Writer: Derek Kolstad
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scarmarcio, Common, Claudia Gerini, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Peter Stormare, Laurence Fishburne, Franco Nero
Running time: 122mins
What’s the story: Former retired hitman John Wick (Reeves) is forced to honour an old debt to a powerful Camorra mobster, setting off a violent chain of events and a contract placed on Wick’s life.
What’s the verdict: Ironic that the filmmakers have christened this sequel “Chapter 2”. If the John Wick saga were a book, it wouldn’t fill the morning commute.
Picking up shortly after where 2014’s John Wick (presumably to be retconned “Chapter 1”) left off, our monosyllabic button man is tying up loose ends with a cameo’ing Peter Stormare, playing the brother of Michael Nyqvist’s big bad from the first film.
MMA fisticuffs, a crunching multiple vehicle demolition derby and stratospherically high body count later and it’s as clear as a gun to the face that director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad and star Reeves are abiding by the “the same as before, but bigger” philosophy of sequel making.
Meaning, like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 dazzles and disappoints and seems three script rewrites away from becoming a ballistic classic that could join The Killer, The Raid 2 and The Bourne Supremacy in the Action Hall of Fame.
The scant plot has unhinged mobster Santino D’Antonio (Scarmarcio) forcing John to journey from New York to Rome to murder Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini), so the upstart can usurp her place at the “big table” and enter the criminal big league.
This sets Wick against Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) and the capricious Santino, who puts a price on the head of the man bold enough to try and kill his sister.
Stuntman-turned-director Stahelski knows just where to put the camera and the audience during the myriad scenes of mayhem. Plus, with Reeves diving into a sizeable share of his own stunt work, there is no need for choppy editing to disguise the fact cast are being doubled for the rough stuff.
Reeves has more personality playing bad guys rather than good guys; check out his menacing performance in The Neon Demon. But, despite occasionally blending in with the oak furnishings at the “assassins only” Continental hotel, the camera loves him when he delivers Gun-Fu carnage.
As with the first instalment, this film surrounds its star with reliable supporting faces to colour the background. McShane and Reddick return as manager and concierge at the NYC Continental, Common is appropriately preposterously serious as a professional gunning for Wick, Ruby Rose injects personality into her mute killer in love with D’Antonio, and Franco Nero (as McShane’s Euro-counterpart) and Claudia Gerini donate a dollop of European class in the Rome sequence. Only Scarmarcio is undercooked as the nominal lead villain, despite his twitchy performance.
And late in the day, enter Laurence Fishburne, huge fun as a kind-of King of the NYC Underworld, part Morpheus, part Oracle, all meta-irony. His scenes with Reeves, their dialogue laden with Matrix asides and in-jokes, are as fun as the cameo in xXx: Return of Xander Cage not spoilt in that film’s trailer.
So, like John Wick, why is this only three stars? Because of a script requiring serious oiling and polishing. Plot logic frequently takes a bullet to the head and at two hours the first half often threatens to stall, with a Roman catacombs gun fight increasingly monotonous in its console game aesthetic.
But, we’re holding out for John Wick: Chapter 3 being an action classic. The final forty-odd minutes of Chapter 2 are a brilliant, bruising barrage of invention, excitement and much needed wit. A subway scene with Wick encountering a gallery of memorable hitmen and women has the impact Gareth Evans brought to The Raid 2, and a hall of mirrors climax is an imaginative homage to Enter the Dragon, The Man with the Golden Gun and The Lady from Shanghai.
Plus, writer Kolstad’s fantasy hitman world needs real exploration. All “business” is done through an old-fashioned telephone exchange system and outdated UNIX-system PCs, organised vagrants secretly control large parts of New York, the Continental Hotels are still safe zones where tired button men can get a decent night’s kip.
This and an ending that recalls the plastic reality of The Matrix and Invasion of the Body Snatchers suggests all involved can produce an action movie far outside the norm.
Third time lucky then?
Rob Daniel Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
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