John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

2019 #127
Chad Stahelski | 131 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English* | 15 / R

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

The action-man with the second most quotable line about being back is, er, back — again — for the third chapter in the ongoing saga of what happens if you kill a man’s dog. Basically, lots of people die. Quite right too.

Chapter 3 begins exactly where Chapter 2 left off: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been made “excommunicado” from the organisation that controls the criminal underworld, the High Table, and he has just an hour’s grace before every assassin in the world will be out to claim his life. He’s just one man, with a $14 million bounty on his head, in a New York City where about 50% of the population seem to be highly trained killers — as Winston (Ian McShane) says, his odds are “about even”.

And so the first half-hour is basically nonstop action, first as Wick desperately tries to prepare for the all-out assault coming his way, and then as he faces it. The series’ reputation is built on its lengthy, stylish, inventive action sequences, and Chapter 3 does not disappoint, with some of its best material coming right out the gate. I feel like they could’ve expanded this first half-hour into an entire movie (i.e. John on the run, fighting endless assassins, until he finds some way out of his bind) and I’d’ve been happy with that — it would’ve mirrored the simplicity of the first one. But the previous film’s cliffhanger is not so simply resolved, because what John did to earn his excommunicado status cuts deep into the mythology of this world — oh so very deep — and the fallout of his actions, well, that’s the plot of the movie. And not just for John himself, because a High Table Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) rocks up to decide the fate of any person or organisation who might’ve given John a helping hand when they really shouldn’t, including Winston, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and the Director (Anjelica Houston).

Adjudgement day

The first John Wick had a bit of fun introducing us to a rule-driven shadow-world of assassins. The first sequel put a lot of stock in extending that mythology. Now, the third chapter thrives on it. The first film’s plot was a straightforward revenge thriller with some extravagant flourishes; for the third, we’re (to borrow a phrase from Reeves’ other major action franchise) right down the rabbit hole. Just like the famed action sequences, if you’re onboard with it then there’s a ton of fun to be had; but if that kind of thing bores you, there’s little respite from it. Extravagant brutal action and gradually-unveiled ever-deepening mythology: these are John Wick’s twin raisons d’être.

Half the fun of how the films’ present their mythology lies in the way every character seems to be completely aware of all the rules. No one ever needs a symbolic coin or a judgement’s motivation explained to them; they inherently understand its significance or reasoning, the status and power that’s conferred. But we don’t know what any of it means, of course, because this is a fictional world that we’re being inducted into as and when parts of it become relevant to the narrative; and so we’re led along on a magical mystery tour of what these arcane rituals might mean and where they might lead us. As I said, it’s quite a particular kind of storytelling, and if it doesn’t engage you then that’s that, but if you do find it enjoyable then the John Wick films are spinning it into a fine art.

A hundred bad guys with swords? Who sent those goons to their lords? Why, John Wick!

Naturally, nowhere is the film’s sense of artistry more on display than in the fights. For all the mythology, director Chad Stahelski and the small team of screenwriters never forget what really made people love John Wick in the first place: the gonzo action. There’s a lot of competition in that arena (not just its own preceding instalments, but the past decade’s acclaimed imports like The Raid and its sequel, The Villainess, The Night Comes for Us, et al), but Chapter 3 is up the challenge, boasting continual inventiveness among the slickly choreographed and expertly performed carnage. One innovation includes dogs getting involved in the action — appropriate for a series all about the love of pooches. The mutts in question are commanded by an old acquaintance of Wick’s, played by Halle Berry, who trained with the dogs so she could actually control them during takes. It’s that level of dedication that marks out the action here.

It all looks great as well, with the camerawork boasting precise movement and impressively long takes to celebrate the action and how well it’s been achieved. The actual phototography is fantastic too, the light looking gorgeous whether in the neon glow of New York or the sand-orange Moroccan desert (I watched it in UHD, where it’s a real showcase for why HDR is a bigger benefit than pure resolution; though that’s not to discredit the film’s crispness). It’s complemented further by the design work, in particular a glass-house set where several key scenes take place, which reportedly cost $4 million. On any technical merit you care to name, Chapter 3 is exceptional.

