Friday Night Lights, Camera, Action! – ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

Originally published on thedistantcloseup.com (Feb. 10th, 2017)

The Matrix trilogy may have been, and possibly will remain the bigger cultural phenomenon, but it seems destined that Keanu Reeves will be remembered most fondly for John Wick. Rarely before has he had such firm command of a character, and equally as rare has a character felt like the perfect match for him. John Wick is a man of few words, slick style and effortless cool, and fittingly enough, those same attributes are what best represent this franchise.

John Wick was arguably the biggest surprise of 2014. With its neo-noir influences worn on its sleeve, the page it so lovingly took from martial arts films and Hong Kong action flicks elevated it beyond what nearly everyone would have initially dreaded: another lifeless action movie with a less than charismatic leading man. So though this year’s John Wick: Chapter 2 lost that shock factor, writer/director duo Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski make up for it in spades by delivering a sequel equally as good as the first.

The first peculiar item to notice is this film’s longer runtime. Even at 101 minutes long, John Wick felt surprisingly lean, though due in no small part to the momentum it creates with every stunningly choreographed set piece. This sequel is a full 21 minutes longer, and the first thought that comes to mind is that Stahelski and Kolstad went for twice the bodies and twice the mayhem.

The real answer to that, however, is yes and no. Unlike the first movie, Chapter 2 starts with an unapologetically loud bang. In an opening sequence lasting about 14 minutes until the title card comes around, we’re reintroduced to the John Wick/’Baba Yaga’ mythology in a way that is economical rather than condescending and, almost as a gift for our patience, we get a giant fight scene filled with motorcycles, muscle cars and stellar hand-to-hand combat.

Structurally, what follows from here isn’t too dissimilar from the first film. The narrative rides a series of sky high, chaotic plateaus followed by small pockets of breathing space to let the story properly expand and evolve in a punctual fashion. As a whole, the experience may feel a bit longer than one might hope, but that’s mostly because of the film’s opening sequence which has no connection to the rest of the plot, and with action sequences this good, it’s not as if anyone will complain.

Stahelski and Kolstad’s understanding of how to script and shoot fight choreography isn’t surprising given their influences listed above and their work together as stuntmen, stunt coordinators and second unit directors, but they still deserve all of the credit they can receive, especially considering how most action blockbusters these days shoot and edit their fights. Ideally, fight scenes with strong choreography should be shot in a series of long and medium long shots – close-ups should only be used when necessary – with minimal edits. If a fight scene is hyper-edited to hell, odds are the choreography wasn’t very good.

Stahelski uses that logic for each stage of every set piece, and it pays dividends as the narrative progresses and the intensity of each scene ramps up. Though the approach wasn’t necessarily ‘bigger is better’ – it does seem, though, that John’s body count is a tad higher this time around – he and Kolstad find exciting new ways to build up each scene and new, challenging environments to place their prime protagonist, who thankfully comes across equally as human as he did in the first movie, as well.

The first film was a little more cynical in tone than this film, but Chapter 2 is still equally as stylish in its neo-noir vision. And though it may not seem the most important feature in the grand scheme of things, but how Stahelski and Kolstad are still able to keep numerous facets of this secret assassin society a mystery while expanding its reach is incredibly significant. They know how best to keep narrative momentum and the audience’s attention, and using script space to explain certain aspects of it would be a waste of screen time.

There’s nothing drastically different about John Wick: Chapter 2 compared to its predecessor, but there didn’t need to be. It’s still just as thrilling, just as fun and just as mind-blowingly, effervescently cool. So raise a glass of bourbon to hoping we don’t have to wait as long for the impending Chapter 3. Though I suppose there shouldn’t be any rush for what could become one of the greatest action franchises in movie history.

3.5/4

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