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Posts Tagged ‘Keanu Reeves’

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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Most people, if you gave them ten or fifteen million dollars for a one-off job, might very well give serious thought to never working again. Movie stars, as a general rule, are a breed apart, and this seems to apply in this area as well – having been given a truck full of cash for a job, they generally go straight on to get another truck full of cash for another high-profile job. It must just be because they love their work so much.

There are always a few exceptions, of course, people who are massively prominent for a bit and then apparently stop working, at least at the top end of the industry. Generally these are people who become so closely associated with a particular character that it may just be they can’t get interesting parts in other films. I’m thinking of the likes of Elijah Wood, and, yes, Mark Hamill, who have both opted for lower-profile roles and TV work as the basis of their post-trilogy careers. And then there’s Keanu Reeves, who’s likewise seemed like only an occasional screen presence since the end of the Matrix project, and then in some slightly questionable films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 47 Ronin).

Still, in front of the other day’s Vin Diesel crapfest, there were a bunch of trailers for other impending action movies, and one of them was headlined by Keanu, which was a pleasant surprise. The film in question is John Wick: Chapter 2. The first John Wick didn’t get much of a release in the respectable cinemas of Oxford, which I suspect is the main reason I didn’t go and see it, but my landlady turned out to have the DVD on her bookcase (rather to both our surprise). The ‘decent action movie’ itch I’d been feeling had obviously not been scratched by the xXx sequel, so I thought I’d check it out.

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The film is directed by Chad Stahelski (and, secretly, David Leitch). Keanu plays the eponymous John Wick (seems to me like he should be Jon Wick, given his intimates call him Jonathan, but whatever), a New Jersey dude struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his wife from an unspecified medical condition. This seems to have been a bit of a shock, but also not entirely unexpected, as Mrs Wick has arranged for her husband to be delivered a cute little puppy as a sort of bereavement counselling aid.

Wick is out with the puppy one day when his beautiful muscle car attracts the attention of some Russian Mafia low-lives led by Iosef (Alfie Allen, whom I can’t look at without remembering the song his sister wrote about him). He refuses to sell it to them, so – being Russian Mafia low-lives – they break into his house, beat him up, steal his car keys, and – cover granny’s eyes – kill the puppy.

Naturally, they have made an extremely serious mistake: the chop shop boss they take the car to refuses to touch it, knowing the baleful reputation of its owner. Iosef’s crime boss dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) explains it very carefully, once informed of what’s gone down: five years previously, John Wick was the baddest-assed hitman in New York City, before retiring to live a less blood-splattered life with his lovely bride. With Mrs Wick off the scene, stealing his car and killing his pet dog is probably going to provoke a response…

And so it proves, with Wick leaving a trail of slaughter and property damage in his wake as he attempts to run Iosef to ground. More for the look of the thing than out of any real paternal affection, one suspects, Viggo puts a huge bounty on Wick’s head in an attempt to save his son’s life, and soon a number of other assassins (most prominently Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) are taking an interest in proceedings…

You know, on one level you have to hand it to the writers of John Wick: amongst the unwritten rules of mainstream cinema, perhaps even part of the unspoken contract between film-makers and audience, is the understanding that small children are not going to be gratuitously tortured even by implication, that old people are not going to have graphic nude scenes, and that small cute animals are effectively immortal. The whole dead dog bit seems intended to provoke a ‘they didn’t just…?’ response from the casual viewer as much as provide motivation for Keanu’s protagonist.

It’s an interesting approach but one which inevitably tips the film slightly towards bathos, as Reeves embarks on a killing spree with a body-count heading towards three figures, all in memory of his puppy. On the other hand, it does make the storyline somewhat distinctive, because apart from the ex-canine this is an extremely back-to-basics action thriller, dealing primarily in types rather than actual characters. You could swap Reeves out and replace him with Jason Statham or even Arnie or Stallone and it would not materially change the story at all.

Stylistically, however – well, Keanu Reeves does bring something all his own to this kind of role, namely that unique, rather odd presence of his. He does have charisma, and there is a definite intensity to his performance, but at the same time he’s… absent. Not quite a cipher, but curiously inert, cryptic, most of the time. (Am I just trying to find a pretentious way to excuse someone regularly accused of being one of the worst actors in cinema history? Hmmm.)

