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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Knock Knock (***) – It was free pizza

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Knock Knock – 2015

Director Eli Roth
Starring Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allamand, Aaron Burns, Colleen Camp
Screenplay Guillermo Amoedo, Nicolás López, Eli Roth

If the story is familiar, it’s because we saw it before in 1977. Then it was Death Game, starring two of the film’s producers, Sandra Locke and Colleen Camp. Camp makes a cameo in the film as a therapist, too. One may be familiar with Camp, who played a police officer in many films, including two Police Academy films. It’s interesting, weird and kind of neat to see women of their age having anything to do with a modern film. Yes, I digress.

Reeves is Evan, a dedicated family man who is going to spend the weekend alone working while his wife is at the beach house with the kids. If you are thinking that any man in these conditions within a film remains dedicated through the end of the film, you’ve never watched Cinemax After Dark. This time not one, but two vixens (Izzo and de Armas) creep their way into his life late on the first night. Telling him a hard luck story, he falls for it and ends up opening a can of chaos into his life, and that of his wife and children.

What happens is pretty easy to guess, and there really are no surprises. The best one can expect from a story like this is execution in direction and acting. The opening act is monotonous. To give him a Spanish wife and then make one of the two minxes Hispanic is redundant. Reeves is wooden at first, but comes alive right about the time his morals take a dive. The women who invade his existence are entertaining enough to keep watching.

This is exploitation disguised as a morality tale. Roth isn’t even trying to fool us with any sort of curve. Everything introduced or mentioned in the first third of the film is used, disgusted or dead by the last third. Still, it’s not at all bad. It’s what one would want with moralistic horror film: no way out for the good guy, who isn’t that good.

The best part of the film takes place near the end, when Evan learns his fate. At this point, he’s more irritated than afraid, and he breaks into a speech with a logic that only a man could believe. If he’s somewhat right, he’s ultimately wrong: a helpless victim of his own lack of willpower. It’s the kind of moment that each married man says he would never find himself in, while secretly hoping he’s not ever given the chance.

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

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 *****)

The Man of Tai Chi is a real labor of love

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The Man of Tai Chi – 2013

Director Keanu Reeves
Starring Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Iko Uwais, Karen Mok, Simon Yam
Screenplay 
Michael G. Cooney

While filming The Matrix, Keanu Reeves met Tiger Chen for the first time as he taught him the martial arts.  While I am not an expert on the types and ways of the martial arts, it’s a pretty good bet that the style being taught was Tai Chi.  Since those times they’ve kept things pretty close.  His first attempt at direction is an attempt at explaining the essence of the art.

As a story, The Man of Tai Chi feels like an encyclopedia entry.  The acting is wooden all around, but don’t worry, Reeves lowers his level to not make the rest of cast feel out-of-place.  Even so, it still has a  fair amount of respect for the different arts of fighting.  I couldn’t tell you anything about them once the credits rolled, but these are stunt people and real fighters really fighting.  There’s not a lot of holding back.

The story is only a vehicle.  Donaka Mark (Reeves) runs a fighting ring.  He just got through offing one of his fighters who was becoming an informant.  He now has an opening.  Tiger Chen, a solitary student of Ling Kong Tai Chi style, wins a local tournament and catches Mark’s eye.  He survives an first “interview” and then falls into a trap set for him.  There is plenty of fighting, more bad acting and then a big final fight.  There is even a couple of “Finish Him” moments.

I can’t say if this is for you or not, but it treats the art of fighting with a certain passing respect.  For that, I am thankful.  Or not.

