***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane
written by Derek Kolstad
directed by Chad Stahelski
by Bryant Frazer John Wick: Chapter 2 opens, somewhat incongruously, with shots from a Buster Keaton action sequence projected on the side of a midtown Manhattan office building. Make no mistake: That's not homage--it's a declaration of principles. Hell, it's a boast. A master of stunts, sight gags, and visual effects, Keaton was perhaps the most sophisticated silent filmmaker when it came to truly understanding and exploiting cinematic space--the magical Méliès, maybe, to Chaplin's more grounded Lumière. For much of film history, his influence was felt most vividly in movie musicals, where the athleticism of Gene Kelly, especially, seemed to call back to Keaton's knockabout screen presence. In the 1970s, the best musical action on screen was happening in Hong Kong, as Bruce Lee's lethal martial arts style laid the groundwork for Jackie Chan's more broadly comic (though no less precisely conceived and executed) fighting style. Chan was no fan of guns, but John Woo developed a balletic, two-fisted style of gunplay while imagining romcom mainstay Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. That brings us more or less to John Wick, as director Chad Stahelski and the army of drivers, stunt coordinators, military veterans, tactical firearms consultants, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who helped turn Keanu Reeves into a precision-tuned killing machine assert their legitimacy as heirs to a tradition that began in the days of hand-cranked cameras and nitrate stock.
They have a point. There's more going on in the John Wick films than a superficial mastery of action tropes. For one thing, Stahelski is an experienced stunt coordinator with a feeling for screen action at a plainly physical level. Probably partly for that reason, his style eschews the most prevalent annoying tic of contemporary directors (let's call it the Zack Snyder effect), who've gotten in the habit of ramping frame rates up and down within action scenes--sometimes within a single shot--to exploit admittedly-beautiful combat-porn imagery at the expense of any sense of timing and rhythm. Instead, Stahelski opts to capture the rhythm of action in camera, timing gunshots and body blows to create a bracing, percussive soundscape. (One scene here is set to "Summer" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, with gunfire providing an irregular, soldier-boy drumbeat.) For another, the well-trained Reeves seems nearly as fiercely dedicated as the rest of the professional stunt team. His face is visible in much of the action, maintaining intimacy between audience and character in the most outrageous situations. Reeves is state-of-the-art action hero as modern dancer, and he's never been a more compelling screen presence.
Finally, the visuals are genuinely amazing. DP Dan Laustsen's work is a steely variant on the even-more-intensely stylized visuals he captured for Crimson Peak, but more impressive is how rarely the kinetic action calls in CG reinforcements. That opening sequence that begins with the callback to Sherlock Jr. features not just a car and motorcycle chase through Times Square but also a massive set-piece in which cars are flung around inside a spacious warehouse like two-ton hockey pucks, disabling other mechanical targets and sending human ones airborne like rag dolls. The pièce de résistance of the sequence is a "flying drift" that has a car sliding sideways while airborne, exiting the warehouse by way of a short ramp leading the way through an open doorway. John Wick: Chapter 2 takes not a moment to dwell on this achievement--you don't see it in super-slo-mo, nor has it been time-stretched in the editing room to extend its appearance on screen. There are no gawping bystanders to play-act shock and awe. But the scene has just enough space built into it that you see the stunt clearly. You feel the mass of the car as it flies, spinning through its turn in mid-air before slamming into the ground. It's a practical effect, executed by human beings fighting with the physics and gravity of the same planet Earth as the rest of us, and it's glorious in its tossed-off simplicity.
I'm trying not to overstate the achievement here. When I walked out of the first John Wick, I tweeted my hot take that it was, basically, a cheeseburger--albeit a really good cheeseburger. Indeed, John Wick holds up years later as a straightforward yet savoury revenge drama with tragedy to spare (our protagonist is spurred to action by not only a dead wife and a stolen car but a murdered puppy, too), backstory that knows not to overstay its welcome (Wick is an erstwhile member of an international assassin class that gathers for respite in plush underground lodgings and abides by a strict professional code), and action that doesn't quit, all sauced up with a just-slightly smug sense of self-awareness. John Wick: Chapter 2 is much the same but more so, for better and worse. The first act is your basic just-when-I-thought-I-was-out scenario, with Wick getting roped into one last job as payback for the enormous favour that helped him escape the assassin's lifestyle in the first place. The second act culminates in a double-cross that puts Wick on the run with a bounty on his head. And in the third act he finds that revenge, while achievable, comes at a price.
Simple stuff, but Wick 2 gets many of the details right. The casting is on target, adding Common, Laurence Fishburne, and no less than Franco Nero himself to an ensemble that already featured John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane. The hand-to-hand combat is often quite exciting, as when Reeves attacks a small cadre of rivals with a single pencil or faces off against a peer in a fight on a subway car where the camera operators push in close enough to read every detail on a man's face as the knife goes in. But the real fireworks are in the gunfights, which combine martial-arts moves, precision trigger-squeezes, and convincing digital squibs to drop Wick's enemies. In Wick's signature move, he squeezes off two shots in quick succession, fine-tuning his aim in between--a gesture that underscores his speed in tactical combat while creating a crackling pop-pop sound effect that scratches a certain itch. So does the film's drollest scene, where Wick and Common's character, Cassian, who is after Wick for his own revenge-related reasons, fire at each other covertly, over a small distance. They are murderous gentlemen extending a courtesy to the clueless normals surrounding them.
