John Wick: Chapter 2 Review
One of 2014’s surprise packages was the action thriller John Wick, reuniting Keanu Reeves with his old Matrix stunt compadre Chad Stahelski who's now calling the shots behind the camera, resulting in a terrifically self-assured piece of cinematic carnage put together for a mere 20 million dollars. The unique “gun fu” combat style gained fulsome plaudits but the movie was equally assured with its economical storytelling, painting a shadowy picture of hired guns and the rules and regulations which they live (and die) by. John Wick, a legendary artisan of death known simply as ‘The Boogeyman’ in some quarters for his preternatural gifts, had previously managed to extricate himself from this world at no small cost, but after a bloody run-in with the spoilt offspring of a Russian mobster he found himself hip-deep in his old ways.
Chapter 2 picks up the last loose end from the first film, beginning with Wick ruthlessly chasing down his stolen ’69 Mustang from the Russians. But just as the dust settles and peace is called, a face from Wick’s past emerges: the Cammoran gangster Santino D’Antonio, who calls in a marker – a sacred oath bound by blood – which Wick previously exchanged for some as-yet-unknown deed on his behalf. In return, Santino asks Wick to kill his sister Gianna so he can take her place at the High Table, the ruling council for all the world’s biggest crime organisations. The debt having been refused by Wick, Santino burns down his house and John is faced with a terrible choice: follow orders to kill Santino’s sister and become a wanted man all over the world with a bounty on his head, or refuse to honour the debt and become a wanted man anyway. What ensues is yet more stylised mayhem as Wick takes on all comers and tries to make it out alive...
Unlike some recent action sequels I could mention which took a mean, moody original and followed it up with a bloated piece of self-indulgence which threw out the world-building and started over (*cough* Raid 2 *cough*), John Wick’s return is a worthy extension of its predecessor. In comes a new set of streets for blood to be spilt upon, Rome in this case, and it’s the expansion of the wide wide world of Wick which pleased me the most, hinting at the larger stakes by which these organisations play, stakes which even John Wick will run from when the tables are turned on him by the end of the film. Some may regard this as being cynical bait for the threequel but it’s no less satisfying a denouement for it, with writing that's mindful of manoeuvring the pieces into place throughout the film without neglecting the narrative at hand, like with the Russians and the bodyguard played by Common who’s got his own reasons for hunting Wick down.
Wick himself is keeping his back story close to his chest but you’re not left wanting as regards to this man’s immediate motivations and desires. The writing takes the approach of the audience learning by Wick doing which is partly what makes these films so refreshing, and although the sequel elaborates on some aspects of this particular assassin's creed it's careful to maintain that overall aura of mystery, not because they’re dealing with closely guarded secrets but because they simply don't need to have every piece of exposition spelled out in detail. Stahelski has spoken of the films as being the “wacky side” of James Bond, and he and screenwriter/creator Derek Kolstad are smart enough not to dwell on the concept itself, nor do they overplay it with too many knowing winks: this is serious business with a line in deadpan humour, such as Lance Reddick's straight-faced concierge who returns for the sequel along with Ian McShane's Winston, the smooth-as-butter owner of The Continental hotel which exists as a safe haven, neutral ground, for all these murderous miscreants. There is the occasional bump whenever new characters are introduced, like Lawrence Fishburne’s Bowery King, as you’ve got to give the audience something re: their relationship to John and their standing in this world, but even though the movie is a good twenty minutes longer than the first it rarely feels like it’s sagging under its own weight.
The action is of course one of Wick’s other USPs and this sophomore effort offers up a smorgasbord of violent delights, these are some of the best 'bullet ballets' I've seen outside of a John Woo joint. Keanu Reeves is front and centre once again, being involved with most of his own hand-to-hand combat scenes as well as being a dab hand with firearms, and his proficiency and skill with these weapons is breathtaking to watch especially as they’re intertwined with all sorts of martial arts techniques. This kind of “gun fu” has been done before (Equilibrium immediately springs to mind) but rarely has it been carried off with such intricate close-quarters battles; indeed, many of the prop firearms are specially made so that they don’t have any kind of open barrel with which to expel the charge from the blank round, thus being much safer for all involved when used in such close proximity. The guns still cycle and eject a spent casing but the muzzle flashes are added in later. And even something as simple as Wick making sure he properly ejects his spent magazines is done with such autonomic efficiency that the weapon is practically an extension of his own body.
