Critic’s Notebook: “John Wick: Chapter 2” and “The Lego Batman Movie”

Keanu Reeves in "John Wick: Chapter 2."

by Michael Henley

John Wick: Chapter 2

The playwright Anton Chekov once famously said that if a gun is introduced in the first act, it’s sure to go off in the third. He would have been chomping his pipe at the violence in John Wick: Chapter 2, in which guns constantly go off in the first, second and third acts, at the rate of roughly one shot every five seconds. Big guns, small guns, loud guns, quiet guns. All deployed with supreme skill and tiptop precision. And also knives will serve a proper purpose, and fists and legs will do in a pinch, also. We’re one-stop action movie shopping here. At one point, our hero visits an “sommelier” played by Peter Serafinowitz, who, in-keeping with the faux-elite tricksy trappings of the world of Wick, specializes  not in wines but in weapons of all sorts, and his fetishistic presentations are like a parallel world where James Bond’s supervillains have their own fussy, sociopathic Q.

It’s good to be back in John Wick’s world. You may recall the 2014 original, in which our titular hero, grieving from the loss of his wife, used his bullets to ruthlessly and bloodily dismantle the New York underworld he had long ago ceremoniously built and quit, all because a dumb Russian mobster stole Wick’s car and killed his puppy. As movie setups go, this was a masterstroke of a premise, so simple and elemental, and it was buttressed by labyrinthine world-building that evoked a stylized, comic book sensibility. In this world, assassins have their own currencies, night clubs, bars, hotels and codes of behavior, and they conduct their slick business between shots of smooth liquors and wearing dapper tailored suits, as if Bond had remade the whole world in his own image.

Now here is John Wick: Chapter 2, in which Wick discovers, not to his surprise but definitely to his dismay, that dipping his toe back into his old life has immediate consequences. Unlike many sequels, it chooses to be an extension of the first movie rather than a reprise. After tying up some loose ends (the opening action sequence, where Wick recovers his vehicle by visiting a chop shop run by a bug-eyed and panicky Peter Stormare, is a corker and worth the price of admission by itself), it moves onto new business: opening up its world, twisting some story points, and steadfastly refusing to echo the original in any cheap way (in other worlds, pet lovers, rest assured that Wick’s new dog makes it out of this one just fine).

The plot: shortly after the first movie, and about right after Wick lays some fresh concrete above his trove of forbidden guns, he finds himself being called out on a blood debt, emblemized by an ornate marker held by Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio). John tries to refuse, but he has no recourse to. In this formalized underworld, the rules are serious business, as Ian McShane, playing the manager of the New York Continental (a B&B for killers that is sacred ground), explains. Soon John is in Rome, checking into the Continental’s sister branch, presided by none other by Franco Nero (“Are you here for the pope?” he’s asked). And soon John is targeting Santino’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), but that is just the opening gambit in a conflict that soon sees Wick running from a bodyguard filled with righteous fury (Common), a mute henchwoman (Ruby Rose) whose disability is not one at all, and many more complications besides, all butting headfirst against the arcane rules of these folks’ profession (There’s a wonderful moment where Wick and a foe forgetfully take a brawl into the off-limits lobby of The Continental, at which point they’re both immediately reprimanded and prompted to go to the bar together for a drink.)

Wick is once again played by Keanu Reeves, in a role that speaks not just to his unhinged physicality and his commitment to tremendous stunt work, but to his narrow-yet-definitive range. Reeves is a fine actor in the right role (I will brook no arguments), and with Wick the role suits him as snug as his classy duds. The man is 52 and he has ripened with age: his features more hangdog, his frame just on the other side of gaunt, his eyes such a perfect conduit for righteous rage, because, oh, how they burn. Can he act? Sometimes, but this is a role that needs a movie star, not an actor, and that’s what he is. In his steely resolve, Reeves recalls the piercing correctness of a Clint Eastwood, who maybe doesn’t have much range either, but try telling him that. And there’s another echo, which John Wick 2 deliberately evokes from the first frame of a silent movie being projected on a Brooklyn apartment wall: that of Buster Keaton, who time and again served as a reliable, straight-edged foil to the chaos around him. He doesn’t wink, he doesn’t strain. He doesn’t let himself in on the joke. That’s the joke.

Because the John Wick movies, in a sense, are comedies. They traffic in blood and viscera and murder, but their real export is delight. The action sequences are bestowed with such wry invention, such nimble camerawork, such unabashed choreography and commitment that the spirit of watch-this-now-watch-me-top-that thrums through the whole enterprise. It’s the same thread that connects not just John Wick to John Woo, but also Astaire and Rodgers and Keaton and Edgar Wright and the best of Tarantino and many more besides, the kind of kinetic entertainment where solitary one-upsmanship in craft becomes its own delirious game. There’s such grace in the conception, that you find yourself laughing. Once at the well-orchestrated absurdity, twice at the effortlessness of it all, and then a third time as you realize how hard it must have secretly been to make it look that way.

There are copious delights in John Wick 2, like an audacious sequence where every hitman in New York (which looks like half the city’s population) makes a play to collect a bounty on Wick, and the film cross-cuts three separate attacks from the same rotten night. Or the wry moment when Wick and a rival trade silenced gunshots ducking through an MTA station across clueless bystanders, their shots chipping away at pillars and walls like spiky spitballs. An early midnight chase through the catacombs of Rome, as dozens of mercenaries pile in and Wick uses every trick in the book to blow them away, is like a double-reference between The Third Man and Greek myth, where wraiths are dispatched in the dark by a bloody-minded Orpheus. Or how about Morpheus? Lawrence Fishburne shows up as the Bowery King, a tramp impresario who holds court in New York’s underground in a silk bathrobe. “We’ve met before,” growls Fishburne, in the only time the movie nods in the direction of self-awareness.

