The reason John Wick works so well is a flawless mix of simplicity, earnestness and passion. The premise is a familiar one, and nearly identical to countless other slam bang action flicks out there, a simple and well travelled formula. It’s in the absolutely stylish, classy and distinct execution that it finds its uniqueness. The filmmakers (Chad Sahelski and Derek Kolstad) are stuntmen themselves, and therefore know what is needed to make a successful action film: well staged action. The terrific atmosphere that tagged along is a bonus and goes to further prove these guys have serious talent. They also care, want to have fun and want their film to exist within a memorable universe, and this all shows. An action film would be nothing without it’s star, and Keanu Reeves comes busting out of the gate in full rampaging glory as the titular ex-super hitman John Wick, an expert operative who can do things with guns that would make Neo nervous. John is grieving the death of his wife (the lovely Bridget Moynahan) and taking care of the puppy she left behind to console him, living the quiet life as it were, or at least as quiet as life can get for an ex mob assassin. Wick manages to chill out for a bit with the doggo, but that all ends when his path crosses with that of a spoiled mafia brat (Alfie Allen, played an even nastier snot rag than he did in Game Of Thrones) who steals his car and kills the poor pupper. This really lights Wick’s fuse, gives his brutal talents a new lease on life and throws him headlong back into the dangerous and often eccentric realm of covert contract killers. Allen was the son of a powerful, loose cannon Russian kingpin (Michael Nyqvist in a mirthful blend of funny, scary and just plain exasperated), and now John is at odds with hordes of his underlings and a few former associates who want his head. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but the film soars on the wings of propulsive, meticulously choreographed action and positively drips with cool, it’s main asset found in Reeves, who is an absolute boss in the role. Sporting a tailored suit, fiery attitude and lethal reflexes, John punches, kicks, stabs and shoots his way through endless unfortunate adversaries, seeming to be both fallible human and invincible archangel of destruction simultaneously. It’s the perfect role for him, a comeback of sorts and just a rip snortin action hero you can get riled up for. There’s attention to detail paid to his world too, the clandestine realm of killers given a mythology, currency and protocol all its own and perfectly original. Adding to the already impossible levels of class are a perfectly chosen roster of supporting talent too. John Leguizamo makes a peppy cameo as a cranky auto fence, Willem Dafoe plays a morally vague fellow hitman, watch for Lance Reddick, David Patrick Kelly, Daniel Bernhardt, Dean Winters, Adrienne Palicki and the always awesome Ian McShane as the suave proprietor of The Continental, a posh hotel that caters only to assassins. All characters encounter John Wick at some point and in some capacity, but Wick himself is the constant, the raw element which drives this film forward with the force of a stampeding bull, scarcely hesitating to breathe or seek medical attention on his quest for carnage. Reeves sells the character and then some, headlining one of the most flat out spectacular action films of the last decade.
I tend to actively avoid Steven Seagal films like the plague, and realize intermittently that I do in fact enjoy certain ones from back in the day. He’s made a ton of trash, no doubt, but the clouds part every now and again, for select occasions like Under Siege, The Glimmer Man, Above The Law, Fire Down Below and the snowbound On Deadly Ground. The main marvel in this one is an incredibly hammy Michael Caine as the mustache twirling villain, a Big Oil maniac who has his amoral sights set on sacred land belonging to Inuit tribesman. Seagal plays yet another martial arts trained badass who takes it upon himself to bring down Caine, his nefarious capitalist plans and the violent mercenaries he has hired to wipe the land of indigenous natives. It’s as silly as silly can be, right down to him falling in love with a beautiful Inuit girl (Joan Chen, actually Chinese), but enjoyable on its own terms when you look at the solid choreography, stunts and impressive location work. Also, the roster of villains is too good to pass up, starting with Caine’s outright, wanton psychopath. We’re also treated to the Sergeant himself, R. Lee Ermey as a merc with a particularly salty attitude, John C. McGinley over-playing one of his patented schoolyard bullies, and even Billy Bob Thornton shows up, adding to the sleaze factor. Watch for cameos from Mike Starr, Michael Jai White and an unbilled Louise Fletcher as well. Seagal directed this himself, so it’s essentially one big vanity piece where he gets to play Dances With Wolves for a couple hours, but the trick is to see the unintentional comedy in that and enjoy it. Seagal is one of those goofs who I am not a ashamed to say I am laughing at, not with. Caine is the real prize here, and his merry band of assholes. An action flick is only as good as it’s antagonist, and this guy is bad to the bone in hilariously over the top ways. A big dumb flick, nothing more, nothing le- well maybe a little less in places, but fun in other spots nonetheless.