While it could be argued that the sequel ups the body count in a more cartoony/video-gamey way compared to the first film, like in the lengthy catacombs escape and the array of more colourful assassins (violinist, sumo wrestler), along with slightly iffy developments like ultra-thin body armour that can be sewn into the lining of a suit, there’s still enough momentum to carry the film along. And what it lacks in genuine enhancement of the action style - though the action is certainly staged more fluidly, and the striking finale in the hall of mirrors rates a mention - it makes up for with the development of this secret society, like seeing the gloriously retro telephone exchange which processes all of the contracts (an Archer-esque fusion of the old and the new). Perhaps the movie's biggest crime is the underuse of Ruby Rose as Ares, Santino’s bodyguard, who communicates only in sign language. She’s a fascinating addition to the Wickverse, her boyish looks and slight build belying her murderous intent, and the film seemingly builds towards a huge showdown between her and John but when it comes it’s something of a disappointment. These are but minor quibbles though as I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick Chapter 2 and I'm very excited about where it will all end up.
The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Warner Bros. have handled the distribution for the John Wick series in the UK, and they’ve issued forth a 2-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release for the sequel containing the 4K High Dynamic Range (HDR) platter and the standard 1080p disc (a double pack with both films is also available). Chapter 2 was cut for cinemas in the UK by 23 seconds to obtain a 15 certificate, this was not however a draconian BBFC enforcement but something presumably done by Warners to keep the rating in line with the previous film, which was uncut at 15. The changes were made to reduce imitable detail during a suicide scene and although the Warners Blu-ray of Chapter 2 features this same localised 15 version this UK UHD edition is rated at 18 and is fully uncut. Please note: the screenshots in this review were extracted directly from the 1080p Blu-ray and are for illustrative purposes only. This review was carried out on a Sony 65ZD9 4K HDR display and Panasonic UB900 4K player, with the image correctly calibrated to the industry standard D65 white point.
The movie was shot in anamorphic on the trusty Arri Alexa XT and was finished on a 2K DI. The production enlisted Dan Laustsen as the Director of Photography and immediately he set about bending the ear of the director about what lenses they should shoot with. The first Wick used a series of anamorphics called Hawk Vintage '74s, which might sound like older lenses but are actually new lenses designed to have the characteristics of vintage glass, like the extreme fall-off at the edges of the frame, and they also reduced contrast somewhat. Because of this they weren’t suited to a lot of the night work in the film so faster spherical lenses were also used which gives the first movie something of an uneven look, appearing crisp and sharp one minute and interminably soft and low contrast the next. I’m a big fan of anamorphic but even so, lenses like these Hawks are so in thrall to the idiosyncratic ghosts of anamorphic past that it seems to defeat the purpose.
Second time around, Wick newcomer Laustsen (taking over from Jonathan Sela) persuaded them to look at ARRI’s range of Master Anamorphic lenses, which are fast enough and sharp enough to provide a dense, contrasty look with very little of the flaring or softness of old and they were much more adept at shooting in low light. This meant that they could employ these lenses throughout the production which creates a more unified look in terms of sharpness, depth of field and the classic elliptical bokeh. In one respect they were too good however, as director Stahelski still wanted a certain amount of flaring on the highlights but the lenses were coated to prevent such occurrences, so with ARRI’s help they designed a series of in-camera filters which would provide the flaring that they wanted but also retained the supreme definition & contrast of the Master Anamorphics.