This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the performances do the job required of them, and the numerous action sequences are neatly choreographed and shot. The look of the thing is distinctively stylish too. We are very much in the realm of the action movie as Theatre of the Absurd here, of course, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The film has some wit and invention, too, positing the existence of a secret hotel just for assassins in the middle of New York, with all necessary services available. (One exchange has a blood-drenched Wick returning to the hotel – ‘How good is your laundry?’ he enquires. ‘I’m sorry to say that nobody’s that good, sir,’ comes the reply.)

John Wick is never less than competent in any department, and does have many fun moments in it, but it doesn’t really excel or innovate enough to really qualify as a great movie. It’s entertaining but in the end a little disposable – still, it’s Keanu’s best vehicle for a while, and perhaps we can hope that the sequel will have the confidence to dream a little bigger and bolder.

 

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Well, the end of the year is very nearly upon us, and of course one of the signs of this is the fact that the cinemas are getting ready to fill up with prestigious, big-budget, star-laden quality movies, all with an eye to collecting as many gongs as possible in a few months time: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Twelve Years a Slave, the Mandela movie, and doubtless many others will soon be with us. None of them really look like a barrel of laughs, but on the other hand it’s arguably the equivalent of the January detox after the usual festive excesses.

Sneaking out ahead of the pack is Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin, a costume-drama based on the venerable and much-loved Chushingura literature dating from early 18th century Japan. Clearly, no expense has been spared in bringing this slice of Shogunate life to the screen in a deeply authentic and respectful way, as all the subtleties and strangenesses of feudal Japan survive intact, with a very nuanced and emotionally expressive central performance as a  samurai warrior from Keanu Reeves.

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It all sounds just about plausible until you reach those last couple of words, doesn’t it? (And I say that as someone who always enjoys it when Keanu turns up on screen.) Hey ho: this is very much not a prestige production, nor even a remotely successful one. In a rational world it might even be challenging the likes of After Earth for the title of Dog of the Year, but we shall see.

As the film opens we are transported to a Mystic Japan of Expository Voice-overs, where demons and spirits still lurk in the forests (despite the fact that it’s technically set only about three hundred years ago). The movie may be based on a real-life historical event, but the actual plot structure we are presented with consists almost entirely of bits from bog-standard fantasy movies with their desktop theme reset to late-period Kurosawa. So we meet the mysterious orphan adopted by a wise old nobleman, witness his loyalty and nobility as his patron’s blood family mistreat him, are party to various wicked shenanigans from an ambitious rival noble, and so on. There is a tragedy, exile, a regrouping of the protagonists, a trip to the mystic forest for supernatural aid and so on. In the end there is a damn big fight in a castle.

Now, sick as I am of bog-standard fantasy movies, I would still concede that it might be possible to do one of these movies that wasn’t actively dreadful – but for this to happen, you would need a witty and intelligent script with a firm handle on the characters, brought to life by engaged and charismatic performers and a director of vision and energy. 47 Ronin has none of these things, with the remarkable result that a big-budget fusion of the fantasy and samurai genres with lashings of CGI and a considerable amount of bloody mayhem actually turns out to be really, really dull.

I can forgive a film being bad as long as it’s bad in an interesting way. Tedium is much bigger crime in my book, and this film reeks of it – and it’s really all down to the script, which is mechanical and obvious, not bothering to bring any of the characters to life, and the direction, which is flat, uninspired, and too reliant on empty spectacle to really involve the viewer.

Keanu is at his most robotic throughout – though his cause isn’t helped by the fact that the film can’t seem to decide whether his character is the main hero, or if it’s in fact Hiroyuki Sanada. I should point out that Keanu is the only significant non-Japanese character in the film (there’s a very Pirates of the Caribbean-informed visit to some Portuguese traders, but it’s over with quickly) and most of the cast is made up of Japanese thesps whose faces may be vaguely familiar to you even if their names aren’t. Most of them have a decent stab at the material, such as it is – though the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi really struggles with the part of a vampy witch (or possibly a witchy vamp) who spends some of the time looking like a fox, some of it looking like a dragon, but nearly all of it looking a bit like David Bowie.