Double Team has to be seen to be believed. Hell, even the poster does. It exists in that delirious wasteland of the late 90’s action genre, a place where anything can, and does go. As the genre evolved, the scientists deep within Hollywood’s labs were trying out endless mind boggling action star team ups, even using a few celebrities that had never had a film to their name. In this particular twilight zone we get Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman sharing a spotlight. There’s a pairing for ya. Van Damme plays a counter terrorist expert who miserably fails in preventing an attack from dangerous villain Stavros (Mickey Rourke), and is sent to The Colony, where disgraced agents are branded with all the snazzy technology the 90’s had to offer, after which being sent back into duty. He needs inside helps to track down Stavros, and finds it in beyond eccentric arms dealer Yaz (Rodman), a whacko who mirrors the man’s overblown real life persona. Together they make a run at Rourke, fireworks ensue, blah blah. It’s a crappy flick made noticeable by the strange presence of Rodman, and marginally watchable by Rourke, who actually gives Stavros the tiniest glint of surprising gravity, despite how downright silly the whole enterprise is. Loaded with cheese, dated special effects and clichés, it ain’t no picnic, but worth a glance during an inebriated late night channel switching blitz.
As I was watching Mr. Right, I started thinking to myself, this is stupid. It’s absurd and silly. So why does it work so well? The premise isn’t unique or original. Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Boy turns out to be hitman/secret agent. Boy drags girl on mad escapade against some dastardly villains, the bond between them getting stronger in the process. It’s an ages old formula. It sorta kinda worked with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, and elsewhere failed miserably with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher. So why then does it work so well with Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick? Well, exactly that: It’s Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick. The two are so suited for each other it’s adorable. The both of them are quirky, awkward, unconventionally attractive and very unpredictable in their work. Neither are what you’d call traditional romantic leads or action stars, and it’s in that sense that the film finds its groove. I’ve heard other critics bash on Max Landis’s script for being to busy or too stoked on itself, but in a studio system that tosses us garbage like the Kutcher/Heigl version, I’ll take anything I can get that puts in an admirable effort, flaws and all. Anna plays a jilted girl who is on a speeding rebound train that has a chance run in with Mr. Right (Sam Rockwell). He’s charming, super into her and the chemistry they have is obvious right off the bat. Soon they’re being appallingly cute and pretty much dating… that’s where the trouble begins. Rockwell is an infamous assassin on the run from several baddies including his former agency mentor (Tim Roth has even more fun with accents here than he did in The Hateful Eight) who has lost his marbles, and a trio of mafia brats played by a volatile Anson Mount, a hammy James Ransone and a wicked Michael Eklund as that nastiest of the bunch. The film tries hard to balance the two tones, and fpr the most part succeeds, blending them with the helpful notes of craziness from everyone. The violence is brutal, stylized and often darkly comical, the romance is sweet but never gushy with just a hint of mental instability from both parties (sounds weird, I know… it works). Rockwell adds shades of his off the rails work in Seven Psychopaths, albeit with less psychosis. Kendrick is endlessly cute, and endearingly klutzy. Throw in RZA as a hapless killer who can’t decide what side of the fence he’s on, and you’ve got a diverse little cast with enough collective and individual talent to make this a good time. It won’t be for everyone; I can picture many people I know big annoyed, or simply finding themselves unable to buy into it. But for fans of Rockwell and Kendrick (even if you’re not, there’s no scoffing at both their skills) it’s a charming blast of fun.
