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Posts Tagged ‘Chad Stahelski’

The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

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I occasionally talk about what I call a ‘Good Bad Movie’ and I suppose what I mean by this is that it’s a good example of a film from one of those genres which never normally win the Best Picture Oscar (not all genres being created equal, after all: musicals, westerns, and based-on-true-events films are somehow respectable in a way that horror movies, kung fu pictures, and fantasy films normally aren’t). Now this isn’t an absolute division, of course, because sometimes you can have genuinely good films from often-dubious genres (The Matrix being the obvious example of a great film which manages to be both science fiction and a martial arts action film). But on the whole it’s a reasonable working assumption.

I suppose it’s quite appropriate that I just mentioned The Matrix, for the film currently under consideration isn’t a million miles away from the Wachowskis’ magnum opus, one way or another. I refer, of course, to Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, which is, if anything, an Absolutely Outstanding Bad Movie, but still in no danger whatsoever of being mistaken for a Good Movie. It is, as they frequently say, a funny old world.

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Keanu Reeves returns as the eponymous dapper apocalypse Jonathan Wick (we already wondered why the film isn’t called Jon Wick the first time around). As the film gets underway, our hero is finishing up some outstanding business from the original film, namely retrieving his car which is still in the possession of the Russian Mafia. The sheer quantity of property damage involved, not to mention the eventual repair bill on the car, or indeed the enormous body count Wick racks up, might lead one to surmise it would be easier to just buy a new car. But this is not Wick’s style, for he is a man of fierce integrity, not to mention a short fuse. (The publicity for this film ploughs on with not-quite-there taglines like ‘John Wick goes off’ and ‘John Wick: don’t set him off’. Guys, your tagline is ‘John Wick: he’s got a short fuse’. Trust me on this.)

Well, anyway, car retrieved, Wick retires to his lovely home with his faithful hound, intent on getting on with his everyday life as a grief-stricken ex-hitman. Needless to say this is not to be, as who should turn up on his doorstep but ambitious underworld leader Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who Wick owes a favour. Since Wick’s back on the scene, D’Antonio wants him to do one last job, involving an assassination in Rome that will have a huge impact on the global underworld. (Needless to say, upon Wick’s arrival in Rome, a vaguely nervous-looking acquaintance enquires if he’s in town to bump off the Pope.)

Needless to say there are twists, turns, and double-crosses aplenty, and before too long all men’s hands are turned against our taciturn anti-hero (not to mention the hands of quite a few women, too). Can Wick get out of this latest predicament in one piece? And can he do so without breaching any of the rather arcane regulations of his curious fraternity?

The central paradox, or perhaps joke, of the John Wick series persists, which is that these are films about a man frequently driven by enormous passions, but portrayed by an actor not exactly noted for the breadth and subtlety of his emotional range. But, in an odd way, Keanu’s performance is by no means problematic, and it’s actually very hard to imagine anyone else being quite as good as he is here. Because he is good: this film is utterly absurd, and it would be a terrible mistake to approach it as a genuine drama. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to start winking too openly at the camera. Reeves finds the middle ground that makes the film work, and so do most of the other major performers – Ian McShane comes back from the first one, and turning up for a fruity cameo is Laurence Fishburne.

If you were so minded, you could spend a whole evening picking holes in the plot of John Wick: Chapter 2, and pointing out the various ways that the story is actually quite silly. Certainly bits of it are slightly hackneyed or repetitive – you may recall that in the first film Wick’s car was nicked and his puppy executed; well, this time around someone blows up his house. No doubt in the third film he will be sent off on another rampage of bloody slaughter after someone hacks his Facebook account or something. The world of the film, with a Hitman Hilton in every major city, and every criminal figure beholden to the same set of unbreakable arcane regulations, bears very little relation to reality, either.

All of this basically misses the point – which is that this is an action film, and all the rest of it exists to bridge and facilitate the action sequences which are the heart of the film. The connective material is arch and knowing enough to be fun – Peter Serafinowicz turns up as the world’s most violent wine-waiter – and the set-pieces themselves are some of the purest examples of sheer adrenaline fun as I’ve seen at the cinema in a very long time. There’s an action sequence in a maze of mirrors which is clearly a homage to Enter the Dragon, while elsewhere Keanu gets to display his mastery of kung fu, gun fu, car fu and even pencil fu.

John Wick: Chapter 2 won’t be for everyone, but it hits every target it sets for itself and the result is a terrific piece of entertainment, provided super-stylish, super-absurd action movies are your cup of tea. This is an example of a sequel which builds on the original in every way: it’s bigger, brighter, more absurd, and has much more swagger and fun than the first. Needless to say the door is left wide open for the third episode – if it’s as good as this one, that will be a significant achievement, for John Wick: Chapter 2 is a treat.

 

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