Saturday, August 29, 2015

John Wick

So many action movies today are about comic book superheroes or serve as little more than special effects showcases that a movie like John Wick (2014) is a refreshing throwback: the straightforward revenge plot. Someone has wronged our hero, and he will not rest until those responsible have been eliminated. It's the kind of vigilante justice picture Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood cut their teeth on, and it's served as the setup for countless cult classics.

John Wick has a somewhat larger budget than many of its forebears, and it stars Keanu Reeves as our eponymous hero. Some Russian mobsters steal his car and shoot his dog, after doing a number on him in his own house, and once he recovers, Wick goes on a roaring rampage of revenge (as TV Tropes would put it). Since the dog was the last gift from his late wife and he is a former hitman known as Baba Yaga, or "The Boogeyman," Wick is absolutely merciless in his vengeance.

That's really it for plot. What results is a series of brutal, bone-crunching action scenes in which Wick slaughters pretty much everything thrown his way, whether it be in shootouts or hand-to-hand combat. It's violent and bloody, lots of head shots, snapped necks, and other wince-inducing injuries. Wick fights like a superman, but even he's not immune from injury. After getting stabbed in the side, he gets the wound stitched up and goes back to do what he's got to do. Another character escapes handcuffs by dislocating her thumb.

The action scenes, like the movie as a whole, are refreshingly old school. No fancy kung fu, overblown special effects, or bullet time: just a bunch of people trying to kill each other any way they can. More importantly, even though much of the film's locations is dark and filled with shadows, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch eschew shaky cam and quick cutting, giving us clear views of the action so we can be impressed by the cool fighting moves and stunts.

The movie also has a sense of humor. Similar to Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, a lot of it's based on people reacting to Wick and his reputation. After dispatching a dozen mooks in his home, Wick answers the door and talks with a police officer responding to a noise complaint. The officer sees a couple of bodies, asks Wick whether he's working again, and then nervously tells him he'll leave him be. Wick then calls a professional body disposal business saying he needs a "dinner table table for twelve."

That business is one of a number of details that give John Wick some richness, so it is more than a simple revenge story. It's world building, suggesting there's more to these characters and the setting than just what we see. My favorite element is the hotel run by Winston (Ian McShane) that caters exclusively to assassins and punishes those guests who conduct business at the hotel, something Miss Perkins (Adrienne Palicki) learns the hard way after she accepts a bounty to go after Wick. The hotel is just so cool, HBO or Showtime needs to turn it into a TV series.

Reeves isn't typically thought of as the most expressive of actors, but this is one of his best roles. His way of underplaying a part gives Wick a more deranged edge. One of his best moments is when crime boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, effective), whose son Iosef (Alfie Allen, wonderfully sniveling) is the one who attacked Wick, calls him and tries to talk him out of going after his son; Wick, not saying a word, just listens and hangs up.

The film is also a loaded with a few other familiar faces in brief but memorable roles: Willem Dafore as Marcus, a friend who visits John at his wife's funeral and then is paid to go after him; John Leguizamo as Aurelio, who runs a stolen car operation and punches Iosef when he learns how he got Wick's car (his phone conversation with Viggo when he explains why he punched out the crime boss's son has one of the biggest laughs because Viggo completely accepts the reasoning with a mere, "Oh."); and Kevin Nash as Francis, a mob bouncer whom Wick tells to take the night off, after complimenting him on his weight loss. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas probably don't need me to sing their praises for a movie released more than thirty years ago, but here it goes anyway. What a wonderful, exhilarating, and exciting experience is Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Drawing on the staples and elements of the classic Hollywood serials and coupled with first-rate production values, Lucas and Spielberg created America's answer to James Bond with a rugged, squared jawed, stubborn, and resourceful archeologist, Indiana Jones.

By now, I'm sure just about all moviegoers know the story of Raiders of the Lost by heart. In 1936, our intrepid archeologist (Harrison Ford) is recruited by the U.S. government in a race to beat the Nazis for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. In the globe-trotting adventure that ensues, Jones clashes with his French rival Belloq (Paul Freeman), reunites with old flame Marion (Karen Allen), and encounters all sorts of assassins, deathtraps, and other hazards along the way. And snakes. Lots and lots of snakes.

Raiders of the Lost Ark moves at a breakneck pace, hardly ever slowing down for more than the barest of exposition, and yet, it's not a mindless action thriller. Indiana Jones proves too be one of the most endearing of movie heroes. The comparisons to James Bond are not out of line, even though one's an American archeologist and the other's a British secret agent. Both travel all over the world to exotic locations, outfight and outwit cunning adversaries, use trademark gadgets and equipment, and of course, have encounters with beautiful women who are just as likely to punch them as kiss them.

But while Bond has that dashing calm, style and wit, Jones is scruffier, flying by the seat of his pants, and making it up as he goes long. Bond is always immaculately dressed and smooth, but Jones has no qualms about getting dirty or beat up, whether it's being dragged by a truck on a stony road or penetrating a dingy cave as tarantulas crawl over his back. Ford brings a sardonic sense of humor to the role and gives him a more human, more vulnerable touch than Ian Fleming's super spy (the recent films starring Daniel Craig notwithstanding).

