Sunday, February 12, 2017

"John Wick - Chapter 2 (2017)"

-A film review by Catsmando

    First off, a warning. It's really hard to talk about the technical ingenuity of this film without dropping to spoiler territory, but I still will because; a) It's John Wick. Nobody goes to watch John Wick expecting an original story. And b) With those said, I just HAVE to expound on those because it this film is just a wonderful, art-grade, proper action's just so rare to have such gem.

    So...John Wick.  A film that came out of nowhere, blew everyone's pants off, and left Keanu Reeves redeemed as a viable action film guy once again. The first film is a small-scoped, small-scaled, very personal venture to vengeance. Besides the ridiculously well-made set pieces and oblique world-building. Its best hook is its delightfully absurd premise; Infamous assassin went rampage on a whole mob because the mob leader's son killed infamous assassin's puppy...yep.

    And it worked! The flimsy excuse, the characters, the story, the world, it's all a shorthand. A lampshade. It is clear and honest of its true purpose; it's just there to show you how to kill alot of dudes in the most awesome-est of ways. Yet for mere set dressing of a world, it hit something right, in it's own weird way. Like a superhero cinematic universe, the world of John Wick is an implausible, but interesting ecosystem. A jungle built in metal and concrete. Populated with suit-wearing individuals, unified in a sense of hyper-modern culture, driven to the most glamorous of activities, legal or not. And deep at its core, a society of hired killers, mandated and tied to ironclad set of rules.

    The first one worked in the end because it anchored itself with a smidgen of humanity. A trope-ish puppy is a trope-ish puppy but we still care for John Wick's plight, as obvious of a narrative trapping it may be. As out-there the following proceedings went, we are comforted by our relation to John Wick's unreasonable fury. Because such unreasonableness is what makes him seem human. The other point is that it threw its world-building in little pieces. Hints rather than full statements. And it made itself irresistibly compelling in return. So how would one up the ante for the sequel without losing it's way of emotionally relating it to us? Well, as this sequel show, you don't. You run with the established world of the first one, and let it jettison itself out of our sensibility. Because really, the only choice is that, or to just rehash the flow of the first one...wait, this movie did that too actually!

    So for the plot; It starts with Wick sorted and tied a pretty knot over the first film's arc. He's on his way back to settling back into retirement. Except, an old asociate come knocking into his doorstep. Santino D’Antonio, an apparent, aspiring mob person who apparently helped John Wick in getting through his final mission with Tarasov. John Wick's bound to Santino's mission because it's formalised through a blood oath; another one of the Continental's rule, an assassin may ask for aid in return for a blood oath, a favor an assassin must fulfill once invoked, or get penalized by The Continental(and The Continental showed how strict it could be with its laws in the first film).

    So John's target is, in true criminal underworld narrative fashion, Gianna D’Antonio. Santino's sister and primed ruler of the D'Antonio mob family. Of course John declined, then Santino blew up John's house because, again in true criminal underworld story, he's that kind of gangster guy. So then John agrees to this mission, oh not because he fears Santino, but because it would free him off Santino's leash. Queue interesting "suit up" montage. Then the assassination of the sibling. A double cross seen coming for a mile away. And finally, John Wick's retribution coming from lightyears more. So yeah, in a way it's just like the first one. And just like the first one, what is interesting about this one is not what the story is about, nor why. But on how the story simply serves to prop up every other aspects of this film.

    The film starts with the most pitch perfect application of actor-to-character; Peter Stormare as Abram Tarasov. What better sibling for ham-acted Michael Nyqvist character, by pairing him with a bigger ham-acted character out there. The film just started and it already slips out its movie geekiness. Just like the first film where it cherry-picked actors and actresses in the role they seem to be born in, same process seems to have been applied here. Get the stunningly beautiful Claudia Gerini and pin her as a sort of queen in the story's world. You get a cool-as-ice rapper-actor Common, and you turn him into a lean adversary. Get someone as visually striking as Ruby Rose, and turn her into a proper, sexy, silent killer. John Wick's last-resort, desperate call for help and you plop down friggin' Laurence "Morpheous" Fishburne (the fourth-wall/backstory is just hilarious). Besides those, we get returning characters like Aurelio(John Leguizamo), Winston(Ian McShane), Charon(Lance Reddick), and Helen(Bridget Moynahan). All of them still fitting well with the characters they're given and doing what they're expected to do as the story goes.

    For the narrative, as I said, what's funny about it is that if you cut them into clear Acts, you'll notice it's very much the first one. It started with Wick returning to his solace(again), trouble ended up finding him(again), he returns to the fold to the Continental, and suits up(again), he did what he came to do, then cue plot monkey-wrench(again), then he goes to the core of the problem by fighting his way to the man at the very top(again!). For it's visual cues, Wick's primer, again, happened in the house. An epic fight scene with booming music happened in a place I seriously suspect called the red square (the first one is dubbed the red circle...there'd better be a red triangle on the third one!), Wick's rock bottom moment and he's propped up by a veteran actor(Laurence Fishburne. In the first one, his saving grace was Wilhelm Dafoe). And when all is said and done, Wick's end is finding respite, in the rain, just like the first one! It's like a very big neon signpost admitting how much it knows we never actually care for some fresh storyline because everything else will carry it through. Good thing it does!