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

47 Ronin is not quite enough when you have too many F/X

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47 Ronin – 2013

Director Carl Rinsch
Starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kou Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Haneda, Hiroshi Sogabe, Neil Fingleton, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rinko Kikuchi, Yorick van Wageningen, Rick Genest
Writer Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini

The late Sam Kinison had a routine regarding Jim and Tammy Faye Baker’s take on Christianity in which he, as the voice of God, feigns a search through the pages of the Bible, saying aloud to himself “Where did I say build a waterslide?”  Movies based on legend often seem to have the same very loose connection to the source.  As they say in the beginning of the film, to know the story of the 47 Ronin, is to know the story of all Japan.  This story, put very simply, amounts to a grudge between two daimyo, where one (Kira), essentially, called the other (Naganori) “country,” and the insulted one took offense.  This lead to disgrace for afore-mentioned bumpkin, which lead to his honorable suicide and his samurai warriors becoming leaderless, also known as ronin.  The aggrieved warriors seek revenge, but whether they get it depends on one’s point of view.

Nowhere in this legend are there mentioned demon half-breeds, witches, ogres and antlered beasts with several rows of eyes.  There is no mention of the Tengu forest, for that matter, but without this, we wouldn’t have Keanu Reeves to kick around and, eventually save the day.  As Kai, a half-British, half-Japanese boy turned to humble man, it’s Reeve’s job to take crap from the good guys, until they are outsmarted by the bad guys, and then help the good guys redeem themselves.  The good Naganori’s daughter Mika takes a liking to Kai, but so does the Kira.

After insulting her honor in front of her father, Kira begs forgiveness and a chance to make up for this slight.  What he’s really asking for is time for his witch Mizuki to work in a plot to dishonor Naganori, which brings about the fateful chain of events.  Afterwords, the domain becomes Kira and the samurai become stained in disgrace.

This is where Oishi (Sanada), who was second in command for Naganori, moves up to second billing.  He endures a year of punishment literally being thrown into a well, and then he starts planning revenge.  Oishi is blinded when he needs to be, honorable always, and smart enough to realize that his name is not on the tip of the bill.  When the time comes, he picks up Kai, who is living as some sort of imprisoned gladiator, and collects all of his old ronin pals and they plot a revenge.

The first thing that drew me to this, the fifth filmed version of the story, was the prospect of seeing Reeves playing someone who, like himself, is half-white and half-Japanese.  Regardless of whether this was actually part of the story, someone trapped between two worlds would be an interesting vantage to say the least.  His performance is the same kind of  deer in the headlights one might expect at first.  When the year goes by and he spends the time honing his skills, he rejoins the domain with more confidence.  There is a genuine change in demeanor which is welcome.

Sanada was another draw for me.  I enjoyed him immensely for the short time period he was in Lost, and wished that his role could have been more substantial and less foolish there and in The Wolverine.  He must have the face of someone who finds out the truth a little too late, because it happens here, too.  He gets to spend the latter half of the film making good decisions, my favorite being the one he makes in the cave in the Tengu forest, which is reminiscent of Yoda’s challenge to Luke on Dagobah.

Shibasaki, as Mika, is given the story’s weakest role as, essentially, a damsel in distress.  Her helplessness is off-putting and somewhat annoying, given Reeves’ character’s obligation to be in love with her.  There is no chemistry there, and it is unsurprising.

The high points to the movie don’t involve effects.  Scenes where there is straight up fighting with no Harryhausen looking ogres, unreal beasts or mystical dragons are more comical than interesting.  In all this time since Terminator 2, it’s harder than ever to make the unreal seem real.  The best moments happen when it is tied to character development of some sort, to make up for the skill that is lacking.  This is Rinsch’s first feature film.  Although much of the budget was wasted on delays, reshoots and close-ups, it’s still hard to believe that they gave this much money to a first time director.  It may have been more successful had they concentrated more on story and less on the same crappy computer effects that we get in so many other films.

How much one likes this film will probably depend on what they expect from a film.  If you want storytelling, this one is half the way there.  If you want acting, it’s not quite that far.  If you want visual effects, you have them, however unnecessary and poorly drawn.  If you want to see Keanu Reeves, or, in my case, Sanada, this is the film for you.

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