John Wick: Chapter Two – a review

john-wick-goes-walking-his-dog-in-new-photos

Wicked…

Uber-violent, hyper-real and stunningly-stylised, John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up where the first film left off in more ways than one. Keanu Reeves reprises the titular role with enough dash and swagger to carry the film through its slightly over-reaching 122 minute duration and is still as cool and iconic a movie (anti)hero as you’ll find. Think Clint Eastwood on Speed (get it?).

The Rome nightclub/party/catacombs sequence might just be some of the best action captured on film in recent memory but the feeling that you’re enjoying watching an endless stream of human beings having their heads blown off and seeing their brain matter plastered everywhere can’t ultimately be escaped, which somewhat leaves you questioning the validity of the whole experience and your participation in it, let alone the wider sociological ramifications.

But it is an action film and this is the world we live in – where violence is still revered as entertainment – so let’s just stick to appreciating it within its genre…

Replete with several moments of cinematic homage, including a couple of nods to The Matrix – you can’t help but think ‘Morpheus!’ when Keanu first meets Laurence Fishburne again – and a ‘house of mirrors’ sequence hearkening back to Bruce Lee‘s finale in legendary Enter the Dragon, the sense of self-referential awareness only adds to the aesthetic of John Wick’s world. And in Wick, Reeves has found a career-resurgent character. If the suit fits…and at 52 years of age, he wears it with aplomb.

Both in terms of narrative and thematic design, John Wick 2 is far less succinct and concise than the original installment. 2014’s outing was able to maintain the taught revenge concept a little better, being over 20 minutes shorter, but in so doing never had to flesh out anything beyond the core because its sense of vengeance was so pure and propulsive. Revisiting a character who, seemingly, has already quenched his thirst for blood requires that we have a bit more by way of exposition this time around. This is handled well, with the help of charismatic support from the likes of returning Ian McShane and Lance Redddick, combined with fresh turns from Ruby Rose and Common. The latter newcomer being somewhat more believable than the former and, in fact, Rose’s mute killer is somewhat over-the-top even amidst the heightened-nearly-comicbook-reality that is John Wick. We learn more about the secret society of these underworld assassins and delve a shade darker into John Wick the man, one plagued by loss and the age-old career-killer-who-wanted-to-stop-killing-but-had-his-chance-of-redemption-cruelly-taken-away-so-now-must-kill-again-and-kill-everyone syndrome.

All in all, a highly entertaining, if drawn out and ridiculously violent, super-slick action spectacular.

 

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The Nice Guys – a review

I think it's your line...

I think it’s your line…

Shane Black possesses some pretty serious cinema credentials. He wrote Lethal Weapon, which must rank as one of the best action films ever made and spawned a long-running but sadly qualitatively diminishing franchise (he only really wrote the first one, to be fair), and more recently (co)wrote and directed Iron Man 3, another franchise juggernaut and this time the tenth highest grossing movie of all time. So, yeah, he knows a thing or two about writing and directing films. So, one would expect his latest creative offering to be pretty good. And, well, it is.

Carrying over the ‘buddy’ relationship that made Lethal Weapon so enjoyable and playing with the slightly more silly and hapless duo dynamic from his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Trivia: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang star Val Kilmer’s son, Jack, has a cameo here. Just saying.), Black delivers a hugely entertaining romp of a ride in The Nice Guys. But, who are these ‘nice guys’? (**Spoiler Alert** The movie’s tagline is, ‘They’re not that nice.’) We have the pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

Fans of Curtis Hanson’s seminal 1997 neo-noir classic, LA Confidential, will recognise something very ‘Bud White’ about Crowe’s performance as Jackson Healy. Albeit the tone couldn’t be more different – slick, silly comedy action rather than dramatic and aesthetic brilliance – a confluence of characteristic energy flows through Crowe as the city’s hard man: big, strong and his violent outgoings merely the vehicle for his conflicted soul, as he ultimately wants only to do the right thing by those having the wrong thing done unto them. He is brilliantly watchable here and his brutish, imposing physical presence is played to perfection. He still deserves his place at Hollywood’s table of bankability.

As for Gosling, he has star quality to burn as he lets loose and goes all-out with his comedy performance. He’s good, he’s very good, but just on a couple of occasions (the toilet door, by the tree) teeters over the edge and plays it a bit OTT. Only proving that comedy is hard and you mustn’t try too hard to get those laughs. Look, he’s brilliant as the ever-drunk and slightly useless private detective, Holland March, and shows that his acting skeleton is not without a generous smattering of comedy bones, but Jim Carrey he is not. So he shouldn’t try for that kind of performance. That’s what Jim Carrey is for. To be Jim Carrey. Anyway, that aside, the dynamic and timing between the two leads is effervescent which makes for a very fun film. And that’s just exactly what The Nice Guys is: fun.

The 70s setting certainly not only adds to the footloose and fancy free style, captured cooly by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, but actually serves to cover any narrative cracks that may otherwise have been exposed and is quite a brilliant choice from Black; giving everything a retro ambience forgives any shortcomings found in the plot-lite. Let’s avoid the slithering temptation to say that the era itself almost becomes a character in the movie…

So, let’s say instead: who would want to watch just another buddy action-comedy set in the present day? Think Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg for your answer. But being set in the overtly stylish and sexy 70s also obscures the fairly consistent, gratuitous and unbalanced portrayal of female nudity (the central plot device is that our heroes are trying to track down a female porn star, so maybe they covered that one too…) and the underrepresentation of anything approaching a strong female character.

