John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

2017 #86
Chad Stahelski | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Italian, American Sign Language & Russian | 18* / R

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick, the action movie in which Keanu Reeves plays a retired assassin who returns to his former life to avenge the murder of his puppy, was a surprise hit back in 2014, and so it’s no surprise that there’s now a sequel (and a burgeoning universe of spin-offs and the like in the works too, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Part of the first film’s success was undoubtedly in its elaborately choreographed action — Reeves has always taken his action roles seriously, becoming a proficient performer of combat himself rather than relying on stuntmen; co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have their background in stunt work also; and they all brought their considerable expertise to bear on a variety of incredible fight scenes. But another aspect that piqued audiences’ interest was the equally elaborate underworld the film casually introduced — a secret community of assassins and those who served them, with its own codes and rules, the extent of which was only hinted at. So, as good sequels are wont to do, the second chapter in Mr Wick’s story serves up more of both these elements.

The story picks up immediately after the first film left off: having dealt with his grievances in such a public fashion, the underworld is aware that John Wick is back in the game, and so an old friend comes to call in a favour. Reluctantly forced to accept, Wick is soon off on a mission to Italy, but things quickly become more complicated, making Wick a target himself. In a society governed by strictly enforced rules, how far can — and will — he go to protect himself?

Shadowy underworld

For anyone who particularly liked the snippets of this world’s mythology from the first movie, Chapter 2 delivers what they’re after in spades. Before they were just texture — fun window-dressing to the main story of a man taking violent revenge — but here they become absolutely central. We not only get to see more of the world (when Wick travels to Italy we learn a lot more about how the network of assassin-hotels functions), but the codes and how they’re enforced kick off the plot and are central to multiple aspects of it later on. It’s a neat structure across the two films, actually. The first doesn’t throw you in at the deep end with a sudden mass of things you need to learn, but instead intrigues you with a few relatable, fundamentally unimportant titbits, so that maybe you want to know more. Then the second takes what you know and expands on it, using the knowledge that you picked up almost incidentally to lead you further down the rabbit hole, to the point where it can hinge major plot developments on the rules of its own mythology. It’s quite sophisticated, in its way.

Of course, it’s all still in service of people shooting and stabbing and punching and whatever-else-ing each other. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice. Nonetheless, there’s lots of intricately choreographed, cleanly staged action — and what more do you want from a film like this? Some sequences probably go on a tad too long (a shootout in some catacombs, for example, which doesn’t payoff a careful setup as well as it could), but others are delightfully done (the climax in a hall of mirrors, for instance). But it’s not all po-faced mythologising and macho violence, with Peter Serafinowicz turning up to add a dash of humour as an armourer. There’s also a cameo for Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, but his brief turn definitely falls under the “mythologising” bracket — I imagine he’ll have a continued role in the forthcoming threequel.

Morpheus no more

Speaking of which, this is the good kind of middle part to a trilogy. It very much grows out of Chapter 1, but then it starts and completes its own narrative, rather than only telling half a story, before ending such that a third instalment is inevitable. Put another way, it finishes on something of a cliffhanger. My point is, this is my idea of how a sequel that’s aiming for another sequel should be done, rather than one of those things where they want to do a four-hour movie and chop it in half. (Though I recently said Rurouni Kenshin 2 and 3 were fine doing just that, so I guess it’s a matter of how it’s done rather than whether it’s done at all.)

By expanding the world of the series, John Wick: Chapter 2 loses some of the elegant simplicity that drove the first instalment, while also fleshing out an alternate universe for fans to sink their teeth into. Some viewers will prefer the more straightforward nature of the first chapter; others will enjoy the added complications. Either way, in its primary role as an action-thriller, Chapter 2 is more-or-less the equal of its enjoyable predecessor.

4 out of 5

John Wick: Chapter 2 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The UK theatrical release was cut by 23 seconds to get a 15. That version was also released on Blu-ray over here, but the uncut version was released on 4K Blu-ray. I watched the regular US Blu-ray, which is uncut. ^

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.