Despite this, for most of its duration the film feels about as authentically Japanese as Usain Bolt playing the bagpipes while dressed in lederhosen. There’s something very odd about the conception of this film – it’s a bit like Japanese producers deciding to make a Robin Hood movie, then casting a lot of British and American stars in it but requiring them to speak Japanese (with Watanabe Ken prominently cast as a Merry Man).

The only element of the film which felt to me as if it genuinely came from Japanese culture was a slightly distasteful obsession with ritual suicide. This is practically fetishised by the film, and – without giving too much away – it happens in bulk quantities. Something very weird is going on when something that appears to have been an attempt at an exciting fantasy adventure for a mainstream audience feels the need to include dozens of characters committing seppuku, and virtually celebrates this.

I saw the trailer for 47 Ronin, clocked the dodgy historicity, prominent CGI, and Keanu Reeves, and thought I had the film pegged as 300 Goes East. I would never seriously argue that 300 is a great movie, but it’s highly entertaining – virtually the definition of a guilty pleasure. 47 Ronin didn’t make me feel guilty, but I got hardly any pleasure from it. I respect Keanu Reeves’ decision only to take selected acting roles these days – but on this evidence, he really needs to do his selecting with a lot more care and attention, because 47 Ronin is a rotten film.

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From the Hootoo archives. Originally published 26th February 2004:

[Originally preceded by a review of a film so appalling I shall not speak its name here.]

And so, thankfully, we move on to Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, a somewhat oblique title for a film which makes no bones about Having A Point To Make. Fortunately the chosen media take the forms of two of the most watchable actors still working, so it comes across as a lot less didactic than it might.

Jack Nicholson is not at all typecast as Harry, a sixty-something hip-hop tycoon and libidinous rogue, who has an eye for the ladies (specifically those under thirty). On a weekend trip to the family beach-house of his latest conquest (Amanda Peet) he is unfortunate enough to run into her formidable mother Erica (Diane Lah-Di-Dah Keaton) who takes a dim view of his womanising and generally raffish behaviour. It is just his luck to have a heart attack that same evening, and even worse that his cardiologist (Keanu Reeves – no, really, Keanu Reeves) prescribes that he should stay in the area till he recovers – the only available residence being with Erica. But, and you’d never see this coming, it seems that there’s a bit of chemistry between Harry and Erica. Could there possibly be romance on the horizon?

Well, my usual goodnaturedness has been mashed out of me by the previous film, so let’s not beat about the bush: Something’s Gotta Give is overlong and a bit smug and not nearly as witty or insightful as it thinks it is. The characters are almost exclusively wealthy and well-educated Caucasians, all with a quite staggering degree of emotional articulacy. Given that the central topic under discussion – the subtle charms of the older lady – does not exactly possess the same pressing urgency as climate control or international debt relief, it could be argued that this is a case of much ado about nothing. It’s also an openly partisan film: Nicholson is depicted throughout as a priapic old rogue who must mend his ways, and most of the central relationship is seen from Keaton’s emotional perspective. (There’s also the odd way that the Nicholson/Peet liaison is implicitly frowned upon while a Keaton/Reeves dalliance is swooningly approved of.)

However, these criticisms aside, this is a polished and mostly intelligent film, with some very funny moments (most of them courtesy of Nicholson). Most of these come near the beginning of the film, which rambles off into much more straightforward (not to mention sentimental) romantic drama territory as it goes on, losing much of its sharpness and wit along the way. As I mentioned up the page, it also seems about fifteen minutes too long.

It stays entirely watchable throughout, though, and this is mainly due to two perfectly-judged performances from Nicholson and Keaton, whose presence together was enough to remind me of Hollywood’s 70s golden age. It’s an exceptionally classy double-act, with Nicholson’s armoury of Jack-isms complementing Keaton’s more naturalistic turn extremely well. The two stars really get their teeth into the script and probably make it seem a lot sharper and more intelligent than it really is. Having said that, it’s difficult to judge whether Diane Keaton genuinely deserves her Oscar win/nomination (Shazz, delete one of these as applicable come Monday morning, would you?) [A reference to the fact this was originally published immediately prior to the Oscar ceremony – A] – she is good, but I suspect nostalgia has played its part, and in case she often seems to be recycling bits of her Annie Hall performance, for which she’s already won an Oscar.