Beyond its jocular gestures and visceral energy, is the John Wick series about anything beyond the amalgam of fearless physicality and hard-boiled tropes that constitute its cinematic ancestry? If you feel Reeves brings to the role a certain soulfulness and goodwill, maybe. A well-loved actor with a reputation for unstinting niceness, Reeves plays Wick as a reluctant angel of death who projects a slender, sartorial elegance that belies the unsettled antihero within. In one scene, a so-called sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz, in a pitch-perfect performance) advises Wick on weapon selection as though walking him through a multi-course dinner. If you read that as gun porn and thus distasteful, you're not wrong--but it's absolutely meant to play as a sick joke. Wick is aware that these fetishes are troubling; at one point during the assembly of his arsenal, he takes a moment to shriek over the spiritual calamity of his return to the underworld. When he confronts his target, she asks him, "Do you fear damnation, John?" He answers in the affirmative. One character compares Wick to the Old Testament God, another calls him the Devil, and Fishburne's Bowery King gives him a gun with seven bullets and sends him to Hell. Appropriately, the film's final, most elaborate sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors where abstract video art, some of it suggesting hellfire, blazes on video screens. And the coda, with Wick leaving Central Park in a hurry, can easily be read as an allegory for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, meaning our hero has a lot to answer for. Even if you don't buy that John Wick: Chapter 2's concerns are positively Biblical in proportion, the underlying tragedy of the title character is that he's trailed by his past, unable to take control of his present, and facing an uncertain future. Like anyone else dogged by their own misdeeds, he's the principled but flawed hero of his story--a good soul, spoiled.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Although it did not receive a 4K theatrical release, John Wick: Chapter 2 arrives on Blu-ray from Summit (in conjunction with Lionsgate) in both HD and UHD versions. The picture was shot in anamorphic 2.8K, meaning the camera original was downsampled for the 2K DI and theatrical master, which was in turn scaled all the way up to UHD for home viewing. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen used precision glass (ARRI/Zeiss Master Anamorphics) that yielded a crisper look compared to the first film, with filtration behind the lens to re-introduce a bit of flaring. As you might expect, the UHD disc isn't a revelation in terms of sharpness, though A/B comparison reveals certain details, like numbers on a license plate, that are noticeably more legible in UHD. UHD's advantages are far more apparent in colour, where this transfer really dials in the workaday stuff like skin tones and fully indulges Laustsen's more stylized palette--not just the familiar teal-and-orange combo, but also deep blues ranging from aqua to near purple, rich limey greens, and the occasional toasty golden brown. It's not that the HD version gets the hues wrong, exactly, but that the choices feel more lush and otherworldly in UHD, and the extended dynamics of HDR accommodate a more coherent image. While a Dolby Vision transfer may have been even more dazzling, this show isn't lacking for HDR demo material. Take your pick: the particular way constellations of pinkish-red candle flames help illuminate Gianni D'Antonio's shadowy underground chambers; the riotous cacophony of icy blues and fiery reds that accompanies the funhouse climax; or how peering into the detailed aerial shots of midtown Manhattan at night feels a little bit like hanging out of the helicopter.
The Dolby Atmos audio, meanwhile, absolutely does justice to the work of supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger, sound designer Alan Rankin, and the rest of the aural wizards at Formosa Group. I don't have an Atmos receiver, so I was merely listening to Dolby TrueHD 7.1. That said, objects in the mix tracked around my soundfield with clamorous, sometimes startling precision and clarity. Bullets zing into the corners of the room or land in human flesh with a robust subwoofer thump, like mallets pulverizing melons. Atmospherics are beautifully realized--the low, barely-audible rushes of air that establish the cavernous space of the catacombs Wick has to fight his way out of below Rome, the highly directional sound effects that evoke the rush-hour bustle of the subway station where Wick and Cassian get up close and personal, or the movement of different elements of the Tyler Bates score through the surrounds to expand the geography of the mirrored museum set-piece by force of suggestion. And the dynamics are punishing: Wick 2 chews decibels throughout its running time, only to crank up the volume some more when the action demands. There's a single gunshot close to the end of the film that I knew was coming, and still it arrived so powerfully that it lifted me two or three inches off my sofa. (Fortunately for apartment dwellers, there's an optional English 2.0 track "optimized for late-night listening" on board the platter.) I don't have a better- looking/sounding disc in my collection.
