Friday, February 10, 2017

Outgunned: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2



John Wick, the 2014 directorial debut of stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, had cool, impeccably choreographed action sequences. The film’s considerable appeal is in the smooth Keanu Reeves spinning and shooting in blissed-out sequences of zen gun-fu. But it wasn’t just the sweet, sleek look of the thing that made it a cult classic. It was the brutal, elemental motivations involved. Malcontents killed this ex-hitman’s dog. What else could he do but exact revenge? He systematically dismantled a whole shady kingpin’s operation over the sight of a bloody puppy corpse. It makes pure action movie sense. Now, though, John Wick: Chapter 2 must labor to bring the ex-hitman out of retirement again, layering more mythology on top of what was already a neatly cracked video game world in which a whole secret society of assassins carries its own currency and code of conduct, rules and regulations controlled by the dispassionate hoteliers and coroners who cater to this select clientele. There’s an agreeable B-movie vibe to the enterprise, but the convolutions of this sequel lead to a muddier set of motivations, and eventually even the well-staged gunplay started to wear me down.

There’s simply too much of a good thing. Reeves is still perfectly poised, and director Stahelski (alone this time, since Leitch was off making his own solo outing) can stage effective fight scenes. But the story – ballooning to slightly over two lumpy hours – is stretched thin, and the emptiness is filled with nauseating gun love. Wick is back in action, pulled, after a roaring car-centric demolition derby of a curtain raiser, into the hitman game once more when a debt from his past comes due sending him off to Italy to off an heiress. Already we’re removed from the clear emotional lines of the original, but Derek Kolstad’s script finds reasons to keep upping the stakes. As the film moves along, more and more factions in the hitman world turn against Wick, until a whole host of rivals are out to claim a bounty on his head. That should be fun, but it gets tiresome, leading to endless rounds of gun fire, punctuated with kicking and stabbing and punching, each blow considered and crunchy. But even more time is given over to loving shots of Wick’s endless array of weapons, with lengthy sequences involving his procuring of these weapons, examining them, hyping up their qualities for maximum deadly impacts. It’s queasy to watch the film making drooling admiration over the tools of death. 

It’s one thing for a bloody actioner to get off on violence. That’s par for the course. But here it goes too far for my taste, slobbering in glee over the arsenal, talking up the benefits of machine guns and automatic weapons as essential for anyone planning on mowing down a crowd. There’s no moral counterbalance provided, or consideration given to collateral damage. One scene finds Wick going up against an assassin (Common, who, after the far superior Run All Night, seems to be making a habit of these roles), both men armed with silencers. They’re walking parallel on two separate platforms in a subway station, taking potshots at each other through the crowds. We’re meant to realize they’re such good shots no innocent is wounded or worse. This is a throwaway detail, intended humor in how cavalier and dispassionate their demeanors. (They share a drink during their down time, professionals off the clock.) But I couldn’t shake the nastiness of the staging. Many scenes play out like this – one in an art museum had me cringing as blood splattered paintings on the walls – and though it might be fun watching a gory shootout in a Lady from Shanghai hall of mirrors conclusion, I was by then thoroughly displaced from caring, or even enjoying the surface visual pleasure. There’s a case to be made for the amoral action movie. Plenty of downbeat, messy, grim, or exploitative genre pictures provide low pleasures. But here I just couldn’t get on board.

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