John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a 2017 American neo-noir action film written and directed by Chad Stahelski. It is a sequel to the 2014 sleeper hit John WickChapter 2 sees Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, and Thomas Sadoski reprising their roles from the previous film. Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, and Common are introduced as the film’s major antagonists. Picking up where the first film left off, after dispatching several men in particularly brutal and awesome fashion and retrieving his beloved 1969 Boss 429 that was stolen in the previous film, John “The Boogeyman” Wick returns to his retirement. He is approached by an old associate, who calls in a “marker” on John. A marker is a blood oath one makes to another in return for a favor. As it turns out, Santino D’Antonio assisted Wick with the “impossible task” which let our protagonist leave the shadowy world of assassination. D’Antonio, son of a crime lord who had a seat at the mysterious High Table, wants Wick to kill his sister, who was willed her father’s seat after his death. Wick reluctantly accepts the conditions of the marker, leading to an action-packed thrill ride across Rome and New York.

I feel I can say this without exaggeration: John Wick: Chapter 2 is a perfect sequel. Chapter 2 takes everything great about the previous film and doubles down. It is the most satisfying action movie I have seen since the original. The original John Wick relied on a purposefully barebones plot of revenge for puppy-murder to set up a fully-realized world and showcase some truly epic action sequences. John Wick did something that a lot of action movies fail to do, and that is world-building, like I mentioned before. The original film established that a secret shadow society exists, a world of assassins, made up of assassins. They apparently have The Continental, a five-star hotel and safe haven for assassins that operates on unique currency and gold coins. This shadow society has a complex ecosystem and a set of rules and regulations that cannot be broken. Every character has a fully-realized and fleshed-out backstory that is not fully divulged to the audience on purpose, in order to add a sense of mystique to this already mysterious world. That is where the real magic is. On top of the amazing action sequences, you become invested in this complex society you know very little about, and that is the coolest part of these films. Chapter 2 manages to greatly expand the scope of this shadow world while continuing to divulge very little, leaving you captivated. It’s a Wonderland of Death, and it is awesome.

The action sequences in Chapter 2 make those of its predecessor look unimpressive in comparison. I say that knowing full-well that the original gave us this…

Chapter 2‘s opening sequence, in which John lays siege to a chop shop to retrieve his beloved muscle car, gives the club scene a run for its money, and there is a full ten-minute sequence that begins at a party in Rome, moves to the catacombs, and culminates with a hand-to-hand battle with Common’s character in the streets that is quite simply, the most intricate and engrossing action set piece I have ever seen.

In case you were curious as to why the fight scenes in both films are so engrossing and satisfying, allow me to explain them from a technical aspect. The original John Wick was a two-man directorial effort by legendary stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Both men were the masterminds behind the action sequences in The Matrix. For their first big project in which they were in charge, they took from many diverse inspirations that included other films, as well as anime and video games. They also needed someone who is capable of performing stunts with an unbelievable amount of physicality. Keanu Reeves is the perfect man for that job.

Usually, in films like Taken, The Bourne Identity, or RED, the main actors are too old/it’s too complicated to perform their own stunts, so they have to use a stunt double. In order to keep the audience’s suspension of disbelief intact, they have to trick your brain/hide the fact that guy isn’t really Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Matt Damon. They do this by using a technique called shaky cam, which is exactly like it sounds. They also use a lot of quick cuts every second to disorient you, which leads to stuff that looks like this:

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This is how shaky cam/cutting can still be effective in an action sequence
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This is shaky cam at it’s absolute worst…

With films like John Wick and its sequel, which don’t need to disorient and confuse their audience (because Keanu Reeves is simply a top-tier specimen of a man), you get something marvelous: stabilized, coherent, smooth sequences of action with minimal cuts and maximum awesomeness.giphy

Since the movie came out on Friday, I could not find a good GIF showcasing the sheer awesomeness that is Chapter 2, but trust me when I tell you that it is breathtaking. There is a scene (a part of the sequence in Rome that I mentioned earlier) where Wick gets into a brutal street fight with Common’s character, in which they continually toss themselves down three flights of stairs. Common ends up on the ground, with John still standing attempting to shoot him, but Common uses Wick’s body to spin around and doge the bullets. I know that makes no sense and I’ve only seen the film once and my description is probably inaccurate, but something with spins and bullets happens. It’s glorious. Everything is awesome.

