John Wick: Chapter 2

jw2Director: Chad Stahelski

Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, and Laurence Fishburne

So the fact that there’s a John Wick 2 is like a surprise Christmas gift for me. I watched the original John Wick in 2014 in the same way one would watch say, any Jean Claude Van Damme movie; which is to say, with limited expectations. I was surprised, as many others were, with the craft, choreography, and cleverness that went into it and I was content with that. However, I never expected a second “chapter,” nor did I expect it to be the best movie of 2017 so far!

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a true sequel. It moves the plot forward, it introduces new characters, it broadens the world from the original, and it ups the body count…like way ups the body count. We start right where you want to start, if you recall the conclusion of the previous film, with John (Keanu Reeves) getting his car back. Still wanting, “out,” John reburies his recently resurrected hitman persona along with his small armory of tactical weaponry. He gets a new dog and is ready to return to retirement. That is until an unwelcomed caller, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at Chez Wick with a request to hire him for a job. Of course, Wick refuses, but it turns out D’Antonio has a curious little item known in the underground hitman community as a marker. This marker was given to D’Antonio by Wick in exchange for assistance in his “impossible task” that earned him his previous retirement, and the holder has the right to demand anything from whoever granted the marker with no risk of refusal. But Wick refuses. And D’Antonio blows up his house. Thems the breaks in the hitman world.

Wick reluctantly decides to revisit D’Antonio’s request, which is a big one – go to Rome, and kill Santino’s sister Gianna to make room for him at the “table,” which is to say, the global underground hitman governing body. When things go afoul, Wick discovers a price has been put on his head, and Wick now must now search for redemption while thousands of the world’s greatest hidden assassins are around every turn looking to take him out.

What follows is a garishly fun and sadistic ride through a more realized hitman underworld. We get a deeper glimpse at the rules, regulations, and inner-workings of the ancient society. We also have almost no down time in this movie. It is action packed and fast-paced at every turn. The fighting choreography is outstanding, and even though there are numerous long-play fight scenes, none of them seem stale, each of them have tangible stakes attached to them, and they all have a creative twist that makes them unique. Take the worst action sequel in the last 5 years, A Good Day to Die Hard, and notice how spending the time to make the action work, makes the movie work! Wick’s scenes with friend turned nemesis, Cassian (Common) are especially enjoyable.

Of course with action as revved up as this, character development is the biggest casualty. There is no time for exploration of previously developed characters like Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), who make glorified cameos in this film. We get a little more of Winston (Ian McShane), but otherwise we are making way for newbies, most notably the reteaming of Reeves with fellow Matrix-er, Laurence Fishburne, who plays the local underworld Kingpin of the New York area, and who has also had some past run-ins with Wick in the old days. Also, the ancient Greek/Roman thematic motif furthered by characters named Ares, Charon, Winston, and Cassian is not lost on me, but it is a little silly.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is the blueprint for action sequels. It ups the action, and it ups the game, but it stays true to what made the original succeed. I daresay this film accomplishes its own “impossible task” of outshining its original. I am excited to see stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski continue his work with creator and screenwriter, Derek Kolstad in future chapters because this teaming was flawless. I have heard rumblings of a prequel John Wick TV series, which would showcase Wick’s impossible task, and while this excites me, it also worries me. However, in this day of mixed media and the entertainment models followed by the Marvel universe, there is certainly potential for this world to continue to expand and dominate in multiple mediums! A-

John Wick is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Jack the Giant Slayer

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The story of Jack and his magical beanstalk dates back to Viking times and over the past 1400 years, we have yet to be sick of it.  Countless versions of this story exist in virtually every format of entertainment imaginable.  The story is a good one though and in the hands of the talented director Bryan Singer, this version is certainly one of the best. 

Jack the Giant Slayer stars Nicholas Hoult whose star is on the rise.  Fresh off of his other starring role as R in Warm Bodies, Hoult functions well as the underestimated, romantic hero.  The main story is mostly familiar.  Jack is trusted with a task to sell items for money, but he returns home with no money and a handful of “magic beans.”  The magical properties of the beans are unleashed when they become wet in a rainstorm sending Jack’s house, and inadvertently the King’s daughter Isabelle, up to a legendary land of giants via a massive beanstalk.  King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) organizes a team to rescue his daughter lead by his trusted knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and including Jack as well as the plotting Roderick (Stanley Tucci) who the princess has been promised to for marriage. 

The giants are truly spectacular.  They are easily 20 feet tall and have a very clever form of motivation based on a previous war between man and giant, which resulted in them being magically enslaved by a magic crown.  Nonetheless, they are vengeful and dangerous, bringing a real threat of danger and excitement to the story.  Furthermore, Singer allows several opportunities for tongue-in-cheek humor to permeate the already clever adventure story that takes place up the beanstalk.  Simply put, a strong case is made for Stanley Tucci to have a part in every movie.

The only issue the film has going against it lies in its first act.  Singer’s film begins a bit slowly with terse voice-over narration of parallel backstories for young Jack and young Isabelle.  The children playing these parts deliver excruciatingly clichéd performances, and it was at this point that I admit I was worried.

Consequently, I must pause here to mention that this review comes with a brief stipulation.  When it comes to re-making a fairy-tale, there are many pitfalls that can occur; a major one is choosing the right audience.  Aside from this tepid opening segment, Bryan Singer actually has made a film that would exist more comfortably in Middle Earth than in Disney World.  It embraces its world of man-eating giants and has fun with it.  This decision certainly enhances the film’s entertainment value, but it also takes a familiar children’s tale and puts it just out of reach for children to enjoy. Creating an opening scene so clearly not in congruence with the rest of the film sets the incorrect initial mood that is hard to shake once the movie gets good.  However, if you can make the leap, this film definitely functions much better as a romantic action film than as a cute and safe children’s tale.        

That being said, I liked Jack the Giant Slayer.  I also recommend seeing it in 3-D, which is a recommendation I can honestly say I would give to no more than five films.  This is a fun, entertaining, funny, and good looking film that is easy to enjoy once the film figures out what it is and who it’s aimed at.   B