Supplements launch with an engaging and informative audio commentary by Stahelski and Reeves. Reeves comes off as an incredible gentleman, eager to distribute credit across the crew while gamely critiquing his own technique. At one point he gives a shout-out to ace DI colorist Jill Bogdanovich; later, as the end credits begin to roll, he insists that Stahelski stick around so the two of them can talk more about the film's below-the-line talent before the tape runs out. Stahelski, who did double-duty as a camera operator in select scenes, is generous with anecdotes addressing the creative process, emphasizing the many in-camera stunts and drawing attention to its more hard-won accomplishments. For what it's worth, he notes that the mirror-room climax is meant as an homage to Enter the Dragon--not The Lady from Shanghai, as some critics assumed.
Only three deleted scenes are included, amounting to eight minutes of running time, but they're better than the average cutting-room clippings. John Leguizamo fans will appreciate his appearance here, and I particularly liked the bit where Wick shows up at a Vatican-esque institution, apparently seeking holy consent for his assignment. The rest of the 1080p special features are typical studio fare, comprising film clips and B-roll intercut with talking-head interviews. A few of the actors weigh in alongside producers and members of the stunt crew, but post-production gets short shrift as we hear nothing from editorial, sound, VFX, or colour. A little more than an hour of content has been broken up into multiple bite-size documentaries, each of which is edited to work as a standalone, introducing a lot of redundancy that can be frustrating. Still, what's here is arguably better than most behind-the-scenes ephemera.
"Friends, Confidantes: The Keanu/Chad Partnership" (10 mins.) traces the working relationship between Reeves and Stahelski, starting with the latter's arrival at a warehouse in Burbank to audition for The Matrix five hours after being hit by a car. He got the job, and he and Reeves learned Hong-Kong style fight choreography together on that film. As Reeves tells the story, when Stahelski later founded his own company, Eighty-Seven Eleven Action Design, the idea of action choreography as part of a movie's storytelling techniques was central to its creative philosophy. The admiration is mutual--Stahelski explains that Reeves made important narrative contributions and muses on how his dedication to action principles made it easier to cut solid action scenes.
"Training John Wick" (12 mins.) digs deeper into the specifics of getting the 50-year-old Reeves ready to perform, such as rigorous martial-arts training in the gym with Brazilian jiu-jitsu masters the Machado Brothers and gun training on champion gunslinger Taran Butler's shooting range. "It's like learning a new language," Common says, and stuntwoman Heidy Moneymaker astutely compares a fistfight between two characters to a dance. "Car Fu Ride Along" (5 mins.) picks up the thread, touching on Reeves's training behind the wheel and offering some meatier making-of material centring on the car stunts. And "Wick's Toolbox" (8 mins.) focuses on weaponry. Butler runs through some of the specs on the different guns Wick uses over the course of the film and Reeves himself discusses the physical challenge of perforating an enemy with a writing utensil. "Gotta have a pencil fight."
"Chamber Check: Evolution of a Fight Scene" (10 mins.) expands on how the meticulously-choreographed fights were planned, zeroing in on Reeves's tussles with Common and Ruby Rose as well as the elaborate design of the mirrored room. Along the same lines is "Wick-vizzed" (5 mins.). Both segments show the directors using a variety of previsualization techniques to first sketch out, then shoot reference footage of each scene in detail, with stunt performers standing in for the stars. The production went so far as to animate in rough gore effects to give a better sense of the impact of a finished scene. "Sometimes you shoot a previz for shock and awe," Stahelski says.
"Retro Wick: Exploring the Unexpected Success of John Wick" (5 mins.) is standard PR fluff in which various participants describe their affection for the first John Wick and marvel at the idea that they'd ever be making a sequel. "As Above, So Below: The Underworld of John Wick" (5 mins.) is similarly useless, a Cliff's Notes version of the series' world-building seemingly targeted at audiences who weren't paying attention. (Worth noting, perhaps, that these two underwhelming featurettes are the only ones included on the DVD; the rest are HD exclusives.) The faux-sophisticated "A Museum Tour with Sir Jonathan Wick" (2 mins.) visits Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art, a museum so slickly laid out that it actually looks at home when used as a location in a John Wick movie. Footage of a docent discussing the museum's collection against an overexposed background is intercut with carnage from the film. Equally disposable but more entertaining is a supercut (3 mins.) of every Wick-induced fatality. Final tally? 116.
Going out on a tangent, a phony trailer for Dog Wick (2 mins.) wonders what would have happened if John Wick had been shot dead in the first film, leaving his pup to seek vengeance. A theatrical trailer for John Wick: Chapter 2 (2 mins.) is the last feature on the UHD disc. The Blu-ray serves up a few more, including one for what looks like a gonzo Eli Roth pic, Knock Knock, shot with Reeves starring just before the original John Wick revitalized his career. Also on tap are previews for John Wick, Hell or High Water, Mechanic: Resurrection, Patriots Day, and the Starz series "American Gods", featuring Wick 2's own Ian McShane and Peter Stormare. The packaging contains one UHD Blu-ray, one HD Blu-ray, and a slip with a download code for John Wick: Chapter 2.