Needless to say, the cinematography is very much on point; the acting in the film is also excellent. The John Wick series itself is an exceedingly self-aware throwback to hamtastic action flicks like Roadhouse and Commando, in terms of plot. Keanu Reeves is a decent actor with very little range. This means he is the perfect actor of this generation to pull off cheesy one-liners a la Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator and actually make it work.

I am well aware that I continue to use footage from John Wick in my review of Chapter 2. This is due to the lack of public footage of the recently released sequel, but this is not detrimental to my review of the sequel, because like any great sequel, it takes the familiarity of the previous work and adds a fresh new twist on it; Chapter 2 is a seamless continuation of the original, and just takes everything and makes it better. It entirely avoids the pitfalls of simply “being more of the same” and instead builds upon the original with a ton of new stuff. It is a great sequel, as well as simply a great film by itself that completely avoids using the original as a crutch in any way.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is an awesome movie and a perfect sequel, again maintaining a perfect balance of self-aware cheese and bone-crunching brutality. It drops you into a world with so many mysteries and institutions you can’t help but be a little bit curious how things go. Even my mother, who is not a big fan of action movies, seems to be genuinely interested in seeing how things play out in the next installment. (Trust me, there will be a next installment.) Yes, I feel like the action is the main draw here, but even if you could care less, you will find something captivating about Chapter 2, even if you didn’t care for the original at all. Universality of enjoyment is the mark of a truly great film. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a truly great film, and you should go see it.

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The Wire: The Complete Series (Season 1)

The Wire is a HBO original television series that was broadcast from June 2nd, 2002 to March 9th, 2008. The Wire was created by David Simon. David Simon is an extremely dedicated and talented journalist who has authored several non-fiction crime novels in addition to producing, creating, and writing television series. Simon worked as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun from 1982 to 1995. He took a leave of absence in late 1987 after a change in ownership at The Sun caused his work “not to be fun anymore.” Simon had persuaded the Baltimore Police Department to grant him unlimited access to the Department’s Homicide Unit for the entire calendar year of 1988, during which time he shadowed detectives and observed their procedures and noted the unusual, sometimes absurd and unusual cases they investigated. Simon published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets in 1991. It won acclaim and notoriety upon its release, and was the basis for the critically acclaimed procedural drama Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999. Simon served as executive producer and writer on the series, with several characters being closely based on real law enforcement personnel. Homicide, unlike other police procedurals, was known for portraying realistic detective work and Baltimore street life. This came in very handy when Simon pitched The Wire to HBO following the end of Homicide. Over its five season run, The Wire received obscene amounts of critical acclaim from viewers and critics, with many noting the series’ realistic, uncompromising, cynical, yet sympathetic depiction of not only law enforcement but the criminal element as well, portraying urban street life with the same commitment to realism found in all other areas of the show. The series is also known for dealing with heavy themes such as the institutional failings of the corrupt and sometimes gleefully inept city government, the effects of the drug trade on the city at large as well as on an individual and personal level, and police surveillance, hence the title. The Wire, in addition to its unending commitment to realism, is also known for including very cutting, topical, cerebral, poetic, even sometimes humorous dialogue, and is a very well-written series in that aspect, as well. To this day, The Wire is considered by many to be the greatest TV show of all time. AMC’s Breaking Bad was once comically referred to as “the show that finally got TV snobs to shut up about The Wire.”

