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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January 30, 2015

Son of a Gun

Ewan McGregor rediscovers his charisma as Australia’s most notorious armed robber in what’s probably his best movie since Moulin Rouge!

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Innocuous surfer dude JR (Brenton Thwaites) arrives in jail, where his flowing locks are transformed into a buzz-cut. A pretty boy like him has much to fear on the inside. His cellmate is raped every day by hard-man Dave (Sam Hutchin), and JR’s interest in famous prisoner Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) is frowned upon by Brendan’s protection detail Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). However, after JR reveals a flair for chess Brendan decides to take him under his wing. All he needs is a small favour once JR gets released in a few months… And so begins JR’s initiation into the dangerous world of the Russian mob led by Sam (Jacek Koman). A trip to arms dealer Wilson (Damon Herriman) and a visit from Sam’s much younger girlfriend Tasha (Alicia Vikander) later and JR’s part of a heist…

Son of a Gun is a hard-edged caper movie with a strong romantic undercurrent. Director Julius Avery makes his feature debut working from his own script, with a polish from Master & Commander scribe John Collee, and it’s bursting with confidence. The chemistry between Thwaites and Vikander is palpable from their first meeting and Nigel Bluck’s cinematography of their night-time drive in a fast car is positively swoon-worthy. McGregor’s movie career has never lived up to the promise of his first few features, but this is the first film he’s made in quite some time where he’s giving a damn fine performance in a damn fine movie. His Lynch is charming, but also ruthless at the flick of a switch; combining both in a deliriously jump-started interrogation scene where he doesn’t have the patience to properly torture someone for information.

In a strong ensemble Koman, Moulin Rouge!’s resident narcoleptic, also switches between businessman and thug, while Vikander’s moll is a no-nonsense creation, and Herriman’s arms dealer is as eccentric as you’d expect from Justified’s Dewey Crowe. The only wrong note is Tom Budge as Sam’s nephew Josh – a character scripted purely for structural reasons. When Sam insists that entitled brat Josh be part of the intricate gold heist you set your stop-watch to see how long till he screws it all up. That quibble, and a slightly over-extended finale, aside Avery’s movie rattles along with confidence. There are a number of excellently choreographed set-pieces; a prison break worthy of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a gloriously worked-out heist of a gold-mine, a terrific car-chase; while the romance between JR and Tasha and a number of double-crosses keep you engaged and second-guessing yourself.

Parker is the most recent Hollywood reference point for this popcorn mix of violence and romance, and McGregor’s sparkling turn outdoes fellow Brit The State’s criminal mastermind, while the romance is far better developed.

3.5/5

March 7, 2013

Parker

Jason Statham stretches his acting muscles again, but unlike last year’s  underwhelming Safe, Parker comes with a writer and director of  pretty high calibre attached.

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Statham is (you’ve guessed it) Parker, who we first meet disguised as a  priest to execute a heist at the Ohio State Fair. The disguise, amusingly  enough, isn’t entirely outrageous – as Parker reveals his inviolable ethical  code: “I only steal from those who can afford it, and I only hurt people who  deserve it.” Unfortunately his father-in-law Hurley (Nick Nolte) has lumbered  him with some unethical thieves (Michael Chiklis, Clifford Collins Jr, Wendell  Pierce) who leave Parker for dead on a roadside. Parker survives and tracks them  to Florida, where he uses struggling realtor Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) to pinpoint  their location, and, in an unlikely alliance, identify their next heist. But can  Parker focus on stealing the haul and killing his betrayers when Chicago mob  boss Danziger has unleashed an assassin to eliminate both Parker and his wife  (Emma Booth)?

This is based on the Parker novel Flash Fire by Richard Stark aka Donald  Westlake, which makes you wonder (given Point  Blank) if he only had one plot:  Parker, left for dead, survives, seeks revenge. It’s a good plot, and Black Swan and Carnivale scribe John McLaughlin renders it  the kind of entertaining crime popcorn Hollywood’s fallen out of doing. Unlike  the last Stark flick Payback the  plentiful violence here isn’t sadistic; indeed the scene you’ll wincingly  remember is stunningly masochistic. The State is notably endearing as he beats  people up, is nice to dogs, and delivers the immortal threat of an agonising  death by crushing a man’s trachea with a chair with the kicker – “Plus there’s  the posthumous humiliation of having been killed by a chair.” Indeed, like Ocean’s 11, when J-Lo makes her belated  entrance it’s slightly unnecessary.

Not to imply that J-Lo’s role,  comic relief with realistic tragic undertones, is redundant; but by that point  it is extra icing on the cake director Taylor Hackford has made. Hackford uses  Palm Beach locations wonderfully as Parker realises crime cannot flourish on an  island with drawbridges, and he stages a recriminating conversation between  Parker and Hurley as dramatically as the beach argument in Rampart. The many fights are brutal enough to  keep State fans happy, and the increasing paranoia of Chiklis’ gang-leader  Melander is well justified as Parker infiltrates his preparations for a massive  diamond heist. The ice is to be fenced by Danziger’s moronic nephew Hardwicke  (Micah Hauptman, who memorably cameoed as ‘Kripke’ in Ben Edlund’s meta-madness Supernatural episode), which is why a  terrifying assassin (Matrix Reloaded  Agent Daniel Bernhardt) is hunting Parker with brutally violent grim  efficiency.

Is Parker an avenging Angel of the Lord as suggested? He certainly seems  indestructible, albeit far from invulnerable, and Parker is another fun Statham franchise that  deserves further outings.

3/5

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