Enter Angourie Rice, who quite simply sets the screen alight as the precocious and long-suffering, if not diminutive, daughter to Gosling’s never-present and/or inebriated father. One to watch, a la Kirsten Dunst and Dakota Fanning. Kim Basinger pops up in an ancillary role but still manages to effuse some of her dwindling star power and provides us with another link back to LA Confidential (where she also co-starred with Crowe). Aren’t we clever. Oh, and, in case it wasn’t clear, this film is also set in LA. So that about wraps it up. LA Confidential meets Kiss Kiss Bang Bang set in the 70s. Sounds alright doesn’t it.

The Nice Guys is a classic, old school movie; go to the cinema, watch it and have a great time. Then leave, never really thinking of it again but feeling sated and confident that you just got your money’s worth. And if enough of you do that, then we may well see The Nice Guys 2 in a couple of years. And that wouldn’t be so bad at all.

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Spectre – a review

Matalan Man

Matalan Man

Since Sam Mendes set the bar precariously high in 2012, with the hugely popular and profitable Skyfall, the next installment was always going to have incredible hype around its release with audience expectations peaked and breath bated as to whether such soaring success could be achieved again. The jury is still out.

Spectre is incredibly hard to digest on one viewing alone. Unlike it’s younger brother, Skyfall, which was contained to the point of perfection – bringing in some Bond tropes and timely nods to the backlog of 007 memories, remaining complete whilst being part of something else far larger and still maintaining big blockbuster status – Spectre is just vast. If a normal movie is divided into three acts then this one is divided into three films. At one point, after a huge set piece and what would conventionally be the finale of any other film, and possibly should have been of this one, Bond even says, ‘this isn’t over yet’ as if he’s actually encouraging the audience to stay with him through the next hour. That sequence is stunning, the opening sequence is a genuine cinematic moment and the finale is…well, to put it politely, underwhelming. Why?

There are definite questions hovering over the holes in the characters of our villains here, like smoke from the barrel of a gun. Christoph Waltz, surely one of the all-time Bond baddies, right? Hmmm. Javier Bardem, not as elevated as Waltz’s character, in terms of plot, certainly seemed to walk closer to the well-trodden path of Bond’s previous adversaries. Maybe in time Waltz’s significance will be borne out but for now he seems a most confused nemesis. A nice line in the I’ve-captured-you-so-I’ll-tell-you-everything-and-give-you-time-to-escape scene harks back to one of the most famous Bond villain lines of all and is a particular highlight within the multitudinous self-referential homages yet does nothing to lift the shroud of ambiguity hanging over Waltz’s character. In a most bizarre twist, which is somewhat over developed and subsequently under used, the narrative deviates drastically from the established canon, opening a very large door to an even larger room only to reveal not very much inside.

Andrew Scott‘s ‘C’ is just an enigma. His motivation removed by a script that simply didn’t allow any time for us to find out who he was, what he was about or why he was trying to do, well, anything. There is light at the end of the tunnel, in the hulking form of Dave Batista, who provides some of the best adversarial moments as he faces off against 007.

Luckily we have our boys and girls from Her Majesty’s Secret Service and leading the way, obviously, is Daniel Craig in his fourth outing as Britain’s best. or, depending who you listen to within MI6, worst, secret agent. Craig has got to the point where he is this generation’s Bond and, for some, the ultimate incarnation of Ian Fleming’s super spy. At the very least, and discounting his apparent apathy at playing one of cinema’s most iconic characters, he has reinvigorated a franchise with credibility and enough grizzled grit (our Bond can smash through walls with his bare hands) so that the we can grow old, and our kids grow up, on some substantial British movie making.

Ralph Fiennes proves his worth as ‘M’, Dame Judi Dench‘s shadow long since blown away by the radiant sunshine of his Mallory. He steps it up a gear this time around and shows his importance as a central cog, already not afraid to get his hands dirty, here he pretty much does Bond’s job for him whilst our James is predictably off chasing after some girl. And here we return to a proper archetype Bond girl. Léa Seydoux is beautiful and deadly but she also brings something to the story and to 007’s cause. Although the references to Vesper Lynd throughout do nothing to shake the feeling that we’ve seen this all before.

Ben Whishaw has thoroughly perfected his bespectacled, somewhat socially uneasy ‘Q’, to the point where you could see him inhabiting the role akin to the late, great Desmond Llewelyn. Naomie Harris is less used but that’s quite alright, as she doesn’t offer an abundance of appeal as Moneypenny.

It’s ambitious, silly in places, utterly gargantuan as a movie-going experience and definitely warrants a second viewing. Although that might reveal some of the deeper inadequacies then it would certainly allow you to enjoy the hugely entertaining full-circle moment of this Daniel Craig James Bond renaissance.

Does it feel like an ultimate homage to his four films as Bond and a possible fitting farewell; setting up the next inhabitant of the synonymous white tux, martini breath and licence to kill? Quite possibly. But is it also a fine balancing act between huge spectacle and historical respect for what is a worldwide and revered brand? Definitely yes. And enjoyably so as Mendes and Co. carve out a visually rich, high-octane ride that uses this already robustly rebuilt character of our modern Bond and pushes him through a towering and sprawling adventure to get the bad guys and make things right.

Spectre may mark the end of something but, then again, all good things come to an end, so why not go and enjoy it.

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