By Jack Mansfield
In my article about the Super Bowl trailers nearly a month ago, I wrote that John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017) was a far better date movie for Valentine’s Day than Fifty Shades Darker, but the trailer prepared me in no way whatsoever for the film itself. While the trailer may have parodied the latter, John Wick 2 is by no means romantic; instead, the audience is treated so a series of spectacular fights, shootouts and car chases that are so impressive, we walked out of the cinema at the end feeling beaten and bruised ourselves!
The film takes no time in grabbing the audience and not letting go. It opens in the middle of a beautifully rainy New York at night, with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) infiltrating a warehouse where taxis are being used to smuggle drugs in order to retrieve his beloved car. The warehouse is run by Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), uncle of the first film’s villain, Alfie Allen’s Iosef, thus tying the two instalments neatly together. This scene, however, is far more than just John getting his car back: it’s the first of many über-violent fight scenes, shot perfectly by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. We see dozens of thugs get offed by John in a multitude of ways, from being run over by his Mustang, to having rather gruesome chunks blown from them as John kills them with his variety of guns. This opening scene perfectly showed to me that we were in for a visceral, gratuitously violent treat, and from this moment on I was almost constantly in awe of the film’s art direction, style and various set pieces.
I think this is for the most part down to a great creative team behind the scenes, especially the director: Chad Stahelski not only directed the first John Wick in 2014, but has an illustrious background as a stunt double and coordinator, working on such action-heavy films as The Expendables (2010) and The Mechanic (2011). Perhaps more crucial to this film, however, is his relationship with Keanu Reeves: Stahelski has worked with Reeves on multiple occasions going as far back as Point Break (1991) for which he was Reeves’ stunt double. They went on to work together on the Matrix trilogy, Constantine (2005) and most recently the first John Wick (2014), and I feel like this shared knowledge and understanding of their craft over the past 25 years really shines through in this film. Reeves has himself undergone many different training routines in martial arts over the years, so to see him do all of his own stunts (apart from the ones where he’s hit by a car, which happens a surprising amount over the course of the film) only adds to the realism of the fight scenes.
Another key part of the film’s success in pulling off its brutal fight scenes is Dan Laustsen, cinematographer and director of photography; he and editor Evan Schiff prove to various other action film crews that there is no need for quick, frequently cutting shaky-cam shots when filming a fight scene, and instead opts for longer, drawn out shots. Not only does this highlight John’s brutality but it gives each fight a greater feeling of realism, with genuine choreographed fights being properly shown as opposed to fourteen different shots of someone landing one punch on another (Taken series, I’m looking at you.) Combine this with a gorgeous colour palette, for example the rich blue light in the catacomb showdown, and you get some of the most stylish action scenes in a film in recent years.
In terms of the balance between style and substance, my only concern with the film is that the plot, though simple enough and easy to follow, didn’t concern me greatly at times throughout the film. This is predominantly down to the crux of the plot being ‘someone’s screwed John Wick over, now he’s off to kill them’ and repeat, which acts an enabler for all of the bloody action but I felt resulted in new characters such as villains Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), Ares (Ruby Rose) and John’s reluctant aid the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) not getting much of a look-in. One new character who I did enjoy seeing, however, was John’s new dog (who to look at doesn’t seem the cutest of dogs, but you’ll be surprised) after his puppy was killed in the first film. But when the film is so brilliant in every other aspect this was no trouble when I was watching it, only when I left the cinema did I stop to think about that fact; I was too preoccupied with picking my jaw up off the ground watching the expertly crafted action during it.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is easily one of my favourite action films of recent years. Its action is not only gloriously shot, but stylishly violent and utterly relentless. As the John Wick series was always intended to be a trilogy, and with the ending leaving the audience with a variety of questions, I’m already incredibly excited to see more of the badass hitman and his dog.