Most of the rest of the cast aren’t that impressive, not getting the material the leads do. But Frances McDormand has her moments as Keaton’s sister, and Keanu… well, Keanu gets bulldozed off the screen by Nicholson, as you would expect, and my initial thought that he’d made the interesting choice of playing the cardiologist as a surfer-dude only lasted as long as it took me to remember that he plays every part – FBI agent, techno-Messiah, 19th century English lawyer – as a surfer-dude. But it’s nice to see he’s still getting work.

There’s nothing actually bad about Something’s Gotta Give – it’s polished, entertaining, amusing and articulate, and it’s driven by very assured performances from two bona fide movie legends. But it does take a long time to come to a rather predictable conclusion, and has very little of genuine originality to say for itself. A rom-com with a bit too much rom and not enough com, but still a film of some substance.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 6th 2003:

Deadlines are unforgiving beasts, and can occasionally force one to thrust an opinion out into the world without, perhaps, giving it the due consideration it deserves. Certainly I have experienced the odd qualm over the past five-and-a-bit months about my declaration that the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded was a contender for film of the year. [And that’s understating it a bit – A] But even so I will happily maintain that it’s a very solid, ambitious and thoughtful blockbuster, with far more substance to it than almost any of the summer’s other big movies.

And the tradition is maintained, in a way, by the concluding instalment of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, which has just hit cinemas. Things looked rough for our cassock-clad crusader and his cyber spatial chums when last we saw them: a machine armada was mere hours away from breaking into the human city of Zion, and Neo had just learned his power as the One was simply another element of the machines’ control systems – but also discovered a hitherto-unsuspected ability to influence the (so-called) real world…

Well, it turns out that while his body’s in a coma, Neo’s mind has been banished to a realm beyond the Matrix under the control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence, soon to be seen in Return of the King, and not-quite-so-soon to be seen in the final Star Wars movie – do you sense a pattern developing?), an employee of the Merovingian. After seeking help from a regenerated Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster – a piece of forced recasting the film just about accommodates), Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph (Collin Chou) set off to rescue him, with the twin threats of the machine strike force and the insane Agent Smiths still looming over them…

Fans of the series will – well, they’ll all have seen it already, so I’m wasting my breath – will have been glad to learn that this is a much pacier, grittier and more straightforward movie than its immediate predecessor, having a bit more in common with the original. Even so, the start of Revolutions suggests we’re in for another mixture of computer-enhanced kung fu and an NVQ in philosophy, the Big Theme this time around – notebooks out, everyone – being Love (Richard Curtis may well sue for demarcation). But after a while the film changes both gear and tone, becoming a much more straightforward SF action-adventure, with very few scenes actually set within the Matrix itself.

This is one of a number of laudably brave choices from the Wachowski’s and one which, for me at least, pays dividends. There are still many eye-popping moments and action sequences, the standouts being a gravity-warping sequel to the original’s lobby scene and a crunchingly unballetic real-world brawl to the death. But the film’s big set piece is the assault on Zion’s docking bay by hundreds of thousands of Sentinels, and the desperate defence by the city’s people. It’s a lengthy, dazzling, special-effects blow-out that bears comparison with similar sequences in both Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the original Star Wars trilogy – and those who know me will know I can think of no higher praise than that.

The cast work wonders in managing to be more than just cyphers standing in front of bluescreen with all this going on around them. The four leads are as solid as ever, even if there’s once again relatively little Hugo Weaving this time round (though we are treated to a sly impersonation by Ian Bliss, the actor playing his human host). Collin Chou gets a beefed-up part, but alas Lambert Wilson and especially Monica Belluci may as well have not turned up for all the material they get. Mary Alice, in a very tough role, performs rather creditably, recalling Gloria Foster without being an outright copy.