Unleash the dogs of bellum

That said, while there’s fun to be had throughout, by the end I felt like the story was the film’s real problem. Not the tone and style that I praised earlier (though it’s easily the most fantastical of the series so far, which might turn some off), but its significance: it ultimately feels like merely a dot-join between Chapter 2 and the already-announced Chapter 4. The film’s Latin subtitle, Parabellum, translates as “prepare for war”, and that’s apt: this film is a preparation for the next. But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe, when this series is all said and done, we’ll see that Chapter 3’s contribution to the overarching narrative is equivalent to the other films. However, at first blush, it feels to me like this is either a kind of linking passage, or maybe Chapter 3 Part 1. I guess only time — specifically, the time until after we’ve seen the fourth chapter (currently slated for May 2021) — will tell.

In the meantime, let’s not get too distracted from storyline niggles in a film that’s really about style over substance, in a good way. Chapter 3 certainly knows what boxes it should tick, and it ticks every last one of them with considerable flair. (Can you tick a box with flair? I bet John Wick could. After all, we know how skilled he is with a pencil…)

4 out of 5

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

* The film’s primary language is undoubtedly English, but IMDb also lists seven more. Each only pops up briefly, in short lines or exchanges here and there, which is why I haven’t cluttered the top of this post by listing them. But for the record, they are: Mandarin, Latin, Russian, Japanese, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. ^

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Revolutions

Everything that has a beginning
has an end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 129 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 5th November 2003 (60 countries, including the UK and USA)
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $427.3 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 47 Ronin)
Laurence Fishburne (Boyz n the Hood, Mystic River)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Chocolat, Disturbia)
Hugo Weaving (Captain America: The First Avenger, Mortal Engines)

Directors
The Wachowskis (Bound, Jupiter Ascending)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer)


The Story
With Neo having rejected the destiny prescribed for him, but discovering his power is greater than previously thought possible, he sets out on a long-shot mission to save humanity, even as the machines prepare to destroy mankind’s last city.

Our Heroes
The trilogy centres on the actions of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, but in many respects they’re just part of an ensemble in this finale, with many other characters getting to be in command of screen time, including the likes of ace pilot Niobe, Neo-idoliser the Kid, and a whole bunch of citizens of Zion during the big battle.

Our Villains
The machines threaten the surviving humans, while in the Matrix the increasingly dominant Agent Smith threatens Neo’s chances to save them all.

Best Supporting Character
Amongst the many humans fighting to save Zion, perhaps the most noteworthy is the captain of the Armoured Personal Unit corps, Mifune, who’s as much of a badass as the guy he’s obviously named after.

Memorable Quote
“Everything that has a beginning has an end. I see the end coming, I see the darkness spreading. I see death.” — The Oracle

Memorable Scene
Before Reloaded there was much hype about the “Burly Brawl”, in which Neo fights dozens of Agent Smiths. Unfortunately the final result was marred by some iffy CGI and overshadowed by the freeway chase. Here, we get the sequel: the so-called “Super Burly Brawl”, in which Neo fights just one super-powered Agent Smith in what remains of the Matrix, and it’s a much more exciting, visually extraordinary climax.

Memorable Music
Don Davis’ score for the trilogy has always used a mix of electronic-y rock and more traditional orchestral music, but the epic final battle adds choral voices to the mix in a very effective way. Thankfully rejecting the idea that they sing just “oohs and aahs” or, even worse, “this is the one, see what he can do” in plain English, Davis instead had the choir sing the Pavamana Mantra, so it’s not just nice texture in the soundtrack but meaningful too.

Truly Special Effect
There’s nothing as obviously groundbreaking or original as in the other two films, but a lot of the effects still hold up exceptionally well 15 years down the line. It’s difficult to imagine how the battle of Zion (created through a mixture of live-action, miniatures, and CGI) could be achieved any better today.

Letting the Side Down
The untimely death of actress Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle in the first two films, necessitated her recasting for this final instalment. Unfortunately, her replacement just isn’t as good, seeming to struggle with her portentous dialogue.

Making of
Christopher Nolan gets a lot of credit for bringing regular films into the IMAX market (or vice versa, depending how you look at it) with actually shooting on the format for The Dark Knight (a notion copied since, obviously), but Revolutions was actually the first live-action feature film to be released in IMAX at the same time as its regular theatrical release.

