Saturday, July 1, 2017
SAVAGE CINEMA DEBUTS: "JOHN WICK" (2014)
Screenplay Written by Derek Kolstad
Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
*** (three stars)
I don't know why but sometimes, I just cannot resist a good shoot 'em up.
Sometimes, when I decide to watch a movie, I just may go for one that is more seemingly fitted to whatever mood I may find myself in. And truth be told, some of those times involve the classic shoot 'em up crime/action film genre. Granted, I do genuinely like those sorts of action thrillers but usually to point. I mean--there is only one "Die Hard" (1988) for a reason, as it is rare when that type of a film is able to transcend its own genre and truly become something classic...and therefore, making other, lesser films in the same genre irrelevant and not worth watching.
But still...there are those times, when I just happen to need something with flying bullets and some level of ultraviolence. For that is precisely the reason that I saw a film like the Quentin Tarantino scripted and Robert Rodriguez directed thriller/horror film mash-up "From Dusk Til Dawn" (1996) or the slightly more obscure heist film "Killing Zoe" (1994) from Writer/Director Roger Avery. More recently, I found myself surprisingly and wildly entertained by the preposterously enjoyable autistic hit man concoction "The Accountant" (2016) starring Ben Affleck in the titular role and on this lazy Saturday afternoon, and after an extended stressful period in my life, I found myself in need of something potentially like that film and that was how I happened upon making my acquaintance with "John Wick."
Starring Keanu Reeves in the titular role, "John Wick" spins the bloody, brutal tale of our eponymous anti-hero who, at the film's start, is mourning the loss of his beloved wife to a terminal illness and is just only beginning to etch out a new life with his wife's final gift, a beagle puppy. named Daisy.
Just days after his wife's passing and the arrival of Daisy, Wick is taunted at a gas station by some young Russian ruffians led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), who are ogling the sights of Wick's classic 1969 Boss 329 Mustang, and is later attacked in his own home by the same ruffians, who finally steal his car and kill Daisy.
Upon taking Wick's Mustang to a chop shop run by Aurelio (John Leguizamo), Iosef is informed that he has crossed paths with the wrong man, a fact further confirmed by his Father, Russian crime boss Viggo Tarasov (the late Michael Nyqvist), who proclaims that John Wick is not The Boogeyman...John Wick is the man you would hire to kill the Boogeyman!
And so it goes, with this tale of revenge and intended redemption transformed in to inevitability as John Wick hunts down Iosef and Viggo with a relentless (and even quite fashionable) approach, littering New York City in a hailstorm of bullets and blood.
"John Wick," as conceived and directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch (who was actually uncredited as a co-director due to the rules of the Directors Guild Of America but was listed as a producer), is a lean, bare-bones, yet highly stylized action thriller that never really takes itself too seriously but is also deeply steeped in its variety of cinematic influences, from Asian action cinema, of course, to filmmakers as diverse yet cut from the same conceptual cloths as Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino.
Unlike the hysterically convoluted plot of "The Accountant," Stahelski and Leitch ensure that their film's storyline is just this shy of skeletal, a tactic that actually works in the film's favor as it informs the proceedings as we, in the audience, are left to devise of the backgrounds and histories of Wick and his adversaries. That being said, a double feature of "John Wick" and "The Accountant" does not seem to be terribly far fetched.
What Stahelski and Leitch do bring to the table is a high style that feels simultaneously gritty yet elegant, due to the exclusivity of the film's New York locations, the high fashion wardrobes of the film's criminal underworld and the slyly humorous politeness to all of their dialogue exchanges and the euphemisms utilized to covertly describe their dirty deeds.
Keanu Reeves, who has long carried a mighty screen presence yet has often been saddled with a limited acting range, has again found a conceptual sweet spot to explore as John Wick. His verbal reticence combined with his still impressive physicality, again, informs his character's grief as well as his existential drama with returning to a life he felt that he had long left behind, the skin he thought he had forever shed. This quality does indeed give the film some necessary (but not too much) weight, a quality that was reminiscent of themes housed in Tarantino's "Kill Bill" series (2003/2004), Tony Scott's "Man On Fire" (2004) and definitely in Clint Eastwood's revisionist Western "Unforgiven" (1992).
But even still, "John Wick" is a film where it strongly feels that the visuals and action are indeed the heavy lifters as far as storytelling is concerned and with that Stahelski and Leitch succeed greatly. We happen to live in a cinematic age where action sequences are seemingly devised and executed via a blender rather through any cinematic creativity and imagination.
Fight sequences that are often shot too closely via the dreaded shaky-cam and then edited together in a randomness making audiences fully unable to follow the story of the fights, chases and shoot-outs and are therefore subjected to being bludgeoned rather than legitimately excited and exhilarated. Stahelski and Leitch avoid all such errors as they allow the camera to follow the copious action sequences cleanly, with purpose, attention, skill and focus, ensuring that every set piece is one that will fully satisfy while also setting the stage for whatever is to follow.
Now, all of that being said, there are many reasons for me to actually hate a film like this and I am wondering why or even how I could have enjoyed a film so much that did employ a sickeningly cheap tactic of the killing of a cute little beagle (thankfully, shown very briefly but even so..) as the film's catalystic plot point. It is more than a shallow thing to hinge and entire film upon and it does call into question for us as film-going audiences about what do we even need to find ourselves to be entertained these days. Honestly, is there absolutely nothing that is off limits anymore? Did that dog really have to be killed in order to spring Wick into action? Could having been attacked in his home and having his car stolen be enough for a film this conceptually scant?
But maybe...I know that I just might be reaching here, but maybe Stahelski and Leitch have tapped into something akin to what was tapped into Luc Besson and Pierre Morel's especially nasty, sadistic and at times borderline racist yet efficiently effective "Taken" (2008)--frankly, I wont even count the later two sequels as those movies are essentially comedies as far as I am concerned.
I really do not wish to make too much of this but I am wondering that considering the increased vitriol, violence, precariousness and overall uncertainty of our 21st century American landscape, where so many of us are indeed feeling up against it, trapped under it or fearing that all could be lost in an instant and through no fault of our own, there is this need to lash out and provide ourselves with some sort of individualized frontier justice against our foes, whether real or imagined. In many ways, I could see a film like "John Wick" serving as a safe way to vicariously act out upon our basest and more violent tendencies as this is quite the primal little film.
In some ways, aren't we all just kind of lashing out against those who would or could potentially take away the most vulnerable like John Wick's beagle? Admittedly, living in Wisconsin, I have felt like that for the last five to six years and even moreso now with who is currently occupying the White House. If I am feeling like this then certainly, I would think it is safe to assume that others are as well. Again, I don't want to make too much of this small slice of pulp fiction but I can't help to wonder if this film has inadvertently touched a cultural nerve.
Regardless, "John Wick" was indeed effective enough that I am not only willing to give this year's "John Wick: Chapter 2" a whirl, I am not-so-secretly hoping that we can have a cinematic mash-up featuring John Wick....VS. The Accountant!!!!
Now THAT would be heaps more entertaining than Batman Vs. Superman!