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Season 1 follows series protagonist, Baltimore Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by English actor Dominic West. McNulty is a naturally gifted, intelligent, and talented detective with a multitude of personal and professional issues. He is extremely insubordinate, immature, has a drinking problem, and a major superiority complex. McNulty witnesses an open and shut case against D’Angelo Barksdale fall apart at the seams thanks to the very subtle influence of Stringer Bell, played by the now-famous Idris Elba. McNulty complains to the presiding Judge Phelan, a former prosecutor and friend of McNulty’s. McNulty explains that Avon Barksdale, D’Angelo’s uncle, is a major player in the Baltimore drug trade, has been operating for more than a year, has complete control of the Westside Terrace buildings in the Projects, and has been linked to more than a dozen murders. Despite this power and notoriety on the street, neither the Baltimore Police Department or any federal agencies have anything of note on the Barksdale Organization. Phelan lights a fire under the PD, causing major embarrassment for the Deputy Ops and other high-ranking officials. McNulty’s strict, vindictive, and angry unit commander Major Rawls, played by John Doman, grows to despise McNulty for causing this embarrassment and insubordination, and wants nothing more than to ruin our protagonist’s career.

In a move meant only to appease the judge, a special detail is formed to investigate the Barksdale Organization. Led by Lieutenant Cedric Daniels from Narcotics, the detail is composed of dead wood: two lazy drunken detectives nearing retirement, an incompetent detective from traffic, a laconic man from the Pawnshop Unit, McNulty, and another detective from Rawls’ Unit. The only saving graces are McNulty and three detectives from Daniels’ unit: Kima Greggs, “Herc,” and Ellis Carver. Stationed in the basement of the precinct, these men attempt to build a case against drug kingpin Avon Barksdale… a case that no one really cares about and which ends up causing political and social turmoil for the City of Baltimore.

The case hits major roadblocks and controversy, not the least of which is caused by drunken “field interviews” conducted by Herc, Carver, and Prez at 2AM.

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Season 1 deals with the themes of police corruption and brutality very heavily, as you can see. As I see it, these scenes involving their “field interviews” do not paint Herc, Carver, or Daniels in a bad light for their actions. I should say, it doesn’t paint them as evil or inherently bad, though Prez is an idiot, that’s a given. In keeping with the realistic nature of the series, The Wire doesn’t view police brutality through any sort of biased lens, and more as just a regrettable thing that happens when cops do stupid stuff. There’s no secret cabal or extensive cover-up, Daniels doesn’t have Prez murdered because he’s worried he’ll screw up with IID. The Wire feels almost journalistic, in a sense; like I mentioned before, it is unbiased yet uncompromising. Granted, the show was the creation of a very talented investigative writer, so that makes sense.

The Wire paints cops as fallible human beings, with personal problems but an important job to do. There’s a lot of empathy in the series for McNulty, Daniels, and Kima. The series treats the other side of the coin in very much the same way. D’Angelo Barksdale, believe it or not, might be one of the most likeable characters on The Wire. Most TV shows treat their antagonists as wholeheartedly evil. There’s nothing wrong with that, and for most shows, it works out well. The Wire is not that type of show, though. D’Angelo, known by “D,” is a smart, cunning, emotional man who doesn’t really have the stomach for violence. He really isn’t big on the whole drug thing, either, as he later figures out. D, in my eyes, is a man who was born into the street life and, at first, accepts it wholeheartedly. As things start to get more and more hairy, though, he realizes he might want out. Nobody who knows how to play chess should be working the street corner like a low-rent banger.

The Wire received immense praise for this scene, and is, in fact, the reason The Wire’s first season won several awards. On the surface, it’s just a scene explaining chess to a bunch of street kids, but it’s actually a lot more than that upon further analysis. Peter Honig, a high school film teacher and The Wire fanatic, explains:

The chess lesson from “The Buys” has become one of The Wire’s most iconic scenes. It is a brilliantly-scripted and -acted scene, one that actually serves as a double metaphor. D’Angelo uses the familiar world of the drug hierarchy to explain an alien and complex game to Bodie and Wallace. At the same time, Simon and Burns use this scene to explain the (presumably) alien drug game to their audience using the (presumably) familiar rules of chess. Call it a meta-metaphor.

If you have HBO, let’s face it, you ain’t street, “street” is an alien concept to you. The audience needs to become acclimated to this foreign environment, and Simon and Company do that very well.