Previously on…
The story began in The Matrix and continued in The Matrix Reloaded, while spin-off anime shorts The Animatrix and video game Enter the Matrix filled in some of the blanks.

Next time…
The story continued in MMORPG The Matrix Online, which ran from 2004 to 2009. Rumours of some kind of reboot or continuation flare up now and then.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
3 Saturn Award nominations (Science Fiction Film, Costumes, Special Effects)

Verdict

I used to think Revolutions was better than Reloaded, mainly because at least it brought everything to an end and didn’t have that confusing stuff with the Architect. But reflecting on the sequels now, I have to agree with the consensus that this isn’t as good — there’s nothing that matches the highway sequence for entertainment value, and, actually, the lack of overt philosophising is almost to its detriment. It does have its moments (see: Memorable Scene), and I do think it ultimately comes to powerful resolutions, but the journey to them doesn’t have the same spark.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Reloaded

Free Your Mind.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th May 2003 (US & others)
UK Release: 21st May 2003
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $742.1 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Point Break, Man of Tai Chi)
Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Contagion)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Red Planet, Unthinkable)
Hugo Weaving (Babe, Transformers)

Directors
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (Assassins, Sense8)


The Story
With just 72 hours until the machines arrive to destroy mankind’s last city, all ships are ordered to return home for its defence. But Morpheus still believes the answer to their salvation lies in the Matrix itself and what Neo is meant to do there.

Our Heroes
Neo is just a man, but within the Matrix has abilities and power beyond any other. As he journeys deeper in the fake-world’s workings, can he free mankind? Will his love for fellow freedom fighter Trinity get in his way? Is their captain, Morpheus, misguided in his belief that Neo is The One?

Our Villains
As hordes of machines drill down to the human city of Zion, a more pressing threat is Agent Smith, who has found a way to multiply himself and is on the warpath within the Matrix, with his sights set on Neo.

Best Supporting Character
The Merovingian is a snobby Frenchman (is there any other kind, ho ho) who holds prisoner a key program our heroes need access to. First, they’ll have to endure his philosophising; after, they’ll have to fend off the men he sends to kill them.

Memorable Quote
“Now consider the alternative. What if I am right? What if the prophecy is true? What if tomorrow the war could be over? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for?” — Morpheus

Memorable Scene
The freeway chase. It’s so long it almost doesn’t count as just one scene, but it’s spectacular quarter-of-an-hour long action sequence packed to bursting with impressive stunts and effects.

Technical Wizardry
See above. The logistics of filming the sequence are mind-boggling. Now they’d just throw it all together in a computer with a bit of green screen for the actors, but back in the early ’00s they built a massive stretch of freeway and filmed most of the practical stunts for real — and it’s all the better for it, of course.

Truly Special Effect
Some of the CGI is a little ropey 15 years on (though the digital body doubles looked just as bad at the time as they do now, to be honest), but all of the real-world stuff with Zion and its ships still looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Depending on your point of view, the climax is either philosophically engaging or impenetrably incomprehensible. I feel like repeat viewings and time have made it more understandable, but it’s still suffused with more big ideas than people expect to find in their blockbuster movies.

Making of
The Matrix Reloaded” is a funny title when you think about it. I mean, it’s very much “from our perspective” — in the film’s world the Matrix has never stopped running, so it’s not being reloaded; it’s an allusion to computer-y stuff and the fact this is a sequel, nothing to do with the actual content of the film. Though I guess it’s not really any weirder than just sticking “2” on the end or whatever, so…

Previously on…
In 1999, sci-fi actioner The Matrix blew everyone’s minds. In the run-up to this sequel there was also The Animatrix, a series of anime short films that explained some of the backstory to the films’ world and detailed certain events that occurred between the first film and its sequels.

