John Wick: Chapter Two (2017) – Review

Since this is now Chapter Two, I’ll refer to the original as Chapter One

John Wick is a mustang of people. As a film and character, Wick returns as a blunt powerhouse of methodical style. Mustang and Wick alike, Keanu’s vehicle has serious longevity, it’s the ultimate display of endurance and gratification. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a bombastic machine of destruction – needless to say, I loved it.

I’d define Wick’s fighting style as ‘dirty pragmatism’. During fights, his environmental awareness incomparable. Chapter One wasn’t as varied in location type, he constantly fought indoors, which is understandable – the cost to perform stunts outdoors is much more expensive – but Chapter 2 does not have these limitations. However, a lack of limitation has cost them their innovation. An amazing moment in Chapter One came from blasting music over the top of gunshots to muffle the silencer even further amidst a crowd of trance induced dancers. Chapter Two takes the gusto approach – he shoots a bodyguard live on stage and the crowd cheers as they think it’s part of the show. We don’t get that innovative slickness this time around.

As Wick’s world grows grander, its destructibility increases accordingly. Now more than ever, Wick must remain sharply witted. We revel in John’s destructive rampage through the world of his history. But first, we must pay the price of some dry, lengthy exposition. Once the exposition finishes, you’ll be intoxicated, but, as the third, likely, installment will expand upon the second, this is probably an amalgamation of exposition designed to simultaneously set up Chapter Two and Three – while a reprieve from the exposition (or it being more cost effective) would’ve felt more forgiving, in retrospect, I realise that my detachment was momentary as I now appreciate how the exposition serves to transition from the previous into itself and to the consequent film (Chapter Three). After all is said and done, the film does an excellent job of delivering most of the exposition through action and interaction.

I, after basking in the visual delights of Chapter One, couldn’t wait to see the return of Stahelski’s vibrant colour palette. And so, while Chapter Two packs more colours, it discouragingly uses them too sparingly throughout (until the final 30 minutes). Sublime bursts of intense orange and blue temperatures immerse us entirely, but, since they change so rarely, the withheld variety between the changes and plot beats comes at such a stretch that our eyes settle comfortably, they become accustomed, and a scene can turn increasingly stale the longer it lasts. The excellent Red Circle scene was a masterful display of how changing the colour scheme benefits our attention and defines the narrative’s flow. The icy caves and heated rave were awash with temperature and according tensions – their temperatures don’t solely serve our spatial awareness, but remains to do it so excellently. The artificial blues contrast the firefight’s flame, stark light pushes outbound. Outside, the oranges breed heat and hostility, it’s sweaty hue bleeds into Wick’s silhouette. 

Alfred Hitchcock said, (to paraphrase) when they shot film in black and white, the actors needed lighting to stand out from the background but colour does that naturally. If we had John Wick, the black suited man, in a dark cave without blues or in an open area, as he’s the centre focus amidst the chaos, without oranges we wouldn’t see shit. Sure, the colour isn’t as pragmatic as in the original, but every decision regarding the colour comes with appropriate consideration regarding audience engagement and comprehension.

That said, and as gorgeous as it is, the colour bleed isn’t quite the awe-inspiring experience that we got in Macbeth (2015) or even Spectre (2016). On the other side, some of the visual black strokes that Chapter One captured so beautifully are sadly missing – they occasionally appear, but far too infrequently: the cave scene, the car shop and the return home – a minute 3ish scenes total. Ultimately, Two does make a strong attempt to balance Wick’s new style with the old – and, although compromised, Chapter Two joyously opens the colour pallette to farther reaches, it shoots appropriately and you can feel the cinematography make leaps in progression. The supplementary set pieces are outstanding, and adjustments are to be taken with a grain of salt because the titillating gains vastly outweigh the negatives of losing tonal emulsifiers.

The final set piece is awesome in nearly every way and thusly feels majorly contrived. This is a problematic gratification, depending on how you’re swayed. If John Wick’s naturalism and practicality was your thing, it’s somewhat lost here. If you’re into incredible environment set pieces and dangerous entanglements, this is a spoonful of sugar. Considering that you’re probably willing to allow Wick to murder 60-70 people over a dog, and have him be thrown unprotected to a floor beneath and hit full pelt by cars and endless bullets, I think you’re unlikely to kick up too much fuss when he has a shootout in a hall of mirrors. After a while, the room feels a little hostile to the audience, there’s nothing much to a room of mirrors besides a whole lot of mirrors, so, needless to say, not a whole lot changes in regards to its scenery through the 10 minute runtime. Thankfully, Stahelski’s choreography and direction give the characters enough of a stage to perform on. Each character works with a different method and approach, the environment’s versatile design grants John just enough imaginative freedom to survive each stage, there’s plenty of innovation, not in the room, but in the inhabitants of the environment – and, to boot, it’s epic as fuck.

John Wick: Chapter Two is fairly circular, it begins by projecting stunt classic Safety Last (1923) onto the side of a building as a car chase roars through the city and a post-crash motorbike screeches down the road, then, at the end, a showdown in the hall of mirrors, a scene lifted exactly from The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Elsewhere, this is an overdone trope, but here there’s enough adaptation, innovation and raw assault in how they execute the trope that it transcends to an entirely new emphatic playground of its own. The film is ripe with unsung tributes and they’re all gratefully accepted.

