I occasionally talk about what I call a ‘Good Bad Movie’ and I suppose what I mean by this is that it’s a good example of a film from one of those genres which never normally win the Best Picture Oscar (not all genres being created equal, after all: musicals, westerns, and based-on-true-events films are somehow respectable in a way that horror movies, kung fu pictures, and fantasy films normally aren’t). Now this isn’t absolute division, of course, because sometimes you can have genuinely good films from often-dubious genres (The Matrix being the obvious example of a great film which manages to be both science fiction and a martial arts action film). But on the whole it’s a reasonable working assumption.
I suppose it’s quite appropriate that I just mentioned The Matrix, for the film currently under consideration isn’t a million miles away from the Wachowskis’ magnum opus, one way or another. I refer, of course, to Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, which is, if anything, an Absolutely Outstanding Bad Movie, but still in no danger whatsoever of being mistaken for a Good Movie. It is, as they frequently say, a funny old world.
Keanu Reeves returns as the eponymous dapper apocalypse Jonathan Wick (we already wondered why the film isn’t called Jon Wick the first time around). As the film gets underway, our hero is finishing up some outstanding business from the original film, namely retrieving his car which is still in the possession of the Russian Mafia. The sheer quantity of property damage involved, not to mention the eventual repair bill on the car, or indeed the enormous body count Wick racks up, might lead one to surmise it would be easier to just buy a new car. But this is not Wick’s style, for he is a man of fierce integrity, not to mention a short fuse. (The publicity for this film ploughs on with not-quite-there taglines like ‘John Wick goes off’ and ‘John Wick: don’t set him off’. Guys, your tagline is ‘John Wick: he’s got a short fuse’. Trust me on this.)
Well, anyway, car retrieved, Wick retires to his lovely home with his faithful hound, intent on getting on with his everyday life as a grief-stricken ex-hitman. Needless to say this is not to be, as who should turn up on his doorstep but ambitious underworld leader Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who Wick owes a favour. Since Wick’s back on the scene, D’Antonio wants him to do one last job, involving an assassination in Rome that will have a huge impact on the global underworld. (Needless to say, upon Wick’s arrival in Rome, a vaguely nervous-looking acquaintance enquires if he’s in town to bump off the Pope.)
Needless to say there are twists, turns, and double-crosses aplenty, and before too long all men’s hands are turned against our taciturn anti-hero (not to mention the hands of quite a few women, too). Can Wick get out of this latest predicament in one piece? And can he do so without breaching any of the rather arcane regulations of his curious fraternity?
The central paradox, or perhaps joke, of the John Wick series persists, which is that these are films about a man frequently driven by enormous passions, but portrayed by an actor not exactly noted for the breadth and subtlety of his emotional range. But, in an odd way, Keanu’s performance is by no means problematic, and it’s actually very hard to imagine anyone else being quite as good as he is here. Because he is good: this film is utterly absurd, and it would be a terrible mistake to approach it as a genuine drama. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to start winking too openly at the camera. Reeves finds the middle ground that makes the film work, and so do most of the other major performers – Ian McShane comes back from the first one, and turning up for a fruity cameo is Laurence Fishburne.
If you were so minded, you could spend a whole evening picking holes in the plot of John Wick: Chapter 2, and pointing out the various ways that the story is actually quite silly. Certainly bits of it are slightly hackneyed or repetitive – you may recall that in the first film Wick’s car was nicked and his puppy executed; well, this time around someone blows up his house. No doubt in the third film he will be sent off on another rampage of bloody slaughter after someone hacks his Facebook account or something. The world of the film, with a Hitman Hilton in every major city, and every criminal figure beholden to the same set of unbreakable arcane regulations, bears very little to reality, either.
All of this basically misses the point – which is that this is an action film, and all the rest of it exists to bridge and facilitate the action sequences which are the heart of the film. The connective material is arch and knowing enough to be fun – Peter Serafinowicz turns up as the world’s most violent wine-waiter – and the set-pieces themselves are some of the purest examples of sheer adrenaline fun as I’ve seen at the cinema in a very long time. There’s an action sequence in a maze of mirrors which is clearly a homage to Enter the Dragon, while elsewhere Keanu gets to display his mastery of kung fu, gun fu, car fu and even pencil fu.
John Wick: Chapter 2 won’t be for everyone, but it hits every target it sets for itself and the result is a terrific piece of entertainment, provided super-stylish, super-absurd action movies are your cup of tea. This is an example of a sequel which builds on the original in every way: it’s bigger, brighter, more absurd, and has much more swagger and fun than the first. Needless to say the door is left wide open for the third episode – if it’s as good as this one, that will be a significant achievement, for John Wick: Chapter 2 is a treat.