With all this good stuff going on, then, I’m sorry to have to say that the bottom line is that The Matrix Revolutions is actually quite disappointing. This is solely because the script skimps unforgivably when it comes to the final stages of the story, which seem underdeveloped and unclear. There are quite simply too many unanswered questions at the end, which rob the climax of much of the power it deserves. (And, depressingly, the door is subtly but clearly left ajar for another instalment should the principals’ finances dictate it at some point in the future). I’m loath to say more, because this is still a breathlessly enjoyable adventure and a conclusion, of sorts, to the story. But the fact remains that it’s only as a visual-effects spectacle that The Matrix Revolutions is truly satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 22nd 2003: 

It has become something of a cliché, but nevertheless a true one, that no-one saw the original Matrix coming. In the summer of 1999 the imagination of the cinema going world had been seduced with the promise of duelling Jedi, droid armies on the march, and the rebirth of the Star Wars legend – and so the impact of the Wachowski brothers’ vision was only accentuated, coming out of nowhere as it did.

This time round things are different. Only a select few films of recent years have been so keenly anticipated as the follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded. This time everyone is watching (the most dedicated through ray-bans). We’ve been here before, of course, and while sometimes our hopes have been transcended, more often we have known the taste of bitter disappointment. So, what’s it to be this time – another breathtaking Two Towers, or a grim revisitation of Attack of the Clones?

Well, readers, cutting to the chase, and adopting the Keanu Reeves idiom, the answer is this: Whoah. In every way, and in the best possible way, The Matrix Reloaded is a mind-boggling experience, and a near-total success.

Six months have passed since Neo (Reeves) discovered his powers as the One, in which time he and the other human warriors have freed many more minds from slavery in the Matrix. But all he, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have achieved is threatened when it is discovered that the machines have launched a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the free city of Zion, which will be destroyed in a matter of days if the assault is not stopped. Their quest takes them in search of the Keymaker, the only being who can give Neo access to the machine mainframe. Unfortunately, Neo’s old adversary Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has acquired unusual new abilities of his own and is determined to get his revenge…

The success of the original Matrix rested upon several things: its unique visual style and startling innovations in effects technology, its wholesale appropriation of the energy and grace of Hong Kong cinema, and its willingness to couple both these things to a script that wasn’t afraid to be cerebral and explore quite complex philosophical concepts.

Well, this potent mixture of pizzazz, pistols, and epistemology is once again at the heart of the film. But there are new elements, too – after a few appetising pieces of action, the Wachowski’s unexpectedly – and probably wisely – take some time to explore new areas of their story and add texture to the existing ones, while establishing’s Reloaded’s themes – control, destiny, choice, and belief. So we see Zion, and the effect Neo’s omnipotence has had both on him and on the people around him. (Several plot elements that will only really come to fruition in Revolutions are also established ). The true nature of the Oracle (the late Gloria Roberts) is also revealed, something which in itself opens up new possibilities.

With things thus set up, the film proceeds to let rip with a succession of the most dazzling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid. The Office Lobby scene from the original Matrix is already legendary – very soon it will be joined by an astonishing sequence in which Neo does battle with a hundred clones of Agent Smith, plus the freeway chase, the fight in the Chateau – the list goes on and on. The special effects throughout are immaculate, but your jaw will sag open only momentarily before you are caught up again in the action.

And when the adrenaline ceases to pump, your brow will furrow as the second part of Reloaded’s formidable one-two punch hits home. If the original was a crash-course in philosophy, this is the Master’s Degree. It doesn’t detract from the story, but the ideas and concepts inherent within it are, well, challenging. Is there such a thing as true freedom? Can we ever really have a choice? Are our lives ruled by fate? Reloaded steps up to tackle all these issues and does so pretty well (although the film can be obtuse and portentous in places). It all builds up to the truly startling revelation of the source of Neo’s powers and the true history of both the Matrix and the real world.

Just so things don’t get too heavy, though, there’s a lot more humour here than there was first time round. Of course, much of this comes from Hugo Weaving’s performance as the increasingly exasperated Smith and the interaction between his various clones (that said, he doesn’t have that much screen time this time round). But there’s also a crowd-pleasing turn from Harold Perrineau as the new Operator, Link, and a very ripe and arch performance by Lambert Wilson, playing a bizarre French computer program Neo and his friends must contend with.