A round of applause John Wick: Chapter Two. You took risks, you challenged yourself, you gave me more, you set yourself apart, you hit harder and went deeper, and most importantly you did it – you made a shockingly fantastic sequel, and that’s a rare prize to find nowadays.

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John Wick (2014) – Review / Scene Analysis

Action flick, John Wick, unexpectedly knocks its tongue-in-cheek premise miles out of the park. With a composition style wielded some place between a pulpy graphic novel and a slickly brutish 70’s action fest, there’s plenty of multifaceted character in the visual design to ensure that Wick-heads keep returning time after time. Every scene, in the hands of someone less dedicated, might’ve felt too slapstick or idling, but, thankfully, John Wick’s comprehensive scope of contained atmosphere lends massive support to the suspension of disbelief (and investment) I was willing to permit it.

And so, to put one scene under the spotlight, let’s discuss the Red Circle club scene.

As the chase’s intensity grows, the scene’s aesthetic journeys across specific action fight-scene territories. Not only does John, in pursuit of Iosef, battle through his protection with a range of changing tactics, he moves through the different areas which act like bottles of vibrant tones and violent climates.

Like a true assassin, Wick stabs into the background, his priority victim remains unaware of the debris Wick litters around him. Showered in neon light, Wick cannot hide in the shadows, he becomes a flicker of violence, a hurried burst of close quarters assault. This room initiates pressure and pushes the efficiency of Wick into open light, he hides outside the camera’s frame and focus. He punches Victor, his victim, from outside the frame and then proceeds to drown him in water. Drenched in neon blue, as blots of blood red candles harshen the intensity, Wick gets what he needs by way of grizzly ends.

Then, cut to Dario Argento levels of red, the Jacuzzi area – shadows hide in piercing blood-light. Here the intensity of the tones are reversed, blues serve as undercurrents while reds dominate the palate. And then it’s back to blue when the water returns. Wick’s eyes surveil the room for Iosef, plotting his method of attack. This room grants him more freedom to sneak around, at the cost of more bodyguards to kill. The music is essential: soft and melancholy, like a Jacuzzi room might be, funky yet chilled, the vibe touches perfectly on all the sensations of anticipation, it’s predatory. Music and colour compliment the strength of Wick’s icy enigmatism, unpredictability looms above his precision. Suddenly, silhouettes of corpses in mid drop smear blood down the blue tint glass wall. He’s systematically chipping away at the target. The room’s music serves an in-world function, to cover the noise of his murders – his easiest chance at remaining undetected is to use a knife. Once again, the atmosphere of the room serves audience engagement by redirecting the character’s tactics, repeatedly manoeuvring into a fresher style.

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To go slightly into over analysis territory, this shot (above), which starts immediately after it’s set up, supposes some symbolism towards Wick being the devil with the neon light circling out his head like horns (or perhaps it’s a halo, or possibly both – a ‘Satan’s Halo’?). I’d lean towards the speculation being true since it appears in a specific set-up that aligns almost too perfectly to be coincidence. Furthermore, the imagery appears once more later on, reaffirming the likeliness (below). Born of forethought or not, I still appreciate the symbolic presence.

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The scene then plays out openly. Surprised by a guard, and after Wick attempted to handle the situation discretely, the fight crashes into the main area where Wick is suddenly exposed. Guns are now permitted in this area, and with it the sense of violent progression grows. At this point you’ll have noticed that the arrangement of scenes aren’t at all lazy, they’re constructed to manipulate and traverse the gradient of tension by testing the character in consecutive arenas – like the difficulty curve of a video-game, without the choice or separation. John Wick, as a film, manages to sell you its staging by pursuing flow and cohesion.

And then the mayhem kicks into action, the nightclub area, where a silencer’s shots whisper muffled noises under the thud of every beat. Iosef runs frantic through the crowd while Wick maintains composure through the music’s deafening trance. Strobe lighting and winding music creates an atmosphere of overwhelming intensity, we’re at the final push. These varying atmospheres serve to make the film feel bigger, more epic – there’s no rush to get through the scene and race to the payoff. By the end, Wick deserves his shot with Iosef, which sadly goes undelivered. You’re convinced to root on Wick’s side by witnessing the sheer power of will he inhabits. His persistence warrants his payoff.

After a brief tonal cleanse, the boss fight occurs and video game parallel goes full blast, it’s a common pattern throughout John Wick – although admittedly formulaic, it is earned, and while that isn’t a perfect justification, my defence is upheld by how it remains satisfying when every plot point builds to a logical conclusion and then proceeds to pay off magnificently. The compromise is deemed understandable – they have to hit particular scripted beats if they’re dedicated to perfecting the execution of that said beat. While unideal, we do not live in a perfect world.

Knowing itself, self referentially, puts John Wick several tiers above the recent wasteland of unmoulded lacklustre action. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s seamless approach to narrative mechanisms are to be admired considerably. I would highly recommend checking out John Wick, there’s more great chunks of powerhouse action where this came from.