   To address the combat scenes, it's still as clearly shot and still as hypnotically and amazingly creative as the first one. Cars used as a modern form of jousting tool. Surprisingly practical combat shotgun loading now I'm wishing I could do in shooter games. AR combat that felt like a tease in the first one, is now an extended segment in the mausoleum battle. More MMA-ish takedowns, more knife fighting(even showcased and prove true John Wick's long running rumor!), and yes, more of the solid, pistol shenanigans that made the first one great. Notable fight scenes revolve around Wick and Cassian, to which it often ramps up to hilarious degree(goddamn, I'll never forget that silencer-exchange scene). And Wick and Ares, which occurred in the most artfully surreal combat segment which I'll tackle on shortly. The combat though felt less frenetic, more sleek, kind of removing some of the urgency of the action. But nevermind, it still has that crapton of new moments where I pointed out and literally exclaimed "damn, that move is awesome!". It still as tactically smart as the first one. For fans looking for this particular avenue of entertainment, you won't be disappointed.

    Now, it's I am still geeking out, days after I've seen it. It could be intentional or just a happy accident that occurred through all the chaos but I just can't, not, see it. The first film's overall narrative arc is about a guy, of legendary reputation, getting out of the fold and trying to bury himself into the world of man. Tragedy befalls him, then another, to which it happened to be linked to his past, and he's then driven back into the fold. With the purpose of us discovering if the ever-floating rumors and legends about the guy could be proven true for the film(it did).

   For Chapter 2, same flow, same arc, but different in meaning. Everyone in the criminal underworld knows he's back. And John Wick, as rightfully predicted by Winston, could never return to the normal world that he once stepped in. As Santino appears and calls him to return a favor, even John Wick understood, he's back in that inescapable place again. There are so many pointers for this strong, enveloping theme around the whole movie. From the characters, to it's world, to the narrative touches. It's not actually the story that keeps it together, but rather, it's strong abstract theme; I think John Wick 2's about the grounded approach to the narrative of divinity.

   I just love what they'd pulled off here. John Wick initially declined Santino's offer, which drove Santino into grenade-booming his house. From that moment the film's theme is made clear, it's about showing us the world Wick lives in. The destruction of his house, and with it alot of his ties with his late-wife, with this world, with that past of his life, is now gone. But as Winston once again properly pointed, it's also the chains that bind him. With that gone, the only way left is for Wick to return to the underworld. And it's what this film posits, it is an underworld, the mythological one. As dabbled on the first film, and finally expounded in this sequel, it reveals, this is their separate world, not ours. People wear suits we could never carry, people embrace glamour we could never endow ourselves, and people allow the vices and the violence so close, the way ours would not. This is how they live. It looks like it could work but we just, couldn't relate to it. And I think that's its point; theirs is lore just like the gods of various mythologies and other ancient narratives, and they pulled it with such style.

    The ranks of the characters are filed like the the ranks in such mythologies. The supporting casts purports demigod roles, hiding in plain sight yet revealed working on this bigger world. The main casts acts as their respective top. Each clear on their responsibilities. It's just irresistible to not take it to this lens. The characters beg for it. Santino is the representation of a man with unquenchable thirst for power. His sister is the representation of obsessive, excessive, beauty. Cassian, the lovestruck-then-fallen prince. Charon, the bridge of that world. The Bowery King, the ruler of the outsiders. Winston, the upholder of the rules and the law of the world, the unspoken keeper of balance against the chaos. And John Wick, the grand harbinger of death.

   The escalation of fight scenes not only go up through the numbers and chaos alone, but also in its abstraction. The beginning is a humdrum chop shop, the second is a neon light-basked concert followed by a cryptically lit underground system. Then, across the city that is more alienating than comforting. With the final skirmish occurring in a hall-of-mirrors series of corridors. Unlike the first film where the fighting is clear in its sense of space. This film slowly takes that away. With the climactic battle removing that entirely. Suddenly, the film argues, the place doesn't matter. All it have to be now is just a space. An empty, shifting, space. Where it's distilled into the very fight itself. Just the gunplay, the takedowns, the moves, the kills. And to see John Wick be comfortable there just as he would any other make-shift battlegrounds? That's inhuman.

    It's just like the lore of the gods of old. Unlike the russian mobs of the first one, these are not mere people. They live in grand temples, they control vast armies. They have their own rules, their own lifestyle, and they act as they see, as they believe they are above the common folk. And to see their pettiness be filtered as something grand. From John Wick's unreasonable revenge, Santino's hunger for power, Winston's strong enforcement to it's unique laws. And for everyone else's strong obedience to those laws. In the end even I feel bounded to it, nodding in agreement as two killers quickly stopped as they landed on Continental grounds. It just doesn't make sense if we think about it in our terms. But it works when we think in theirs.

   This sequel is just too good. To effectively flesh out what's essentially a veneer, a set-dressing from the first film. To expound on it by tapping on various, ancient mythologies. To craft it by cinematicaly tapping on various genre films. And for it to end on such ominous note...The creators of this film, if really gunning for a third outing, now has a lot on it's plate. I fear it will be too much. But for now, let's just enjoy this part of the grand myth-making that is John Wick - Chapter 2.

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