine, whether it's Nero's Julius breaking up a THEY LIVE-level brawl between Wick and Cassian, an unusually gregarious Laurence Fishburne (MATRIX reunion!) as the Bowery King, solid turns by returning JOHN WICK vets McShane and Lance Reddick as the Continental concierge, and a silent, scene-stealing performance by Ruby Rose as Ares, a mute, androgynous D'Antonio assassin who gives an almost Oscar-caliber flutter of an eye-wink to reassure her boss that she can handle Wick (spoiler: she can't). An improvement upon an already exemplary predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 takes its place beside the elite likes of THE RAID 2 and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD among the decade's greatest achievements in action cinema. It's that good.

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