But not to be outdone, the movie saves its best stuff for last. Not just the final scenes between Reeves and McShane, which promise to spin the series in an electric new direction, but the climax, which is set at the Met, in a mazelike shifting hall of mirrors called “Reflections of the Soul” (heh heh heh), like a funhouse designed by murderous nihilists. Of course even chasing through the exhibits, Wick and company are careful not to bloody up the canvases, because this is a world that protects its own sense of propriety (the mirrors are another matter). But it makes so much sense that this is where it ends, doesn’t it? Not just to please the spirit of Chekov (the Met and the villain’s relationship to it are established earlier), but because Wick and his filmmakers are artists of their bloody craft, somehow extruding the sheerful blissful poetry of a revenge double-tap to the head. You might just say they belong in a museum.

 

“The Lego Batman Movie”

The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie, the second in a series of movies starring the famous Danish interlocking bricks, is really really good fun. Not that there was any real doubt; the premise is a pitch right down the plate for me, building on the triumphant good will of The Lego Movie and spinning off that film’s selfish narcissist Batman (played once again brilliantly by Will Arnett). And I’m a Bat-fan from way way back, gobbling up the old Adam West show as a kid and that experience having fueled perhaps unhealthily my Bat-obsession ever since (Batman ’89 is my first moviegoing experience I remember, and I paid cash money to see Batman and Robin, and last year’s disappointing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a movie I inexplicably own on blu-ray). A Lego­-style movie that satirizes the whole of the Batman canon isn’t just in my wheelhouse. It’s what I built my wheelhouse for, and during an opening moment when The Joker (Zach Galifanakis) lists all the perpetrators of his upcoming mega-crime and namechecks not just Mr. Freeze but also Clock King and King Tut and Condiment Man (look ‘em up), I was nodding along even when a confused listener onscreen says “You’re making some of these up, right?” Great joke.

So why didn’t I love it? Maybe the toybox was just too big this time. That seems an odd thing to say, since one of the great joys of The Lego Movie was its anarchic spirit. But I think by sticking to one expansive universe, Lego Batman just takes too many toys out of the box and doesn’t play with them quite enough. That feeling proves unshakable when you look at the cast list, which is a toybox itself of prime talent. You have Mariah Carey as the mayor of Gotham, and Hector Elizondo as Jim Gordon. You have Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman and Conan O’Brien as The Riddler and Billy Dee-Williams as Two-Face (that’s a delightful injoke, because Williams was Harvey Dent in the 1989 movie, a prelude to his playing Mr. Face before Joel Schumacher stole the chance away from him). These are all inspired picks, yes? (I haven’t even mentioned Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn or Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome as Clayface and Poison Ivy, respectively). So why don’t any of them do anything funny? Each of them has maybe one line a piece. What’s the point? The movie is so breathless and packed with jokes that, for my money, sometimes it forgets to tell a couple of them. (Here’s another example: there’s a late-game villain in the movie that you’d think would be prime meta-joke fodder, given this movie’s cast—look carefully. The opportunity is missed. Alas.)

Maybe that’s another issue—the movie has perhaps too many injokes and references for the layman. The original Lego Movie felt slightly more accessible and worldly. And honest-to-God funnier. Here’s what does work about the movie: Arnett’s wonderful gravelly work as Batman, who goes home from crime fighting every night to eat microwave lobster thermador, fiddle with his home theater and watch romcoms like Jerry Maguire, which he hollowly laughs at.

But the Bat faces his greatest challenge when Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, inspired) tells him maybe he needs to start making human connections again, for obvious reasons (this is one Batman movie at least that fails to show the Waynes being murdered in flashback, not like we need it). Soon Batman is reluctantly using the skills of his adopted son, Dick Grayson/Robin (Michael Cera, great) and coming into conflict with Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who if you know something about Batman, you know eventually becomes Batgirl. So there’s a strong throughline here of friends being the family that you make, which serves as a knowing antidote for a decade of brooding, angry loner Batman. Every so often we get the reinterpretation of Batman that is poignantly the one we need rather than the one we deserve, and if this movie serves as the opening salvo in repositioning the character into a gentler Batman (more akin to the 1960’s era) in the face of the new darkness in the real world, perhaps that’s a thing well worth celebrating.

The look of the film is, like its predecessor, delightful. All of those pieces constantly moving, rippling, transforming. It must have been heck to animate, and yet it all stays straight so that we’re not looking at chaos on the screen, even when things are busy. And the story, cluttered as it is, has an uncanny sense of evoking the freedom of kids at play. The director, Chris McKay (taking the reigns from Lego Movie-cum-Star Wars helmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) is a Robot Chicken veteran, which is pretty much exactly who you would want.

And some of the other voice work is on point—Galifinakis’ Joker is maybe a teensy bit too milquetoast for me, but Channing Tatum once again voicing Superman is wonderful, perfectly capturing his lunkheaded goodheartedness. And the movie’s overarching plot, about the importance of friendship, makes a nice smaller-set companion to The Lego Movie without duplicating its efforts. There’s a lot of great fun to be had in The Lego Batman Movie, but maybe it’s just because as a Bat-fan there’s a whiff of missed opportunity to some of its efforts, to me. Maybe someday a longer cut?