Next time…
The video game Enter the Matrix occurs alongside Reloaded, featuring characters and situations from the film in a parallel storyline. It included around 45 minutes of live-action scenes shot by the Wachowskis, which has since been made available on the film’s DVD/Blu-ray/etc releases. Later the same year, The Matrix Revolutions concluded the trilogy, while MMORPG The Matrix Online continued the story. There have also been other video games and some comic books, but for a modern media franchise it’s been quite tightly controlled beyond that.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Woman (for motorcycle work in the freeway chase))
3 World Stunt Awards nominations (Best Fight (for the chateau hallway), Best Stunt Coordination Feature Film, Best Overall Stunt by a Woman (for a car stunt in the freeway chase))

Verdict

The Matrix sequels are generally viewed as a big disappointment, which isn’t wholly accurate or fair (for one thing, this first sequel actually has pretty solid ratings online, from both critics and viewers). It was always a big ask to follow-up a movie as original, groundbreaking, and straight-up entertaining as the first Matrix, and that the Wachowskis chose to do so by doubling down on the mythology and underpinning ideas obviously wasn’t successful with too many people. So perhaps making the plot 50% a straightforward quest-against-time narrative and 50% impenetrable philosophy lectures wasn’t the best idea, but the action sequences are still absolutely stunning. And, actually, if you bother to engage with the film on its own level, there’s some interesting stuff here.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

2017 #86
Chad Stahelski | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Italian, American Sign Language & Russian | 18* / R

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick, the action movie in which Keanu Reeves plays a retired assassin who returns to his former life to avenge the murder of his puppy, was a surprise hit back in 2014, and so it’s no surprise that there’s now a sequel (and a burgeoning universe of spin-offs and the like in the works too, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Part of the first film’s success was undoubtedly in its elaborately choreographed action — Reeves has always taken his action roles seriously, becoming a proficient performer of combat himself rather than relying on stuntmen; co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have their background in stunt work also; and they all brought their considerable expertise to bear on a variety of incredible fight scenes. But another aspect that piqued audiences’ interest was the equally elaborate underworld the film casually introduced — a secret community of assassins and those who served them, with its own codes and rules, the extent of which was only hinted at. So, as good sequels are wont to do, the second chapter in Mr Wick’s story serves up more of both these elements.

The story picks up immediately after the first film left off: having dealt with his grievances in such a public fashion, the underworld is aware that John Wick is back in the game, and so an old friend comes to call in a favour. Reluctantly forced to accept, Wick is soon off on a mission to Italy, but things quickly become more complicated, making Wick a target himself. In a society governed by strictly enforced rules, how far can — and will — he go to protect himself?

Shadowy underworld

For anyone who particularly liked the snippets of this world’s mythology from the first movie, Chapter 2 delivers what they’re after in spades. Before they were just texture — fun window-dressing to the main story of a man taking violent revenge — but here they become absolutely central. We not only get to see more of the world (when Wick travels to Italy we learn a lot more about how the network of assassin-hotels functions), but the codes and how they’re enforced kick off the plot and are central to multiple aspects of it later on. It’s a neat structure across the two films, actually. The first doesn’t throw you in at the deep end with a sudden mass of things you need to learn, but instead intrigues you with a few relatable, fundamentally unimportant titbits, so that maybe you want to know more. Then the second takes what you know and expands on it, using the knowledge that you picked up almost incidentally to lead you further down the rabbit hole, to the point where it can hinge major plot developments on the rules of its own mythology. It’s quite sophisticated, in its way.

Of course, it’s all still in service of people shooting and stabbing and punching and whatever-else-ing each other. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice. Nonetheless, there’s lots of intricately choreographed, cleanly staged action — and what more do you want from a film like this? Some sequences probably go on a tad too long (a shootout in some catacombs, for example, which doesn’t payoff a careful setup as well as it could), but others are delightfully done (the climax in a hall of mirrors, for instance). But it’s not all po-faced mythologising and macho violence, with Peter Serafinowicz turning up to add a dash of humour as an armourer. There’s also a cameo for Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, but his brief turn definitely falls under the “mythologising” bracket — I imagine he’ll have a continued role in the forthcoming threequel.

Morpheus no more

Speaking of which, this is the good kind of middle part to a trilogy. It very much grows out of Chapter 1, but then it starts and completes its own narrative, rather than only telling half a story, before ending such that a third instalment is inevitable. Put another way, it finishes on something of a cliffhanger. My point is, this is my idea of how a sequel that’s aiming for another sequel should be done, rather than one of those things where they want to do a four-hour movie and chop it in half. (Though I recently said Rurouni Kenshin 2 and 3 were fine doing just that, so I guess it’s a matter of how it’s done rather than whether it’s done at all.)

