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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, February 17, 2017

‘John Wick’ sequel is smart, violent, crazy fun




John Wick lives in a world I’m glad doesn’t exist. It’s a place in which every street corner, park bench and subway station is populated with cold-hearted killers with itchy trigger fingers.

In a scene in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” so many assassins come out of the woodwork on the streets of New York City, it’s as though they’re splitting like cells gone wild.

I’m glad this world is confined to the imaginations of film director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad. There’s a weird comfort in knowing reality could be worse than it is.

Then again, it’s kind of a shame Wick doesn’t actually exist because he is utterly captivating. He’s a man of great skill with a knife and a gun, but also a person of great principle who no longer wishes to kill. He simply wants to be left alone to live out his days in peace.

Those pesky principles get in the way in “John Wick 2” when an Italian crime lord, Santino D’Antonio, enlists John to assassinate his sister so he can take her place at the High Table, a council of high level crime lords. Wick is obligated to take the job due to a blood oath he made with D’Antonio years ago.

By that time, I was already primed to experience a thrilling ride. “John Wick 2” begins where most action movies end – with a car chase and a gun fight to end all car chases and gun fights. The opening sequence is so exhilarating, I could have walked out of the theater the moment it was over feeling like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

But before Stahelski and Kolstad deliver on the promise of this scene, they settle in to tell a story. Before knives are unsheathed, fists unleashed and bullets fired, they lay a solid foundation for the mayhem that follows.

Many action movie sequels are about being bigger, better, louder and faster. “John Wick 2” is some of those things, but it’s also about having more style, grace and eloquence in character development and storytelling.

Instead of simply throwing bodies at the screen for Wick to dispatch, Stahelski and Kolstad deepen our understanding of their hero and cleverly expand the world in which he exists.

They do this with remarkable finesse, giving “John Wick 2” a subtle, cool vibe that’s not unlike the barely detectable swagger of their central character. Some directors are so in love with their own style, it’s as though their movies scream, “See how cool this is?” The delicacy and restraint Stahelski employs from behind the camera actually makes “John Wick 2” sexier than films that are more on the nose.

That doesn’t mean “John Wick 2” doesn’t indulge in a bit of fun while Stahelski and Kolstad are busy building their world and working up to the explosive action. The sequence in which Wick outfits himself for battle at different underworld vendors put a huge smile on my face.

I love how Wick and the weapons merchant talk about his purchases as though he’s ordering a meal at a fine restaurant. “And for dessert?” Wick asks after already selecting more hardware than he should be able to carry. “Ah, dessert,” the merchant gleefully exclaims as he opens a case of knives.

Stahelski takes an equally subtle approach to the look of “John Wick 2.” Unlike a James Bond film, there are no splashy location shots, yet he and director of photography Dan Laustsen made a film that is continually beautiful and visually inventive.

I’m thinking specifically about a scene in which a key character commits suicide in a pool of shimmering water in the catacombs under Rome and another involving a dazzling shootout in a luminous hall of mirrors.

This brings me to the action. One could argue this is where Stahelski throws subtlety out the window, but I would argue differently.

Last week, I complained about the muddled action in the new “Resident Evil” film. In “John Wick 2,” Stahelski takes great care to show the fighting in long, steady, confident shots. I’m glad he took this approach because the choreography and stunt work are impressive, and I would have hated to miss them.

Just as remarkable is how Stahelski sustains the action for almost the entire second half of the movie. Once the shooting begins, it rarely lets up. It never become boring, either, due to the variety of the scenarios.

Stahelski, who worked as a stunt man on “The Matrix” and martial arts stunt coordinator in that movie’s sequels, never stops coming up with ways to keep the action fresh and engaging.

One of the trademarks of the “John Wick” films is the surgical precision with which Wick uses firearms and his cat-like reflexes. Stahelski takes these skills to the extreme in a scene at a crowded party in which Wick shoots an army of henchmen at close range without taking out a single innocent person.

My only beef with the action in “John Wick 2” is the behavior of the bad guys that come running at him in droves. Wick is a legend in the world of assassins, which would suggest a more tactical approach to taking him out than running around a corner, gun blazing.

Wick’s preternatural ability to know where these men (and one very adept and persistent woman) are going to be and when to fire his weapon might seem like another cheat in the filmmaking, but I believe this is an intentional part of Wick’s character development.

Stahelski and Kolstad have created a character who couldn’t exist and placed him in a world that isn’t real. This gives them the creative license to show him to be the legend he has become. In other words, their lounges are planted firmly in their cheeks as Wick racks up a kill count that makes Rambo look like an amateur.

When I sat down at my computer after seeing “John Wick 2,” I hopped on Facebook and breathlessly typed, “’John Wick 2’ is, hands down, one of the best action movies I have seen.” That sentence wasn’t just the result of the adrenaline rush of seeing the film; “John Wick 2” deserves to be mentioned alongside the pantheon of all-time greats (which for me includes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the original “Die Hard,” among others).

But instead of taking my more than 1,100 words for it, consider the response of the opening weekend audience with which I saw the film. They laughed at the brief moments of deadpan comedy, applauded the superlative stunt work and shouted out in surprise on many occasions. For all of its excellent craftsmanship, perhaps the best thing one can say about “John Wick 2” is it’s a true crowd-pleaser.

Bring on Chapter 3.

Four stars out of four