Of course, Raiders has a strong supporting cast, offering both the best villain and best love interest of the series. Belloq, as he tells Jones, is our hero's dark reflection, the corruption of their profession who will sell his soul to the Nazis in exchange for fortune and glory. He frequently gets the upper hand on Indy, letting him do all the hard work and then swooping in for the prize once the danger has passed. Marion, despite often being the damsel in distress, resembles Princess Leia: feisty, tough, and not afraid to get involved in the action. We first meet her in a Nepalese bar where she outdrinks a burly patron. Even the bit parts are memorable, Alfred Molina as a traitorous guide, John Rhys-Davies as the loyal Sallah, and of course, Denholm Elliot as curator Marcus Brody (the latter two would be Flanderized a bit by the time we get to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

The film is loaded to the gills with breathtaking stunts and special effects: the opening escape from the rolling boulder, the chase through the streets and alleys of Cairo, the fistfight between Indy and a bald German mechanic (Pat Roach who made a habit of getting memorably squicky deaths in George Lucas productions) near the spinning propellers of an out of control airplane, and most memorably, when Indy hijacks and then defends a truck loaded with the ark. In an age before computer-generated effects, the practical work here is amazing, and the filmmakers have a way of mixing up the action, so it never feels repetitive: a gunfight here, a car chase there, etc.

Raiders has its share of humor, but it's not distracting; it feels organic to the movie, a natural response to believable human behavior rather than cheap gags or slapstick. The action scenes tend to be funny even as the excitement builds. The biggest laugh occurs when Indy deals with a swordsman in the marketplace in the most nonchalant manner possible. There's also a priceless moment when Indy, chasing after thugs who have Marion trapped in a basket, runs into a street where all he sees are people carrying similar baskets. Also funny is a cute little monkey that's revealed to be a Nazi pet that can't resist a salute, nor can his handler resist returning the gesture.

Movie brats they are, Spielberg and Lucas also include memorable homages to other movies. When the Well of Souls, the resting place of the Ark, is unearthed, a storm brews behind Indy the way it did behind Charlton Heston's Moses in The Ten Commandments. At the end, when the Ark is opened and the terrifying light show is unleashed (complete with exploding heads and melting faces), it bears an uncanny resemblance to the climactic moments of Kiss Me Deadly, when the Great Whatsit is opened  and goes off like a nuclear bomb.

That's the strength of Raiders of the Lost Ark: it takes what's old and makes it fresh and invigorating. If you can watch this movie and not be excited by it, you're probably as dead and dry as the mummies Indy and Marion encounter.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Trance

The last time I reviewed a movie starring James McAvoy, I compared its style to Trainspotting. I guess it was inevitable the next movie I reviewed in which McAvoy descends into madness and hallucination would be directed by Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting.

Trance (2013) begins with a setup Alfred Hitchcock might have found appealing. Simon (McAvoy) is an art auctioneer involved in a scheme led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal a priceless painting. However, he rips off the gang and makes off with the painting, but in the chaos of the robbery, Simon is struck in the head by Franck and develops amnesia, so he can't remember where he left the painting or why he wanted to double-cross Franck. After torture fails to get the information, Franck sends Simon to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, (Rosario Dawson) to extract the lost memory of the stolen painting from Simon's brain.

For the first forty minutes or so, I was intrigued with Trance (though not entranced). The film initially builds around three questions: where is the painting, why did Simon take it, and what role will Elizabeth play? When the crooks first send Simon to Elizabeth, they tell to him to pretend he's looking for his car keys, but very quickly, she realizes there's more going on than what Simon is telling her. That's an interesting concept because he's trying to both find and hide the truth, but Boyle jettisons this strategy soon after and includes her in the scheme.

Boyle brings a lot of disorienting style to the film. Simon flows in and out of memories, and Boyle shoots the film in an off-kilter, skewed way, a perfect reflection of a fractured, distorted mind. People in the present end up in the memories, and the line between real and imaginary grows increasingly blurred. Boyle uses a lot of slanted camera angles, aggressive lighting, frantic editing, and wonky reflections to represent Simon's fragile state of mind as he unravels.

But after a while, the movie loses steam. That's the challenge with these real-or-unreal narratives: if you keep piling on effect upon effect and don't seem to be getting anywhere, eventually the viewer is going to lose patience and just stop caring. I know I did. The film opens with a lot of momentum - a robbery, a double cross, torture, a mystery, a desperate medical procedure- but by the halfway mark or so, everything becomes bogged down. And worse, when the big secret of Simon and Elizabeth's past is revealed, Boyle has to halt everything to explain it. The best twists are the ones that propel the suspense and pull all the plot threads tight. In this case, the twist is just too convoluted and uninteresting.

Performances are solid, but there's no sympathetic character present to keep things grounded. McAvoy has a keen way of playing these protagonists who grow increasingly unbalanced, but Simon is a crook and a rat, and the more we learn about him, the less we like. Elizabeth begins as a sympathetic doctor, but she too quickly is revealed as a schemer. That leaves Franck and his gang of thieves, murderers, and rapists. With no one to care about, Trance is ultimately an energetic but deflating exercise in style.