John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

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The world John Wick wants to abandon has no interest in respecting his wishes.  When an old peer comes to claim John's skills due to a debt John owes, he returns to the tightly controlled economy of assassination not suspecting the treachery which lies in wait.  Chad Stahelski directs John Wick: Chapter 2, with the screenplay written by Derek Kolstad, and stars Keanu Reeves.

Start with the currency.  What token does one character want, what does the token stand for, and what will forces in opposition to that character do to obtain it?  With John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chapter 2 moving forward), director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad pull the curtain back on an economy based on currency that would please Charon.  Hard disks, markers of death, may be exchanged for tools of death, armor against death, or put forward as a reward for the death of another.  This is why the Continental master Winston (Ian McShane) insists no blood be spilled on his grounds.  In order for the system to remain solid, no one can indulge in the blood high of their own supply.

So begins a meditation on the result of an economy of violence in Chapter 2.  That initially seems at odds with the self-aware projection of Buster Keaton onto the bare exterior of a building.  This seems to be Stahelski's way of poking the audience in the ribs, explaining the violence to follow should be taken as a joke.  There's little funny about Chapter 2, and it's owed in part to the less explored aspects of Buster Keaton's work.  Buster Keaton was a fearless and genius physical performer, that much is true, but his work is steeped in the melancholy of yearning for a goal that is perpetually in view and just out of reach.

Lance Reddick, as a different Charon, shares a quietly amusing moment with John's unnamed dog as one recognizes the other's love and respect for John.

I wonder what Buster Keaton would have thought of Keanu Reeves, who returns as the titular assassin John Wick.  My heart and gut tell me Buster Keaton would have loved Reeves.  Who else in Hollywood embodies the serenity of violence as well as Reeves?  Who else could make John Wick's movements so purposeful yet still find the pain in that supposed serenity?  Chapter 2's ending sequence with John battling it out in an art installation of mirrors while a soothing voice talks about a journey of the soul isn't for the sole purpose of outdoing John Wick's action scenes.  It's an opportunity to see Reeves in his element as John, fearing the damnation which may fall in on his life like so many easily shattered mirrors, and being forced to watch himself as death's emissary.

These realizations caused me to have an emotional reaction to Chapter 2 I was not prepared for.  While the action scenes of franchises like The Fast and the Furious have settled into a groove of sentimental bonding, Stahelski has infused his characters with uncommon intimacy.  An early confrontation with Gianna D'Antonio (Claudia Gerini) does not proceed with the gunplay we've come to expect from John.  Instead, in one of several moments that must make Michael Mann proud, two supposed foes allow one another to take a break from the spiritual weight of dealing in death.  As she makes her choice, he supports her with tenderness, and the two stare down likely oblivion as comrades instead of enemies.

If the spiritual component of Gianna's choice isn't clear from their conversation and John's tenderness, then the not so subtle religious posture Gianna ends on will make it so.  The religious undercurrent grows even stronger when John is betrayed by Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) using coins akin to another famous betrayal involving Judas.  All this might seem over-the-top but it's important to consider Stahelski's background in earlier action movies.  He was the stand-in for Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce who made his body his religion, in The Crow and Stahelski is aware of the spiritual potential of violence.  That's where the soundtrack, humming along with synths as drums punctuate notes of violence, and the often romantic lighting enhance the intimacy of violence rather than distancing our perspective from it.

There's nothing as silky smooth as the first half of the Red Circle Club massacre from John Wick, but that's due to Chapter 2's focus on disrupting the economy of murder overall instead of small sections of it.  As a result, the scope of the action scenes is expanded greatly.  One excellent sequence sees multiple assassins get the note that John Wick is worth $7 million, and editor Evan Schiff seamlessly blends multiple attacks in musical rhythm as John struggles with a system that wants him dead.  This culminates in a phenomenal duel between John and Cassian (Common), Gianna's bodyguard, where their professional obligation to keep their struggle silent threatens to burst with each silenced gunshot echoed with drums on the soundtrack.

The violence of Chapter 2 still leaves room for compassion and lessons in sacrifice.

The only complaint I have, and it's more mild disappointment than detriment, is John Leguizamo's returning role as Aurelio.  Most of the characters are hilariously mannered to keep the bloodshed in as professional a light as possible.  The funniest of these moments is the barely contained excitement of the gun merchant as he relishes the line, "May I suggest...the Benelli M4?"  Leguizamo is a performer who leaks so much energy that I understand why his role was more limited this time around.  The larger scope of Chapter 2 might have faltered at the seams if Leguizamo was given the freedom to pull on them.

Less Leguizamo is a mild tick running against my enjoyment of Chapter 2, which achieves depths of contemplation John Wick hinted at.  Reeves is accustomed to playing a messiah for laughs, as in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, or as a meditation on reality, as his Neo was for The Matrix.  He is no messiah in Chapter 2, but a flawed saint grasping for a moment of redemption that requires him to go against the very system that makes the best use of his talents.  When next we see John - and I do hope we see him again soon - I wonder what life he will have made for himself, and what currency can rouse a man yearning for peace with no further need of coin.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Directed by Chad Stahelski.
Screenplay written by Derek Kolstad.
Starring Keanu Reeves.

Posted by Andrew

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