He SAID: John Wick Gun-Fu (Chapter Two)

Scott F. Evans

In 2014, Keanu Reeves’ flagging career was given new life with the unexpected hit, John Wick. While the film was weak on story and character, it compensated for those shortcomings by offering some remarkably inventive action sequences and has made a place for itself as a modern action classic. With the same creative team in tow, Reeves is back with John Wick Chapter 2.  And while the sequel not only delivers even more thrills and spills than the original, it also mostly addresses the story and character issues of the original. Unfortunately, it creates some new problems as well.

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JW2 was made on a budget of forty million dollars, and while that’s double the cost of the original, it’s fairly low considering how good this film looks.  The budget’s on the screen as JW2 looks as good as movies with three times that budget. Credit that to cinematographer Dan Laustsen. He has only lensed a handful of features, but shoots some truly impressive pictures for this sequel elevating it far above most action fare nowadays.

Director Chad Stahelski is back and once again shows a keen eye for capturing action. His camera work is smooth and never intrusive. More importantly, unlike most modern genre directors, he’s not afraid to hold his shots. Stahelski wants us to see all of the work the performers put into executing the intricate fighting techniques and stunts. The actors and stunt people put in long, grueling hours perfecting these sequences.  It’s insulting to them and shortchanges the audience to obscure it with unsteady camerawork and rapid fire editing.

Derek Kolstad also returns as screenwriter.  His script is fun and greatly expands on Wick’s world, but some of it’s flourishes almost causes the film to slip into parody.  Some of Kolstad’s overwritten dialogue makes the film feel like it’s taking itself too seriously.  He gives his characters dialogue that strives for elegance, but ends up sounding pretentious.  John Wick is essentially a comic book movie with guns standing in for superpowers, not Masterpiece Theater.

Of course Keanu Reeves is also back as the titular character.  And like the first one, Reeves is both this film’s main strength and weakness.  On the upside, Reeves physically gives John Wick his all, doing the majority of his own stunts.  He reportedly spent months learning how to shoot, fight, and drive for his new franchise. It shows.  Reeves moves like a trained professional, showing remarkable efficiency with guns and jiu-jitsu techniques.  Unfortunately, where he is the least impressive is in practically any of the scenes where he needs to deliver Kolstad’s overcooked dialogue. Reeves has this unnatural stiffness that sometimes stops the film cold. Rapper turned actor Common plays Cassian, one of the film’s main villains. He and Reeves engage in a pair of incredible extended action sequences.  But between these two astonishing scenes, the two have a moment where they exchange dialogue over a drink. To call this scene cringe-worthy would be a disservice.  There’s a famous scene in Michael Mann’s Heat where Robert De Niro and Al Pacino meet for a cup of coffee. You can see Kolstad and Stahelski  trying to emulate this scene, but the actors just aren’t up to par.   Jamie Foxx was just featured in Sleepless a few weeks ago.  While that film isn’t very good, Foxx has a natural ease and you wonder if an actor of that caliber could turn a John Wick into a true action masterpiece.

The first John Wick set a new standard for action cinema with its hybrid take on the conventional movie shootout and fistfight.  And while those sequences were without a doubt both innovative and exciting, they also got repetitive fairly quickly.  JW2 has the same problem. Stahelski and his stunt team went with ‘more’ instead of ‘different’.  Yeah,  it’s a soft criticism, but with a runtime of two hours, this film really could’ve used some variety in the type of action presented.

All that said, John Wick 2 still definitely warrants a watch in cinemas.  Laustsen’s cinematography, Stahleski’s direction, Reeves’ physical commitment, and the film’s breezy two hour runtime make JW2 a pulpy fun night at the movies.

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