If Reloaded has a flaw it’s that it suffers a little from middle-episode syndrome, plunging into an ongoing story so rapidly that it takes the viewer a short while to get up to speed on what’s happening. This may have something to do with the way the film links into the animated prequel Flight of the Osiris – but then again, even Lord of the Rings has had a touch of this complaint. The end is also not entirely satisfying, opting to conclude not with any sense of closure but a giant cliff-hanger for November’s The Matrix Revolutions (a trailer for which follows the film, and it’s well worth a look unless you have to dash off to catch a bus or something).

What The Matrix Reloaded lacks in novelty value and mystery it more than makes up for in depth, diversity, energy, and sheer gob smack value (both visually and intellectually). Whether this standard can be maintained for the concluding instalment is something we’ll have to wait and see, but for now one thing is certain: we have a strong contender here for film of the year.

[Is it worth mentioning I wrote this thing only a couple of hours after watching the movie? In any case I hope readers appreciate my resisting the temptation to judiciously rewrite this to make myself sound less stupid. Hey ho. – A]

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 8th 2009:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to yet another unlikely reappearance by the film review column that just won’t take a hint. Ye Constant Editor can breathe easy, however, as I’m only back in the realm of English-language cinemas for a couple of weeks—being away from the big screen is just about the only part of my current lifestyle I don’t enjoy, but it’s a real pain. Apart from a couple of months in the summer when I was back in the UK, I’ve only been to the pictures three times all year, and even then I had to limit myself to films which looked like having fairly straightforward plots. So, in Italian I watched Alien Vs Predator 2, which while being on its own merits acceptable, still marks the debasement of two quality franchises to something like the level of Planet Terror, and Iron Man, which seemed pretty spiffy even if I lost all the sparkling dialogue and the dubbing was lousy. More recently we trundled off to the kino in Bishkek to see Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, which I’m certain at some point involved a DVD player being hooked up to a video projector. Suffice to say my (beginner level, according to my teacher) Russian was not quite up to the task of following the story and I came out completely baffled, though I was relieved to hear friends and family in the UK had similar experiences.

Having watched the film again in English I have to say I don’t quite think it deserves the bad press it’s been getting from some quarters. It is, as if you need telling, the 22nd film in the mighty James Bond franchise and the second since the Daniel Craig-fronted reboot of the series. Fleming fans may be disappointed to hear that this doesn’t follow the plot of the original story very faithfully (Bond goes to cocktail party and hears about someone’s unhappy marriage). For the first time since the very early seventies, Quantum of Solace follows on from the previous instalment as lovable sociopath Bond commences his campaign against the shadowy organisation who killed his lover and, more importantly, gave his knackers a right good whacking in 2006’s Casino Royale. After a couple of frenetic chases around Italy he winds up in the Caribbean on the trail of dodgy entrepreneur Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, who seems to be some sort of French Steve Buscemi clone). Greene is up to no good in South America, and Bond’s operations are inevitably hampered by both the connivance of his American associates and the all-pervading nature of the network Greene himself represents…

On one level it’s easy to see why this film’s got a bit of a lukewarm response from some sections of the audience. Most people, myself included, enjoy the slightly larger than life elements of most of the Bond films, and so for this film to feature not a single goon in an orange boiler-suit, hollowed-out volcano base, or satellite death ray, and in fact revolve around an attempt to take over a country most people can’t find on the map is arguably a bit of a risk. Well, you could argue the same was true of Casino Royale, and I take the point; but that had the advantage of novelty value and generated considerable excitement simply because this was James Bond done in a totally new way. This isn’t an origin story and I think people were expecting more of a traditional Bond movie, which this seems very uncomfortable being. For example, Bond is given a female sidekick with an utterly ridiculous name, but it’s never actually said in full on screen, and Bond’s incidental rumpo feels a bit crowbarred in (so to speak) as well.

As it is, the Bond this really resembles is 1989’s License to Kill, hardly the most glittering of antecedents (and I’m saying that as a fan of Timothy Dalton’s take on the character), but in its fascination with high tech telecommunications, brutal fights in seedy hotel rooms, and depiction of governments and intelligence agencies being fundamentally compromised, it really much more closely resembles the last couple of Bourne movies. Now, once again, I’m a massive admirer of that particular franchise (and that guy who, er, wrote a rather lukewarm review of The Bourne Identity back in 2002 wasn’t me, okay, it was an impostor), but a Bond movie is a different kind of animal: as long as Bond is a government agent it’s impossible for this series to be as critical of modern western policies and methods without fatally undermining their hero. I’m not sure people go to these movies looking for the same thing, anyway— Bond movies should be a bit more fun, you should want to be James Bond in a way you’d never want to be Jason Bourne.

