John Wick 2 (****1/2): You’re always that guy…

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John Wick Chapter 2 – 2017

Director Chad Stahelski
Screenplay Derek Kolstad
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini

If it takes away your peace, it’s too expensive. That’s what some wise people say. Even wiser it is to take those taking away your peace with a head-shot or 70. This time they missed the dog with the grenade. But they took out pretty much the whole rest of the house.  And all those pictures of him and his not as recently deceased wife.  And he’d just buried his guns under concrete again…

The most powerful thing about John Wick the character is that he is actually quite convincing as a world-weary and just plain beaten down warrior. Sure, he’s always being brought back for “one more job” but he’s going to be shot, beaten and stabbed along the way, sometimes in the middle of a concert.  And he doesn’t miss. My word does he make sure he hits the target over and over. He is hit enough himself, but bullets that hit his vest just add to the extreme agony. They don’t take away his fire to survive, but they can very much affect his fighting style.

The job brings him to Rome this time, where he has to kill literally dozens of people just to take down one target. Then he gets into a prolonged fight or two. Reeves has been at this game a long time. Seeing him hit by cars, thrown down stars and through windows is remarkable. His dedication to realism is astounding. He is not a young man, but he doesn’t fight like an old one. Just one worn down by experience. He deserves an Oscar nomination for the most believable action star in the last decade…or two.

Meanwhile the bodies pile up. And up. And up.  It’s the highest one man death count I have seen outside of A Better Tomorrow II. The director Stahelski has a remarkable dedication to the art of action. He is growing by leaps and bounds as the trajectory between this film and the last will attest. The confidence is shows in one beautiful set up after another. Every scene is meticulously choreographed, advancing the very basic story as if it were way more complex than it really is. Take away this expertise and this is any of the Liam Neeson films of his recent heyday. Not exactly a put down, to be sure, but you know what I mean.

The last act of the film has an incredible premise that starts with 7 bullets and is as much a puzzling quest for more as it is a hunt for “vengeance.” The ferocity of the jujitsu employed is an agonized symmetry in which everyone’s body weight is carefully applied to make each fight believable.

What is this world of ancient coins and hit men and women waiting on every corner? It the same bullshit we’ve seen for years. There is no secret to this secret society. The key to the whole thing is feeling like Reeves himself believes. And you can see each scratch, cut and gut shot. That says nothing about what you see when you look in his tired, but still resolved eyes. It’s a younger version of what one sees when they look in the eyes of McShane.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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John Wick (***1/2): I’m thinking you don’t kill the dog

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John Wick – 2014

Director Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Starring Keanu Reeves,Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe
Screenplay Derek Kolstad

John Wick (Reeves) is a retired hitman / tough guy for the Russian Mob. He got out and nobody really wanted him back in. The Mob Boss’s Son, who amazingly had no clue who he was, makes the mistake of coveting his ’69 Mustang at the cost of his puppy Daisy. Thing is, this puppy was given to him by his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). So this puppy, Daisy, is kind of important. They killed the wrong puppy. So let the ass kicking begin.

This is really all the plot that is need to excuse an hour and a half of carefully choreographed carnage. Wick’s grief is carefully hidden in the wooden countenance of Reeves’ face, expressed only in swift moves and hailing gunfire. That there is nothing going in the character department is of no consequence. Clint Eastwood made a career of these types of films in Western form. The movement is fluid and the bad guys die painfully.

There is plenty of acting talent to go around in this one. Nyqvist has been a staple since The original Dragon Tattoo trilogy. His work here, is a shadow of that classic, not even comparing to his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol efforts. He does what he can with a “what ya gonna do” shrug and marches through to the inevitable conclusion. It’s a bummer when one realizes that no matter who is playing the bad guy, they aren’t going to make it.

Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, is a decent bag of slime. It says something when John Leguizamo won’t touch your stolen goods. Johnny’s looking quite dapper these days, even if he isn’t mid-card level. Willem DaFoe waits in the wings, a seemingly ambiguous hired gun. Ian McShane is an equally mysterious ombudsman of dark side ethics. Dean Winters, mayhem himself, doesn’t register as the bad guy #2.

Really though, none of these actors are given much to do, plot wise. They sit around and stew over the bad decisions of one and then, of course, compound that bad decision while waiting for the town to be painted red.

As the one applying the color, Reeves is a willing vessel. This movie is not intended to win any awards. He needs to live up to the heaping of praise by the characters who know of him expressed to those who are unaware of his talents. To that end, at about the 1/2 mark, they send the first wave of bodies his way to be slaughtered.

How people keep breaking into his house, I have not a clue. Perhaps it was the producers idea. He does not wast bullets, and he does not take chances. His moves, fancy as they seem, are more effective than Steven Segal in his prime. If this acting gig does not work out, maybe he too can pass secrets to MMA fighters. I get the feeling he’s going to be fine, though, if he keeps peppering his track record with sturdy fare like this. He should outlast Neeson by 20 years.

The film has class and it is fun. If one can get past Wick’s mounting injuries and seemingly endless capacity for recovery, it’s delightful to see him order dinner for 12. There is lots of nuance here. Plenty of rules. As long as the toughs stay within their rules, all is fair.

Just don’t kill the dog.

***1/2 (out of *****)

Jack the Giant Slayer another fairy tale with automatic weapons

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Jack The Giant Slayer – 2013

Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, John Kassir, Ewan Bremner, Ralph Brown
Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney

Why is Bryan Singer directing a movie about a fairy tale?  Really.  The Usual Suspects. X-Men.  Valkyrie.  Now, a fairy tale.  Of course, it’s easy to forget Superman Returns.  Everyone else seems to have forgotten it.  Supposedly, this movie’s idea was proposed before the recent spate of  effects laden fairy tale films including Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, and Mirror Mirror.  All of these films, except for Snow White were bad.  This one has certain things going for it: Hoult, McShane, McGregor.  There’s one thing definitely not in its favor: Stanley Tucci as Stanley Tucci.  Another problem, quite obviously, is the fact that the giants look goofier than Harryhausen special effects.