By expanding the world of the series, John Wick: Chapter 2 loses some of the elegant simplicity that drove the first instalment, while also fleshing out an alternate universe for fans to sink their teeth into. Some viewers will prefer the more straightforward nature of the first chapter; others will enjoy the added complications. Either way, in its primary role as an action-thriller, Chapter 2 is more-or-less the equal of its enjoyable predecessor.

4 out of 5

John Wick: Chapter 2 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The UK theatrical release was cut by 23 seconds to get a 15. That version was also released on Blu-ray over here, but the uncut version was released on 4K Blu-ray. I watched the regular US Blu-ray, which is uncut. ^

The Matrix (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #60

Believe the unbelievable

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (cut, 1999) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 31st March 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th June 1999
First Seen: VHS, 2000

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Speed, John Wick)
Laurence Fishburne (Event Horizon, Predators)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Sabotage, Memento)
Hugo Weaving (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings)
Joe Pantoliano (Bound, Memento)

Directors
The Wachowski Brothers (Bound, Speed Racer)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (V for Vendetta, Jupiter Ascending)

The Story
Thomas Anderson, aka hacker Neo, is searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know. This search brings him into contact with Morpheus, a mysterious individual who claims to show Neo the ‘real world’ — something the powerful Agents are keen to prevent…

Our Hero
By day, Thomas Anderson is an office drone computer programmer. By night, he’s renowned hacker Neo. After he meets Morpheus and gets some of the answers he’s been seeking, it turns out he may be something greater…

Our Villains
The forces of the controlling machines are represented by Men in Black-style suit-wearing sunglass-sporting agents, the foremost of whom is Agent Smith. I don’t know about you, but I can’t read about / hear of / meet anyone called Anderson without hearing Hugo Weaving’s syllable-emphasising delivery of “Mr Anderson”.

Best Supporting Character
Hardened PVC-and-leather-clad warrior Trinity — a kick-ass female action heroine 17 years ago, while we still seem to be desperately hunting for them today.

Memorable Quote
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” — Morpheus

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There is no spoon.” — Spoon boy

Memorable Scene
Neo + Agent + rooftop + super-slow-motion + impossible leaning-over-backwards-ness = one of the most iconic scenes in the movies.

Technical Wizardry
Hong Kong cinema has been using wirework to create kung fu action scenes for decades, but The Matrix brought it to the Western mainstream. The fights were choreographed by legendary action choreographer/director Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, etc).

Truly Special Effect
The much imitated and parodied bullet-time effect, where the action stops and rotates around the static scene before continuing. It was mind-blowing at the time, before it became overdone. And though it looked impressive, it was achieved with strikingly obvious simplicity: a rig of still cameras arranged around the subject, with a film camera at either end.

Making of
The character of Switch was originally intended to be played by two actors, an androgynous male in the real world and an androgynous female in the Matrix, hence the character’s name. According to IMDb, Warner Bros “refined” the idea (one wonders if “vetoed” might be a more accurate word), and Belinda McClory played the role in both locations. Maybe this signifies something, maybe it doesn’t, but given that both Wachowski siblings have since come out as transgender, it seemed a particularly interesting point.

Next time…
Laurence Fishburne committed himself to two sequels before he even read the scripts. “Of course you would,” thought everyone who’d seen The Matrix. Then they came out. As well as the two films, there was: a series of anime shorts; a computer game so ‘significant’ that scenes from it are included on the film trilogy’s DVD/Blu-ray release; and an MMORPG that ended in 2009. Rumours persist of more in the future.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Production Design, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director)
7 Saturn nominations (Actor (Keanu Reeves), Actress (Carrie-Anne Moss), Supporting Actor (Laurence Fishburne), Writer, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects (it lost to The Phantom Menace!))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (it lost to Galaxy Quest)

What the Critics Said
“In addition to resembling both in concept and content the worthwhile Dark City, there’s not much more to it than ideas about the subjectivity of reality reworked from Descartes, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson and channeled into an operatic science-fiction metaphor about non-conformity (and drug use). But the Wachowskis do it so playfully well, keeping The Matrix’s potentially confusing plot intelligible, intelligent, and suspenseful, that it doesn’t matter. As far as sheer spectacle goes, it’s the most exciting thing to come along in quite a while. Where other films are done in by the freedom offered by computer effects, The Matrix integrates them beautifully” — Keith Phipps, A.V. Club