Daniel Craig gives another good performance as Bond, given the material he has to work with, although his ultra-deadpan delivery of most of his one-liners means they tend to fall a bit flat. This may be partly due to Forster’s direction, which really isn’t anything particularly special. The plot is okay and does actually make sense, as long as you pay it due attention. Olga Kurylenko is rather good as Bond’s sidekick (hardly a Bond girl as such, given that they don’t, y’know, thingy) and giving an especially charismatic turn some way down the cast list is Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. Wright manages to make Leiter more than simply just Bond’s American gofer, and it’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do. Hopefully he won’t get fed to sharks again for a good long while.

In my review of Casino Royale I talked about how it had dynamited away all the baggage and formulae which had encrusted the Bond character over the years to reveal something fresh and interesting. I still stand by that, but to me this film, with the Bond theme reduced to an occasional motif, iconic gun-barrel sequence bumped to the closing credits, no gadgets, no Q, no Moneypenny, seemed very uncertain of what to replace all these things with. As a thriller, Quantum of Solace is okay, although a bit low-key and occasionally unsure of itself. As a Bond movie, it’s sorely lacking in the magic and swagger of the franchise at its best. Thinking caps on at Eon, perhaps.

Well, anyway, only being back in the UK for less than a fortnight it was obvious I would have to be highly selective in my choice of viewing matter. Clearly, only the most sophisticated and enriching films could be considered as worthy of my time. But then I forgot about all of that and went to see Transporter 3, directed by Olivier Megaton (which is surely a made-up name, but still quite cool). Anyone remembering the glory days of this column will recall that I enjoyed the original Transporter much too much on its release nearly six years ago. Original sort-of director Louis Leterrier has gone to (fairly) greater things ( well, he directed the last Hulk movie, anyway), while ludicrous star Jason Statham (and I say that with all affection) has really let it define his career. Is the magic still there the third time around?

Mmm. Baldy motorised mercenary Frank Martin (my man J, like you need telling) appears to be trying to ease himself out of his chosen career, seemingly so he can spend more time fishing with his best mate, dodgy cop Tarconi (Francois Berleand). However, trouble strikes when his chosen protégé louses up on a job, and the dischuffed client (Robert Knepper) insists on Frank taking over the assignment. This involves driving a couple of big bags from Marseilles to Odessa in the company of extraordinarily freckly babe Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), both of them having been fitted with exploding jewellery. In the meantime other stuff is going on involving a cargo ship filled with cartoon toxic waste and a Ukrainian government minister (Jeroen Krabbe) getting blackmailed by nasty Big Business. I would say not to worry and that it all makes sense in the end, but it’s really so obvious from that start what’s happening that I won’t bother.

People don’t go to a Transporter movie for the plot, anyway (at least I don’t); they go for ridiculous stunts and chases, Jason Statham administering a good kicking to identikit goons, and more likely than not the leading lady administering a good kicking to the English language. Happily, all these things are fully in place for the new instalment. I’ve written in the past about how the trajectory of a successful franchise tends to go from originality to tradition, and then from tradition to formula (and normally to box office extinction). There was nothing terribly original about the first movie which may be why this series seems to be fending off creative hardening of the arteries passably well. Frank is still particular about his wardrobe, possibly because he often ends up taking his clothes off in the middle of a fight, and is permanently grumpy, but this is the essence of the character. The gay subtext to Transporter 2 (which I personally missed, probably because of what Jason got up to off-screen with Qi Shu in the first one) is gone this time around, but there’s the usual range of vehicular-based mayhem and the set-piece fight where Frank takes on about six people simultaneously.

I was personally sort of pleased that Megaton hasn’t broken the conventions of the franchise (or indeed the recent films of the Luc Besson canon, which of course this belongs to) by encouraging the actors to, er, act. The developing romance between Frank and Valentina is performed with all the passion and allure of a liaison between Stephen Hawking and an I-speak-your-weight machine. There’s a mind-boggling scene where they get to know each other by Frank asking her what her favourite meal is, in quite astounding detail. She seems happy to oblige (it’s actually a wonder she stays so thin as most of her dialogue revolves around food) and the effect is not so much romantic as reminiscent of an episode of Masterchef with a particularly surly host.

