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John Wick: Chapter 2 – Film Review

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John Wick: Chapter 2 – Film Review by Pia Maltri

Director: Chad Stahelski
Writers: Derek Kolstad, Derek Kolstad (based on characters created by)
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane

“John Wick: Chapter 2” review. It comes out on Valentine’s day and it’s a film for lovers (of cinema, that is).

There are films that speak through words, and there are films that speak through images. Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 2” firmly belongs to the second category. Right when you were mourning the disappearance of good thrillers, when you were moaning that they don’t make them like that anymore, here comes a gem.

As in the first episode from 2014, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a ‘retired’ assassin who is being pulled back into work against his will, this time not by revenge but by a sort of moral debt with mobster Santino D’Antonio, played by Riccardo Scamarcio. Without wanting to give away too much of the story, once the assigned task is accomplished, complications arise and Wick must now fight for his life, switching again to revenge mode in the second half of the film. What unfolds is a spectacular, bloody and breathless stream of chases, shoot-outs and fights across streets, museums, subway stations and the landmarks of Rome and New York.

All the elements of the first film are present here: hyperbolic fights, heavy gore with unexpected, light counterpoints of irony, sleek and lush interiors, a pounding electronic score (by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard) that brilliantly underpins and elevates the visceral themes of revenge and violence. Once again, the plot is little more than a pretext for the action, and the film is refreshingly all the better for it. Keanu Reeves looks born in the role of this “man of focus, commitment, and sheer willpower” (an ironically emphatic quote from the first episode). There is again a pet companion to the hero, this time a more suitable pitbull, in place of the unlucky beagle.

There are countless memorable scenes which may well grant the movie the status of an instant classic; to quote just a few: the shooting near the dancing fountain at the Lincoln Center, with the water suddenly covering the target; the hiding and fighting scene at the (ironically titled) exhibition “Reflections of the soul”, involving an endless and claustrophobic line up of mirrors; the ‘shopping in Rome’ scene, where Keanu Reeves indulges in a perfectly tailored and bullet proof suit for the ‘party’ and the latest models of foreign guns as accessories (look here for the cameo of the actual costume designer Luca Mosca as the tailor).

The film is dotted throughout with references to classics of cinema: the burning down of the house with the protagonist’s silhouette against it brings to mind the big fire in “Gone with the wind”; the words tattooed on the woman bodyguard’s fingers are a clear reference to the false priest’s fingers tattoo in the masterpiece “The Night of the Hunter”; the disorienting scene of the ‘hotel’s account opening’ is pure pretext to playfully reference countless black and white movies showing a telephone switchboard with vintage dressed operators, then again anachronistically typing on 80’s computer monitors with green letters on a dark background.

Aside from direct and explicit movie quotations, ‘classicism’ in a broader sense is in fact a strong general theme of the film and permeates almost every scene: from the chase in the museum with a background of classical sculptures (the “Hercules” right behind Keanu Reeves, to whom the protagonist is smartly associated, is actually a Canova), to the stylish Italian suits worn by Roberto Scamarcio, from the Latin quote aptly tattooed on John Wick’s back (“Fortis fortuna adjuvat”) to the very locations of the action, shot in jaw droppingly beautiful photography by Dan Laustsen: the many monuments of Rome, the Lincoln Center, Central Park and the aforementioned museum in New York (although this is not the Metropolitan Museum, as one would think, but the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Rome).

So if the film, at a superficial level, draws clear inspiration from splatter movies or gory video games and all the adrenaline rush that comes with playing them, there is so much more to it at a slightly closer look and the stratification of cultural references is almost mind blowing, to the credit of writer Derek Kolstad. Ironically enough, this film appears as a celebration of both aesthetic beauty and the pureness of art, full as it is of sophisticated divertissements. In its apparent shortness of breath of ‘violent action thriller’, it has the ambition to remind us that the specific language of cinema is the ‘moving picture’, not the word. A great film doesn’t need a complicated and original plot; and it doesn’t need to be “real”, nor “moral”. Or, in the immortal words of Hitchcock in a French interview for “Cahiers du Cinéma”: “Le cinéma, ce n’est pas une tranche de vie, mais une tranche de gateau”. Ars gratia artis.

 

 

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