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In addition to being a rather flawlessly written show, The Wire also has remarkable acting talent. When casting, big, household names were purposefully avoided to preserve the show’s realistic feel; big, well-known talent increases the audience’s need for suspension of disbelief. The casting is great here, with Lance Reddick’s Lieutenant Daniels being my favorite law enforcement member of the show. He has gone on to make somewhat of a name for himself playing mysterious, authoritative characters on other television series, though his talent as a leading man since the end of The Wire has been wasted, in my opinion. Idris Elba, now a household name after achieving notoriety with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the very good BBC crime drama Luther, and the controversy surrounding his completely hypothetical and imaginary casting as James Bond, is an amazing actor here in his role as the criminal genius Stringer Bell, and I am surprised his breakout into the mainstream didn’t occur until years after The Wire. Dominic West is great, and I was delighted to see him and Elba team up again for one of the most underrated roles in Finding Dory, playing a pair of laid-back, territorial sea otters. As I said before, D’Angelo Barksdale is the most empathetic drug dealer I have ever seen portrayed, played with amazing skill by Larry Gillard Jr. Notably, The Wire features future Creed star Michael B. Jordan as Wallace, an intelligent 13-year-old street kid and low-level member of the Barksdale Organization. Truthfully, all the acting in The Wire is excellent, and continuing on this subject would just be needlessly tedious, with me listing off every main cast member and telling you how good they are. So let’s just skip that, say they’re all great (they are) and move on. The Wire also features some good cinematography, as well. The Wire was remastered in HD relatively recently. The decision to remaster this classic in glorious 16:9 and Full HD is what spurred my interest in my binge-watch of this series.

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Throughout this long and extensive review, I have done nothing but praise the first season of The Wire. I stand by all that praise, but this show is not for everyone. This is a hard concept to explain, but in keeping with the realism, there aren’t a lot of bombshells, twists, or assorted craziness. It is the diametric opposite of 24, which premiered around the same time, a high adrenaline show full of mind-blowing twists and great action (for the first five seasons, anyway). As someone who has a poster of Jack Bauer hung up behind him as he is writing a review of The Wire, I will say I love both, but the reasons I do could not be any more different. 24 is like my sweets addiction. You say you just need one, and a second after you say that to yourself, only the hollow bag of Hershey’s Bliss remains. The Wire is lobster. You have to savor it, to understand that it’s a Hell of a lot more expensive than Bliss. 24 is a show that invests itself in you, it hooks you in. The Wire is a show you have to invest yourself in. The Wire is a deliberately paced, realistic, painstakingly researched, accurate portrayal of not only law enforcement and the internal politics thereof, but of street life, as well. It is character-based and very dialogue-heavy, with little of what one would call “action.” If you can get into it, it is an excellent show. I first watched the first season of The Wire while on vacation at my aunt and uncle’s up in Wisconsin my Freshman Year of high school. It was a fishing vacation, and I rather despise fishing. Someone loaned my Aunt Martha Season 1 and 2 of The Wire on DVD. Anything’s better than fishing, and I was aware of The Wire‘s high status, so I figured I’d give it a shot. 14-year-old me rather enjoyed it. Martha and I were both surprised at that. “You like The Wire, Aaron?” “Yeah,  I know.” Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact The Wire was my only good option and it meant I could watch something from HBO (we all know what that means), I probably wouldn’t have invested myself into it as much as I did. It is rather slow, but purposefully slow; it is not a detriment to the show. The Wire is a great show for a lot of reasons, but it is understandable if you can’t get into it. My Mom turned it off after twenty minutes after I loosely recommended she try it after she asked for recommendations. It isn’t for everyone. I would, however, recommend everyone give it a fair shot and watch the show with intent to watch and invest up until the end of Episode 3. The Wire shows an extremely complex, well-written, dour, well-fleshed out, and entirely realistic side to law enforcement investigations and their criminal adversaries. If you do find yourself liking The Wire, be prepared to be treated to one of the most interesting, well-made series ever put to television.