Talking Movies

April 10, 2015

John Wick

 

Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a retired hit-man who finds himself drawn into conflict with his former employer after a senseless act of random violence.

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Wick is grieving for the death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), the woman for whom he turned his back on his lethal profession. After the funeral he receives an unexpected final gift from Helen, an adorable puppy to keep him company in their spacious New Jersey home. And Wick keeps his grief together; until a random encounter with Iosef (Alfie Allen) leads to the theft of his beloved 68 Mustang and the murder of his dog. Iosef has no idea why his father, Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), is so upset about his extracurricular activities, until he’s told that Wick used to be Viggo’s go-to assassin… After a botched attempt to resolve things Wick arrives in NYC, checking in at hit-man central, The Continental, to prepare to exact vengeance. And before you can say RAMPAGE! things escalate.

Don’t call it a comeback! Okay, maybe call it a comeback. 47 Ronin wasn’t truly released, it escaped, so this is the first Keanu movie to properly hit Irish screens since The Private Lives of Pippa Lee in 2009, and it puts him really properly back in the game. Reuniting with his Matrix stunt team was an inspired move, as co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make a terrific debut with this lean, mean action flick. Their DP Jonathan Sela has made terrible films look glossy so it must be a relief to lend a washed-out colour palette and slick visuals to a good film, while writer Derek Kolstad ups his game substantially from his resume of Dolph Lundgren vehicles. There’s even a redemptive cameo from Matrix Reloaded watchmaker Randall Duk Kim as a doctor patching up wounded John Wick.

And as well as Kim, Reloaded agent Daniel Bernhardt appears, and finally gets to fight Neo; although neither of their two punishing clashes reaches the brutal heights of his Parker tangle with the State. Kim is the in-house doctor of the Continental, where Lance Reddick is the attentive concierge and Ian McShane the civilised owner. The Continental is straight out of The Man from UNCLE, like many moments in this movie (such as Thomas Sadoski’s cameo) where delirious silliness is played perfectly straight. These hit-men, from Marcus (Willem Dafoe), to Harry (Clarke Peters), to Ms Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), are all remarkably civilised; Wick in particular seems universally beloved as a stand-up guy. Viggo amusingly seems to lose his mind from stress as the movie proceeds, powered by rumbling, aggressive music from Tyler Bates and (in another Matrix nod) Marilyn Manson.

John Wick is a total fantasy action flick, with self-referential nods to Keanu’s past, deliriously silly conceits, headshots as continuous as a computer game, and judo that’s a joy to watch in properly edited and framed sequences. But it’s almost shocking what a relief it is to see such competence after the likes of Captain America 2. The early scenes of Wick grieving are conveyed with a montage of telling images. Staggeringly this seems super-cinematic, like some rediscovery of Eisenstein, because we’ve reached a nadir of clunky-as-you-like-it exposition. The shot of Wick with sympathisers in his house after the funeral, followed by a shot of how he’s alone in the house after they leave, is a perfect communication in a few seconds of a lived reality that many films these days would agonise over with three pages of redundant dialogue.

It would be churlish not to award John Wick 5 stars if Birdman received 5; because, while Birdman has a flaw (in the shape of Lindsay Duncan’s caricatured critic) that does not matter, there are no flaws in the execution of John Wick’s ambitions.

5/5

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August 13, 2014

The Expendables 3

Sylvester Stallone and his band of arthritic action heroes return for a surprisingly decent third instalment in this underwhelming franchise.

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Barney Ross (Stallone) and his mercenary crew; Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews; use a helicopter to rescue long-imprisoned Expendable Doc (Wesley Snipes) from a prison train. Their CIA contact Drummer (Harrison Ford) then dispatches the team to Somalia to capture an arms-dealer, but faulty intelligence fails to identify the target as another former Expendable: the extremely dangerous Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). A broken Stallone recruits a new, much younger team – a tech specialist; Thorn (Glen Powell); some muscle; Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey); and a tactician Smilee (Kellan Lutz). They go up against Stonebanks in Eastern Europe with a foolproof plan. And then a shattered Stallone recruits demented Spaniard Galgo (Antonio Banderas) for another go round at Stonebanks… At this rate he may well need Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Yin (Jet Li) to selflessly help him out.

The Expendables franchise isn’t nearly as funny and knowing as it thinks it is. Its idea of meta-comedy is for actors to make obvious references to their lives and quote past roles without any jokes attached. Indeed its funniest meta-moments are unintentional, the obvious cutaways and wide-angles disguising creaking bones in fight scenes. As a PG-13 movie the CGI blood that bedevilled the last movie is mercifully absent, but instead we have the hilarity of people not being bisected by a steel wire on a fast-moving train in the opening sequence; whose cartoonish climax flags a problem for the whole film – outrageously bad CGI. If, per Nolan and Pfister, cinema is about capturing live-action on film, it makes no sense at all for an action film to stage an elaborate live-action build-up only for the pay-off to be a screensaver.

The outsize cast barely fits on the poster, so predictably most make no impression whatsoever; except MMA fighter Ronda Rousey whose face registers amusement or annoyance – and nothing else… Stallone’s screenplay has been worked over by Olympus Has Fallen scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, but they only manage to make Banderas a live-action Puss in Boots while failing to deliver any good quips. Kelsey Grammer as a fixer gives the impression of ad-libbing the funniest moments of his ‘putting the heist together’ scenes, as does Gibson whose charisma veritably leaps off the screen in this company. There is a quantum leap in directorial competence as Patrick Hughes (the brutal and atmospheric Red Hill) showily stages the extraction at an art gallery with some panache, but even he can’t save the over-extended warzone finale and its ludicrously motivated boss fight.

The Expendables 3 isn’t a genuinely good movie, but as the best instalment so far it legitimately makes this question seriously tantalising – what could this franchise be with Robert Rodriguez or Roland Emmerich onboard?

2.5/5

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