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John Wick: Chapter Two: A solid boost for the franchise

John Wick: Chapter Two updates the storyline with its valuable assets--classy, refined action and provocative worldbuilding--entrenching an a la mode realm of encircling dangers for its titular character.

A sleeper hit back in 2014, John Wick surprised theatergoers with the comeback of a grounded action style that only enforced its Neo-noir theme, a simplistic storyline, and Keanu Reeves’ nuanced, stoic performance. Former-stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch guided us along a brutal killing streak of the eponymous John Wick in an underworld of crime. It ends with the death of the Russian gang boss Viggo Tarasov at John’s hand.

Keanu Reeves on set with director Chad Stahelski

Having exacted revenge for his dog Daisy, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) now goes tying up a loose end: retrieving his ’69 Ford Mustang from Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare) – brother of his last victim. The former assassin is then visited by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmacio), an Italian crime lord who previously lent John a hand in completing his “impossible task” before retirement. He made John swear on a Blood Oath – an unbreakable contract, and now this old acquaintance comes to ask for John’s service. John refuses.

Bitterly angered, D’Antonio decimates John’s house with a grenade launcher. John is then coerced to seek advice from Winston (Ian McShane), the own of the Continental Hotel, and is reminded to honor the Oath because it is one of their world’s two unyielding rules. Left with no other choice, John agrees to carry on the task: to assassinate D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini).

This time, only Stahelski came back to helm while Leitch left this project for The Coldest City (later renamed Atomic Blonde). However, the cast and crew did not find themselves lacking dedication and resources to pull off John Wick’s next trip. Keanu Reeves shows extraordinary commitment to his job, continuing to impress fans and critics alike with his precision and steadfastness in choreography. The actor, who immerses himself in every single sequence of action, obviously had fun with his training process. Also, Stahelski and Leitch’s stunt company 87Eleven Action Design contributed a lot to the supporting actors’ stunt work and the design of action set pieces.

Ares (Ruby Rose) and her squad of head-shot targets

Opened with a footage of Buster Keaton projected on the wall as an homage to this legendary stuntman, Chapter Two presents even more grounded action style. It improves on the core strength of this franchise, which is clarity and choreography, accomplished by solid camera work, attention to long takes in editing, and meticulous, clear-cut execution of violence. While the Catacombs sequence – 3-gun at its cinematic finest – serves as a gritty update for John’s carnage in Iosef’s club, the mirror house scene ties up his adventure up to now by elevating the aesthetics. That being said, Chapter Two does pose a new problem: the arrangement of shooting scenes falls into a familiar pattern for the audience. Most of them start with John opening fire from a medium range – killing half a dozen foes – then proceeding to engage in close-quarter combat before locking those unlucky mooks down and striking the final blow – while shooting some more around him. The scene then repeats if necessary.

Last time, John bounced back to the underworld on his own will with precisely one goal that is vengeance; and in the beginning of Chapter Two, Abram Tarasov also hints at John’s fixation and thirst for killing. However, the central problem here is that he is pulled back after putting his weapons and gold under a cemented ground. Now sucked in too deep at the center of this uncontested whirlpool, John loses control, apparently after his action sent its ripples throughout the fabric of this society.

Riccardo Scarmarcio as Santino D’Antonio

One of John Wick’s selling points is the establishment of a large hierarchical underworld, which functions on its own mechanism (institutions, economics, and regulations) in parallel with the normal world. There seems to be another base for activities run by criminals, which is both ominous and artistically electrifying at the same time. After 101 minutes, the intriguing world of John Wick endeared us, both with satisfaction and a thirst to find out more (though it usually rendered the narrative weak and over-stretched).

Chapter Two leads us to a new location, Rome – with its Continental Hotel branch run by Julius (Franco Nero). In this line of expansion, the story satisfies us by adding a variety of locales and systems for specific affairs. Naturally, they are all set up in between plot points as John exhaustedly treads through this turbulence. It is unique, slick, and even more riveting. Also, back stories are kept to a minimum so that they would not obstruct action scenes while stirring up audiences’ curiosity for an explanation that may or may not come. In this aspect, Chapter Two vastly improves on what the first one did.

CHARACTERS AS FACETS OF THE UNDERWORLD

Aside from John and Mr. Winston, a new ensemble of characters breaks into the scene and drastically changes the framework and vitality we got used to in the first film. There is still a gang boss, the arrogant Santino D’Antonio, but this one stands at another level compared to Viggo. With John’s Blood Oath in his hand, D’Antonio poses as a character of ambition and brutality. Everything he does is ruthless and shameless, pointing to a cynic who is willing to cross any boundary to get a seat in The High Table. Poles apart from her brother, Gianna shows a different color, as she acts with the highest honor and self-respect, proving that she did earn her place, fair and square, as one of the twelve most powerful individuals in the underworld. Her conversation with John is the most slow-paced sequence, highlighting a potential for deeper character investigation in future installments. John’s (legit) peers appear a lot more this time, from a variety of hitmen on Rome’s ground to Cassian (Common) – John’s acquaintance and Gianna’s trusted bodyguard who is hellbent on avenging his boss, and Ares (Ruby Rose) – D’Antonio subordinate who is a mute female assassin.

Common as Cassian in a solo fight with John Wick

While those two newcomers give just adequate performances without much depth (though Common and Rose also did their terrific stunt), Winston is the one who steals almost every scene he is in – merely with McShane’s husky voice and screen presence. We know how prepotent Winston is from the last act of John Wick, yet this time, Continental Hotel’s owner is even scarier and more esteemed. He is the only one that John consults in the beginning and also shows such frightening calmness after John displeases him. There is this one scene where Winston is shown to be way too powerful that it seems absurd, but audiences might have been familiar with this kind of badassery. In a fun yet shocking twist, the movie leads us to The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and his syndicate, as well as the much-anticipated reunion between Reeves and his Matrix co-star. The ever-entertaining Fishburne portrayed The Bowery King to a level of comical tranquility, which fits the vibe of this “empire”.

Ian McShane as Mr. Winston, the mysterious owner of Continental Hotel

Chapter Two continues to impress fans with its predecessor’s most valuable assets: classy, well-polished action and its provocative worldbuilding, entrenching an a la mode realm of encircling dangers for John. Under the influence of John Woo and Sergio Leone, Stahelski accentuated precisely on what clicked and paid less attention to what did not, and the character arc of our beloved John is now at a point where the stakes are soaring up too high. The third movie, which will go into production sooner or later, is now facing more challenges and opportunities by throwing more deadly traps at John then letting him gun-fu through the wreckage.