“Never Stab the Devil in the Back”
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane
After the brutal events of John Wick, our titular antihero (Reeves) slaughters a taxi garage full of mob enforcers to retrieve his car, shares a drink with the brother (Peter Stormare) of our previous antagonist and heads home to bury his past once again. Unfortunately, now that he has resurfaced he is not to be allowed to go back out.
One of the nobility of his criminal demimonde, Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio) calls in a marker which cannot be refused and asks John to assassinate his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini) and so clear his way to power. John travels to Rome and completes his assignment, only to be pursued by Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) and Santino’s mute enforcer Ares (Rose). As Santino, knowing that Wick is coming for him, puts out an open, $7 million contract, the demimonde erupts into violence.
With help from the Bowery King (Fishburne), head of a force of vagrant assassins, John goes straight for Santino, taking out dozens of his men, killing several other assassins and incapacitating both Cassian and Ares during the pursuit. John finally corners Santino in the Continental, where Santino makes the mistake of being an arrogant jackass one time too many.
What’s wrong with it?
Chapter 2 lacks the novelty of John Wick, and although it expands on the organisation of the demimonde, the most interesting parts are those that were already there, and for the rest, I do wonder if less was more.
We see more female members of the demimonde this time out, but only two of them have any lines and they never actually meet.
John is a less compelling and sympathetic character for his rejection of the rules of the demimonde. While his weary reluctance was a large part of what made this remorseless engine of destruction relatable in the original film, his code was what made him other than just a thug. The fact that it is the destruction of his home and the threat of reprisals, rather than his inescapable intrinsic adherence to the arcane rules of engagement, that drives him takes away from that.
Laurence Fishburn appears to be doing a Samuel L Jackson impersonation, which is odd.
What’s right with it?
You kind of have to respect a film that embraces its utter lack of good guys.
Both the flaw and the glory of Chapter 2 is that it basically offers more of the same, but in Italian. More dynamic gunfights, brutal hand-to-hand combat and inventive combinations of the two. I want to know if Reeves is still doing most of his own stunts, because I want to know how much I ought to hate him for staying so limber.
Speaking of Reeves, he continues to shine in this role as in no other.
The High Table add an extra dimension to the demimonde; the political power players to the Continental’s mediating influence and neutrality. They’re less interesting than the Continental, simply because they are more like any number of other international syndicates, but illuminate another part of the world nonetheless.
The Continental, and in particular Ian McShane’s Winston get more screen time here, and are awesome. The operations centre is a wonderfully anachronistic exchange, staffed by female telephonists and administrative staff who couple retrochic officewear with gang tattoos, and Winston gets to flex his muscles, both by telling Santino where he can shove his demands and by managing to fill a substantial subset of Central Park with his own people. We also meet Winston’s Roman counterpart, Julius (Franco Nero), as well as the more enigmatic Bowery King, and they’re both pretty awesome.
Gianna is an okay character, largely passive, but politically strong and much more dignified than her brother. Ares is an impressive character, with a lot of personality communicated non-verbally and an interesting nod to TV classic The Prisoner (possibly by way of Bester in Babylon 5.) It’s still a bit of a testosterone stew, but less so.
How bad is it really?
Chapter 2 suffers hard from doing a lot of what the original film did and only as well as the original, while lacking the sheer novelty value of a kind of action that hadn’t much been seen in the West. It’s a tight, well made action thriller, with the emphasis on the action, when for my money it might have benefited from a little more leaning on the thriller side of the equation.
Best bit (if such there is)?
John and Cassian engage in a lethal duel in a subway station, popping away at each other with their silenced pistols and never once hitting an innocent bystander in the process. It may seem a small thing, but the lack of civilian collateral is a big step from past efforts – the Total Recall remake springs most egregiously to mind – in which the general populace soaked up bullets like a sponge to generate some kind of pathos or just to prove that the bad guys were the bad guys.
What’s up with…?
- The crème de la crime holding their AGM at what appears to be a pop concert?
- The lords of assassination being quite so poor at defending against assassins?
Production values – Top notch, with a suitably noir atmosphere and not-too-jumpy fight editing. 4
Dialogue and performances – The dry, sardonic wit is still there, but less strongly than in the first film. 9
Plot and execution – A less compelling motivation for our antihero and a less imposing villain weaken the plot, although the supporting talent work hard to make up the difference. 12
Randomness – The demimonde works by its own rules, but there are clearly rules. 5
Waste of potential – The film matches the original for everything but originality, which was alas one of the main strengths of John Wick. 10