John Wick: Chapter Two – a review

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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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Return to Sender – a review

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There’s a definite feeling with Return to Sender that person(s) behind the scenes have strategically positioned this film in order to cash in on the considerable success and critical acclaim that surrounded last year’s Gone Girl. Now, there’s nothing wrong in that, using another offering as a platform to boost your own, but it does raise the whiff of suspicion that maybe there was a reason why this film was made back in 2013 but is only being released now. That reason, regrettably, is that this one isn’t that good.

Rosamund Pike stars as a hard-working nurse with aspirations of becoming a surgeon. Cue some predictably jovial hospital worker cohorts and various introductory scenes to establish her character which never really make it clear if she is liked or not. Pike’s American accent feels awfully familiar to those who saw her Amy Dunne; this performance serving, possibly, as a feature length casting call to bigger and better things.

Nick Nolte plays Pike’s father and huskily growls his way through his scenes with the usual intense gravitas but surprisingly turns out to be the pivotal performance; the only solidly consistent and coherent cog in what is an otherwise tonally meandering and ever-changing machine. Nolte shows, albeit at times admittedly hard to understand, the softer side that lives beneath the many hardened layers of his veteran grizzle. And it’s quite affecting, seeing such a familiar powerhouse (just watch 48 Hrs. again) displaying a more sensitive bent and channelling it with control and relative finesse, turning out to be among the only treats on offer.

Unfortunately it’s that word ‘predictably’ that ultimately gobbles up any semblance of originality or impact this story feigned to conjure. Pike is established as neurotic to the point of displaying obsessive compulsive behaviour; she is popular, talented and attractive but essentially alone. She has a blind date set up for her but when a man, Shiloh Fernandez, turns up early at her house things rapidly spiral out of control, resulting in a life-shattering and irrevocable incident.

Pike’s relationship with Fernandez is the crux of the whole film. And it falls flat and foul of a disingenuous emotional connection. The turning point between them feels oddly empty and not the momentous change of gear you would expect from all the build up that preceded. It’s paced poorly and stitched together incongruously, leaving everything feeling trite and hollow. All the pieces of the puzzle are in the right place but the picture they resemble just isn’t that impressive. The finale, in particular, is a conundrum. Although plausibly powerful in its succinctness, you can’t help but just want a bit more from it. Just as it gets interesting they lower the curtain!

With glimpses of something worth watching and Rosamund Pike on screen, it’s not all bad. Return to Sender could have been an adequate TV movie from a bygone decade. As it is, it’s average to the point of being disappointing.

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Blackhat – a review

Guys, I think you're takign the Blackhat thing way too seriously...

Guys, the Blackhat thing was supposed to be metaphorical…

A big dollop of form over function, Blackhat exhibits the usual lovely digital visuals we’ve come to expect from Michael Mann of late and some decent suspense and tension for what is essentially a computer-hacker thriller with the odd bit of action.

Despite glimpses of some nice technical innovations, different format cameras being used in different scenarios, there is sadly nothing groundbreaking or original enough to offset the lethargic and dated storytelling.

And it is that word that defines Blackhat: dated. Whether because Mann is a director from another era and his films simply feel outmoded in 2015 or whether this one is just a dud, it doesn’t really matter – the result is the same. When you’ve got films, over the past year alone, such as Boyhood and Birdman pushing the envelope of what’s possible with cinema then a beige political thriller with trademark touches from the 90s just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Mann can do a shout-out and final showdown better than anyone, just watch Heat if you need reminding, but is that alone enough to keep afloat a heavily sagging script and dead-weight cast? The answer for Blackhat is, sadly, no. In no small part because of the sub-standard acting from both leads Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang; their chemistry is purely physical, cemented by a painfully unnecessary and formulaic sex scene, with the dramatic and emotional scenes being left distinctly hollow as a result.

Even the gimmicky special effects employed to give some energy and dynamism to the inherently dull technological aspects of the plot (he’s a hacker, they need him to use his hacker skills to hack some computer hackery stuff) is tired and unimpressive. Oh, and it’s about four hours long, which doesn’t help.

All in all, a flat flop; Hemsworth showing his limited range in struggling to step up to the level required to open a serious film. Probably stick to the hammer guy, Chris, you’re good at that. Mann definitely still has something to offer but maybe we’ll need to wait for his second coming, a la Mr Scorcese.

Blackhat is a film that could have been made ten years ago but probably shouldn’t have been made at all. Never mind, eh.

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