Score: 87%

What the Public Say
“The degrees to which The Matrix changed our cinematic landscape are inescapable. This is one of those rare cultural landmarks that overcame its cult status and truly became a part of our shared existence. It helps that The Matrix is a bit of a whole bunch of sci-fi, cyberpunk and dystopic fiction blended together with classic Hong Kong action film elements. Not bad for a film that stole much of Dark City’s thunder.” — The Hi-Fi Celluloid Monster

Verdict

There are some movies where their significance almost outstrips the ability to judge them independently — Citizen Kane, for the most obvious example. I don’t know if The Matrix now appears that way to newcomers, but it could, because it’s hard to understate the impact it had on action/sci-fi movies (and other media) for the next decade or more. But I haven’t included films in this list just for the impact they had: The Matrix is an exciting, thought-provoking, and innovative sci-fi-actioner. Unsurprisingly, all the reasons it was so influential are the reasons it’s so good.

#61 will be… future crime.

47 Ronin (2013)

2016 #18
Carl Rinsch | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Blighted by behind-the-scenes difficulties, 47 Ronin wound up among the biggest box office bombs of all time — a fate not entirely undeserved.

It concerns a gang of samurai who set out to avenge their master, a true story that’s legendary in Japan. This telling is enhanced with fantasy elements — which, despite some critics’ views, is just fine, as the film’s historical advisor explains in this excellent defence.

Sadly, what falters is everything else: clumsy storytelling, poorly edited action, Japanese actors struggling with English dialogue, Keanu Reeves’ acting. Magnificent imagery and design stop it being a total disaster, but only just.

2 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

John Wick (2014)

2015 #89
Chad Stahelski (& David Leitch)* | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a nice guy whose wife sadly died. Now he lives alone with a puppy. Then he accidentally annoys a thug (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) at a gas station, so he and his mates break into Wick’s house to teach him a lesson. The thug is the son of a big-time gangster (the Millennium trilogy’s Michael Nyqvist), so he does that kind of thing. They kill the puppy, but leave Wick alive. However, turns out Wick used to be an awesome assassin, renowned throughout the underworld — to everyone except this kid, it seems — and so he quite rightly sets out to execute their dog-murdering asses, consequences be damned.

John Wick is an action movie. I know you know that, but what I mean is, that’s kind of all it is. There’s no transcendent deeper meaning here; no attempt to explore the real life of a hired killer. If anything, this is an ultra-heightened universe, where the criminal underworld has an entire society and set of rules unto itself, including a raft of familiar faces in cameo-sized roles. It feels like it’s adapted from a comic book — they usually put that level of extra detail in more than films do — but it isn’t. There’s a rich world hinted at here; one that teases at more, but also supports the film. That is to say, there’s fan-driven talk of sequels and spin-offs set in this ‘universe’, but in and of itself it functions within the film, rather than simply being setup for more. It’s a better way to potentially start a “shared universe” franchise than the forceful way other studios are going about it with DC heroes / King Arthur / Robin Hood / et al, anyway.

A decade and a half on from The Matrix, Reeves (and presumably an army of stuntmen) remains as capable an action hero as ever. Co-directors Stahelski and Leitch have an extensive background in that field (they first worked with Reeves on The Matrix and its sequels) and so they know what they’re doing when it comes to the shoot-outs, fist-fights and car duels. Unfortunately for John Wick I watched it soon after The Guest, whose singular style ultimately made more of an impression on me, but there’s no denying the virtuoso fight work on display here. This is a film for action movie fans to revel in — it has little to offer anyone else.

That said, this isn’t a straight-up Statham-style blockhead fight-fest. That unique, unusual world it sets itself up in sees to that. It has an almost mystical, fairytale quality to it. There’s no sci-fi or fantasy element, but it does feel like Wick descends into an alternate world, one hidden alongside our own. Tonally, at times it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (or the TV series it comes from, as I’ve never read the book). I suppose it’s because this criminal underworld has its own special rules, its own special locales, and an occasionally mannered way of talking and behaving. As I said, there’s no fantasy element, but it has a left-of-centre alternate-reality feel.