Right off the bat the differences between the UHDs of John Wick and its sequel are obvious: gone are the occasionally thin, grey black levels of the original and in their place are thick, deep, gorgeous blacks that suck up light like a black hole. The original Wick is still an excellent example of UHD thanks to the image still looking plenty sharp and colourful when it’s allowed to be, but due to the raised blacks the high dynamic range itself isn’t the most impressive feature. You can flip that around 100% for the sequel as the obsidian depths of the blacks mean that the highlights pop off the screen with breathtaking realism, burning bright but still able to balance the detail within those highlights. The usage of colour in these films has a storytelling slant as well as just looking stunning and the UHD version delivers on that intent in spades, from the golden tones of the Roma exteriors to the blue of the catacombs and everything in-between, with beautifully rendered skin tones and primaries & secondaries that are lusciously intense. The only time things take a slight dip in that regard is during the Common/Keanu fight in Rome, it switches to an obvious green-screen stage and they both look very orangey all of a sudden, but after that it’s business as usual.
Conversely, while the first Wick was actually finished in 4K the sequel was not and yet it doesn’t suffer greatly by way of comparison, as the 2K image has so much consistent detail and sharpness baked-in that it upscales very nicely indeed (again proving the point that image capture is just as important as how you finish it). In comparison to the 1080p Blu-ray the 4K UHD draws out more detail into the middle distance whereas the Blu-ray’s sharpness just sort of stops at a point, it still looks great on the close-ups but on wider or long-distance shots the detail falls off quite rapidly while the UHD just keeps on truckin’, it's got an almost three-dimensional look to it at times thanks to the detail and the HDR. And the improved temporal handling of the HEVC encode on this 66GB disc means that the busier action scenes look more refined compared to the AVC Blu-ray counterpart. Some banding is present on the Blu-ray but the UHD’s colour gradations are far more finely delineated. Grain/noise is a non-issue on the UHD and naturally the all-digital capture means there are no blips or scratches on the image, there’s not a hint of any ugly edge enhancement either. This really is demo material in every respect.
For the audio we’ve got an immersive Dolby Atmos mix and although I’m only able to listen in mere 7.1 this is quite simply audio perfection from start to finish. The mix has an involving wrap-around quality to it and not just for the usual things like bones breaking and bullets flying, e.g. when Common and Keanu are enjoying a drink in the Continentale bar (this being the Italian rendition of the Continental) you can hear the soft swoosh of traffic in the distance, it’s almost subliminal but it’s there and it gives the mix a touch of palpable realism as much as any of the booming action beats. The bass is almost its own character as it’s always perfectly weighted to the on-screen action, delivering thundering dance beats during the club scene but it’s also much more agile when it needs to be, like with the various gunshots that all have their own bass characteristics. Dialogue is clean and clear and is never lost amidst the maelstrom of death that John Wick visits upon his enemies. Just…wow. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on the 1080p Blu-ray shares many of these qualities but it lacks the all-round envelopment and the percussive nuance of the bass is reduced.
Extras include three deleted scenes (Aurelio (4:08), The Cleaner (1:54), The Vatican (2:04)) and a slew of short featurettes: RetroWick: Exploring The Unexpected Success of John Wick (4:33), Training John Wick (11:59), WICK-vizzed (5:14), As Above, So Below: The Underworld of John Wick (5:05), Friends, Confidantes: The Keanu/Chad Partnership (9:54), Car Fu Ride Along (4:44), Chamber Check: Evolution of a Fight Scene (10:07), Wick’s Toolbox (8:13), Kill Count (3:09). All video-based extras are contained on the 1080p Blu-ray disc, with the audio commentary from Reeves and Stahleski residing exclusively on the uncut UHD Blu-ray.
John Wick breaks cover again in an excellent sequel that pulls off the rare trick of expanding the universe without straying too far from the core components that made the original such a blast. And it does what all good second instalments do: leave you begging to know how the story's gonna end. This 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray iteration of Chapter 2 is extraordinarily good, delivering reference-grade HDR picture and Dolby Atmos sound which will make it a demo favourite for years to come. Now bring on Chapter 3 already!
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