But these are the special pleasures of the Transporter franchise, which you’ll either appreciate or you won’t. It’s not quite as breezily mad or as beautiful to look at as the first two movies, but it does the business where it counts. I’m well aware that some people will complain about the many enormous holes in the plot or the utter silliness of much of the climax, or indeed the dreadful acting of virtually the entire cast. I don’t care. I really enjoyed it.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would be reviewing a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves and John Cleese, then probably your next utterance would have been ‘Please stop screaming’. However, so it has come to pass, with Scott Derrickson’s new version currently showing at a cinema near you. (Unless you live in Kyrgyzstan, of course.) I approached this one with the gravest misgivings, as is inevitable when it’s one of your favourite films they’re updating. I reviewed the original movie back when the A-numbers only had six digits, at the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of 24LAS), something I’d completely forgotten about until I sat down to write this!

However, let’s concern ourselves with the new version, which initially sticks reasonably close to the original movie’s plot. An extraterrestrial object is heading for Earth at immense speed, but rather than being the planet-busting meteor everyone is anticipating, it turns out to be a sort of giant luminous marble (cos if you put flying saucers in movies these days you get laughed at) which touches down in Central Park. Before the waiting scientists and military, the marble disgorges a small slimy alien and a giant shiny robot. This being America (I’m sorry, it’s such a lazy joke) the small slimy alien is promptly shot. The boffins are somewhat surprised to discover that under the slime is actually Keanu Reeves (starting to show his age a bit). Reeves plays Klaatu, an emissary from a federation of local alien civilisations who are a bit concerned with the situation on planet Earth. Naturally the Americans want to know exactly what their plans are and turn Klaatu over to the CIA for proper interrogation. However, he is sprung with the help of principled astrobiologist Helen (Jennifer Connolly) and sets out to determine the fate of mankind…

You will note I said ‘initially’ at the start of the synopsis, and sure enough after a bit the plot deviates enormously from that of the original movie. It’s not exactly faithful to begin with, but the early additions and changes (sticking in a prologue set in 1928, making Helen a scientist rather than a secretary, giving Klaatu psychic powers), are all understandable in that they attempt to explain things that a modern audience might find a little bit difficult to credit (although a sequence where Klaatu contacts a fellow alien who’s been living incognito on Earth for decades seems a little irrelevant). Later on the creators just seem to be following the internal logic and demands of their own story, which is entirely reasonable, and they still manage to fit in a couple of iconic moments from the original: Klaatu’s meeting with Professor Barnhart (John Cleese playing it straight) and a visit to Arlington with Helen’s son (Jaden Smith, who’s not too bad in a fairly tricky part). However, the actual bit with The Earth Standing Still is entirely reconceived, as is Gort’s role in the proceedings, and for some reason they decided not to include ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ this time.

As you might expect, this means the alien-as-Christ subtext which was at the heart of the original film has been completely removed and there isn’t really much to replace it beyond some fairly indistinctive waffling about saving the environment and how people are really horrible but also rather lovely too. However, it doesn’t take itself completely seriously, and rather surprisingly this is mostly due to a light-footed performance by Keanu Reeves, who’s able to put his usual— er— semi-detached style of acting to good effect here. He’s startlingly good and has clearly let Michael Rennie’s original performance as Klaatu inform his own. Even more surprising is the way that, whenever he’s off-screen, the IQ of the movie seems to drop about 30 points, with much more feted performers like Connolly and Kathy Bates all at sea with some painfully obvious expository dialogue.

So while this new version isn’t perfect, it’s not far from being as good as I could realistically have hoped for, and it certainly isn’t the travesty I was almost expecting. The special effects are perfectly competent, low-key enough not to jar, though I would’ve liked to see more of Gort in his original incarnation, and this is a polished and professional movie. I’m not entirely sure what you’ll make of it if you haven’t seen the original, but I suspect it’ll pass the time engagingly enough. Not a classic, but not a disaster either.

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