Combine that with the exciting, innovative, technically faultless action sequences and you have a distinctive, memorable movie. It seems to have gone down a storm with action movie fans, anyhow, and so those hoped-for sequels and/or spin-offs are most definitely in development. It’ll be interesting to see if it does what-I-call “a Bourne”, spiralling from a well-liked almost-sleeper-hit first film into an everyone-knows-it major franchise, or, well, not.

4 out of 5

John Wick is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.


* Leitch is uncredited as a director due to those DGA rules that meant Robert Rodriguez had to resign his membership to give Frank Miller his due on Sin City; that meant the Coen Brothers used to just be credited as “Joel Coen”. It’s pretty clear (especially if you watch the special features) that Stahelski and Leitch worked as a team, so for once I’ve ignored my rule of only crediting the credited director. ^

Man of Tai Chi (2013)

2015 #49
Keanu Reeves | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China, Hong Kong & USA / Cantonese, English & Mandarin | 15 / R

Man of Tai ChiMatrix star Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with this thoroughly entertaining martial arts actioner.

Tiger Chen is the last student of his master’s Tai Chi fighting style, though while Tiger excels at combat, his hotheadedness means his master struggles to instil the associated philosophical values. That makes Tiger easy prey for Mark Donaka (Keanu Reeves), a businessman who runs underworld fight clubs and lures our financially-troubled hero into his world. Meanwhile, police inspector Suen Jing Si (Karen Mok), long struggling to prove Donaka’s illegal activities, spies the fundamentally-good Tiger as a way in…

(Before we go on: no, Tai Chi isn’t secretly an awesome fighting style that you mistakenly thought was genteel exercise — part of the film’s plot is that Tiger is the only practitioner who uses it for combat, and everyone is surprised and amazed by it.)

Shot on location in China and Hong Kong, produced through local production companies and performed by native actors, with most of the dialogue in Cantonese and Mandarin, there’s an air of authenticity to Man of Tai Chi’s proceedings that often goes awry in such American-helmed endeavours. That sense may be aided by the familiar-feeling storyline. However, while the film is not exactly innovative or groundbreaking, the plot and characters are gripping enough, the plentiful fights are performed and filmed with aplomb, and Reeves’ direction lends a sense of style to proceedings that isn’t overpowering but is somewhat classy.

Everybody was kung fu fightingSome have opined that it’s over-edited. Early on I thought it was a mite too chopped up (during a plain old dialogue scene, funnily enough), but for most of the film it’s fine. Fast at times, sure, but so’s the fighting. There’s a style and rhythm to it all — some near-montage-like sequences are surely meant to be exactly that — and the fighting is never needlessly obscured, because (unlike in so many Hollywood action movies) these guys can actually do it and Reeves wants to show us that. He really focuses on them, too. These aren’t fights as part of elaborate chase sequences, or action interludes whose drama is reliant on the sheer volume of competitors being offed. Nearly every bout is one-on-one (there’s a single instance of two-on-one), all executed in nondescript rooms or arenas. It’s the straight-up fight choreography that does the talking here.

Most engaging outside of the action is, perhaps, the arc our hero goes on. Tiger is notable for being a flawed protagonist. He’s being led down a path where we believe the possibility that his rashness and anger issues might actually make him into the thing the villain wants him to be. It makes for a more interesting journey for the hero than most films offer these days. As that villain, Reeves is as wooden as ever, but at least here his character is a cold, mysterious businessman — an actor/role marriage not exactly made in heaven, but certainly in acceptability.

PlankA mention also for the score by Kwong Wing Chan. Apparently it’s made up of “Techno-styled, bass-heavy beats” or something (I got that from another review). Not the kind of music I normally listen to for pleasure, but its pounding electronic rhythms fit here, making their presence felt while never crossing into the over-dominance that kind of music is wont to do.

Man of Tai Chi should probably feel derivative and lightweight. Instead, it feels fun, exciting, stylish, and, if not deep, then at least more complex than you might have expected. If you like action movies where people who can actually fight do that, and quite a lot of it too, then this is a really enjoyable experience.

4 out of 5