Yes, there aree giants.  Plural.  There are a bunch of them.  Named, among other things, Fe, Fi, Fo and Fum.  This is not the only departure from the original tale, but as usual, most of them are in the spirit of expanding the tale.  Not for the sake of story.  Just the chance for extensive special effects.  The good news, however is that some of the giants interact like genuine characters.  I give credit to Bill Nighy, who, along with John Kassir plays the two-headed King Fallon.  One wishes that we had, perhaps, a Helen Mirren giant to go along with him.

What we get this time is a fairy tale within the fairy tale about the ancient King Eric, who saved the kingdom from giants before.  His bloodline survives, along with the tale, which eventually becomes so old it is no longer considered real.  This is an important lesson for the viewer, allowing the story tellers to preset the possibility of a reality to the tale known as Jack and the Beanstalk.  Whatever.  We really just know we can expect explosions, arrows, fire and death.

There always has to be some sort of automatic crossbow in these faux tales, and here is no exception.  At least this time we have the pleasure of seeing it stopped by a sling shot that shoots more than peas.  There are many inventive and somewhat unexpected deaths in the films.  Some folks you thought would stick around until the annoying end are offed in the first hour.  This makes the film more daring than most of its kind, and the benefit almost overcomes the lack of a real conclusive battle.

Hoult is excellent as the unexpected hero.  He has a real humble and honest charm that makes him a common day hero.  McGregor has an electric smile, and he puts it to good use here, along with the requisite blue screen skills he acquired in the 3 bad Star Wars films.  Ian McShane can be my king anytime.  Or my saloon owner.  It’s a joy to see him think things through.  It’s good to see Ralph Brown, of “85” fame from Alien3.  He is also in Stoker.   He’s a presence that adds a quiet, wonderful dimension to most films he is in.

Of the rest of cast, there is not much to say.  Just a bunch of (human) faces and (giant) voices.  It would have been nice to know the motives of the giants, or to find out some of their history.  Alas, it was not to be.  Oh, well.  They haven’t done 3 Little Pigs yet.  One wonders how they will fit the machine gun crossbow in there.

(*** out of *****)

Snow White and The Huntsman: Bread is definitely not meat

Snow White and the Huntsman – 2012

Director Rupert Sanders
Starring Charleze Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Clafin, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Brian Gleeson,Johnny Harris
Screenplay Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Ameni

Julia Roberts probably wanted to fire her agent after watching Snow White and The Huntsman.  Surely if you asked her, she would say that she made the film “for the kids,” but there comes a point where you’ve got to tell the kids they’ve got something to look forward to when they grow up.  This is a film that lives up to the Grimm name.

Theron was made for this throne

In this version of the tale, the Queen is a truly terrifying piece of work: a combination of evil, magic and insanity.  How she takes over the kingdom is clever.  Why she lets the King’s daughter lived is, well, because without her there is no story.  Theron’s performance is worth the price of admission, as her character is truly beautifully terrifying, unique and powerful.  She hasn’t been so powerful in a film since Monster.

The Huntsman is an entertaining character, both as written and performed.  Hemsworth has become a reliable stud character actor, adding just enough character to be somewhat entertaining, but not so much as to be overdone.  The power of his presence was clear in what could have been considered a throwaway role in the Star Trek reboot.

Hemsworth’s counterpart, William, Duke of Hammond, as played by Claflin has the appeal of any of the myriad young actors that played opposite The Duke, John Wayne in all of his big studio productions,  This is to say that he is young, handsome and somewhat vacant.  I am not sure the role demanded much more than that, but it sure couldn’t have hurt.

The Dwarves are remarkable and original, if only because of the quality of actors that they hired to play them.  McShane, Hoskins, Frost, Jones and Winstone are some of the best character actors going today.  Sanders was wise enough to let the actors insert their own personalities into the characters.  This allowed them to seem more valiant, resourceful and complete characters.

A power that feeds and feeds upon…

Queen Ravenna’s brother and enforcer is an original character, creepily inhabited by Spruell.  His menace mixed with helplessness merges him chained with his sister.  They both are victims to the spell that makes them powerful and subjugates them to a never-ending quest for lives feed on.  One wishes that they could have found a way to give him even more screen time, as the film seems lacking when he is not present.

The character that needs the most development in the story has, unfortunately, the least realized.  Snow White is celebrated into the holder of life in this tale.  From she all beautiful things abound.  Wordlessness, at times is a benefit to this concept.  Silence with the perpetual half-scowl that Stewart emits works better for the femme fatale role of Bella, from the Twilight films, and not as much for the source of light in this dark tale.  Granted, she seems to know her way around an action scene and seeing her in medieval armor does not seem out-of-place.  By the end, though, she gives a few pained facial expressions come across as odd.  In essence, we still have no clue who she really is.

Sanders definitely knows his way around a lens.  There are few scenes in the film which are not filled with some kind of beauty: sad, dark or vibrantly alive.  The action is crisp, if illogical at times (like the “now she’s lost them-now she hasn’t” escape).  The vision he has of this world is fantastic in both darkness and light.  The pace is consistent and keeps within arms length of the original tale while providing mind-blowing effects that are part of the story instead of being a “look what I can do.”

Snow White and The Huntsman is a worthy reimagining of a tale that has grown somewhat stale.  There was a sequel in the works that is in development hell due to poor personal choices.  If it remains a single movie, the film stands on its own merit.

(**** out of *****)