“Bitches, leave!!” I direct that sentiment towards anyone out there who thinks the remake of Robocop can hold a candle to Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant, incredibly graphic and bitingly satirical 1987 classic. Everything that was special and amazing about the original was absolutely pissed on with the remake, and it kills me that I run into people my age these days who aren’t even aware that the remake IS a remake, and think it’s the original Robocop. Ugh. Get out. No, this is the real, steel deal, accented by Verhoeven’s blunt approach to characterization and overly ultraviolent, near Cronenberg-esque flair for carnage. Peter Weller only gets to act as regular joe police officer Alex Murphy for a brief and chaotic prologue, but makes the most of it with his deadpan delivery and piercing gaze. Murphy is assigned to a precinct in the heart of Old Detroit, a district so corrupt, rotten and infested with crime it literally resembles a war zone, and cops wear heavy riot gear on their beat. Paired Nancy Allen, he beelines it for a suspicious truck leaving the scene of a heist. Only one problem: this particular truck happens to belong to evil arch criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his merry band of psychopaths, who are armed to the teeth with heavy artillery. Cornered in a warehouse, Murphy is brutally, and I mean fucking brutally dispatched by Boddicker and his gang, shredded by a hail of gunfire that turns him into raw hamburger meat. What’s left of him is quickly swooped up by corporate, and used in a high tech, absolutely silly program run by coked up suited opportunist Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). His idea has gotten in the way of nefarious plans put in motion by the top dog of the company, a maniac named Dick Jones played by Ronny Cox in a frighteningly funny turn that makes you terrified in between fits of giggles. Once Murphy has been through Morton’s wringer, Robocop emerges, an epic, unstoppable android enforcer who lays waste to criminal scum all over town, until traces of Murphy’s consciousness bubble up past the circuit boards and he gets his own agenda. Jones is determind to take him down, along with Morton, undermining The Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy), the acting CEO. For a film called Robocop that came out in 1987 you’d think were in for a cut and dry action cheese fest. Not with Verhoeven at the helm. The Dutch madman is never one to play it safe (a refreshing trait among European directors) and pulls out all the stops here for a bloody good time that pauses ever so slightly to nudge you with its cynical side that just loves to bash social convention into oblivion. The effects are so 80’s you’ll swoon, especially when Jones’s own robo creation shows up in clanking, drunken stop motion that you can practically reach out and touch. Smith is a homicidal wonder as Boddicker, the smarmy fury and unrestrained behaviour hijacking every scene he’s in. Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise plays Leon Nash, his equally dastardly second in command, and a host of gnarly character actors back them up, all of which have curiously guest starred on Fox’s 24 at various points in time, including Weller too. The level of fucks given with this film goes into the negative region of the thermometer, and to this day few studio films have been able to boast such disregard for discretion or lay claim to a sheer love of bombastic villains, a blatant lack of subtlety and a willingness to take things to cinematic infinity, beyond and back again just so they can throw a few more bullets into the mix. Accept no substitutes.
The Tournament is just about as awesome as action movies can get, and just about as bloody too. I love films involving assassins, contests, games, violence and such. The Running Man was clearly a huge influence on this one, right down to the inclusion of a larger than life game show host, here played by Liam Cunningham. Liam plays a shadowy nut job named Powers, and every four years he arranges an elaborate and incredibly destructive Olympic games for contract killers and psychos alike. Every time he hosts it in a new city, using hidden cameras and explaining away the damage with disasters and attacks. If this sounds so very 80’s, it is. We’re in throwback city here, with a touch of modern tone not unlike Joe Carnahan’s Smokin Aces. The reigning champion is Joshua Harlow (Ving Rhames), a brutal warrior who has been coaxed back into the game with revenge on his mind. Each assassin is fitted with a tracking device so they can track each other, an idea which goes haywire when a civilian accidentally gets stuck with one and ends up in the cross hairs. The civilian in question is a drunken priest (lol) played by Robert Carlyle, who has no idea what’s going on and suddenly has a dwindling life expectancy. He catches a break when a lethal but sympathetic female competitor (beauty queen Kelly Hu is an angel of physicality) takes pity and decides to help him out. They’ve got quite an armada to cut through though, including a rowdy cockney whacko (Craig Conway) a parkour master (Sebastian Foucan), an ex Spetsnaz freak (Scott Adkins) with a habit of blowing shit up left right and center, and lastly a Texan pretty boy lunatic played cheerfully by Ian Somerhalder. He’s so evil they just had to include a bit where he shoots a stray dog in the face without batting a perfect eyelash (animal lovers, you’ve been forewarned). All this mayhem is taken in by Powers and his sickening audience of wealthy kingpins, who sit in a great big boardroom and bet on the outcome of the carnage. Cunningham is a blast of devilish charm as Powers, an amoral villain of dark showmanship and sociopathic class. Between exploding heads, grenades ripping through the streets of London, frenetic hand to hand combat, colorful personalities, over the top depictions of bad human behavior and a general sense of hedonistic, slash and burn glee, this is one for the books.
The 6th Day is a brash, in your face sci fi actioner with some deft scientific notions that it plays around with in near satirical fashion. It chooses to shoot most of its scenes in my hometown of Vancouver, including a set piece atop the spiral shaped Vancouver Public Library tat sends sparks raining down into the streets and choppers spinning wildly to their demise. I love when films shoot here, because it gives my city an exciting chance to be a part of escapism, and it’s amusing to watch them digitally maim all sorts of landmarks and then chuckle as I see them intact on my way to work the next day. Schwarzenegger, in one of his last great flicks before his deliberate hiatus (we shall not speak of the abomination that is Collateral Damage), plays Adam Gibson, a helicopter tour guide who has a strange blackout in mid flight while transporting the CEO of a swanky scientific corporation (slick Tony Goldwyn). He arrives back home to find a clone of himself living with his family, and things only get weirder from there. He has stumbled into the inner workings of extremely illegal experiments involving human replication, and Goldwyn & Co. are none too pleased about it. Goldwyn has secretly made human cloning an everyday thing for the company, hidden from the aging eyes of the moral upright doctor who founded the company (Robert Duvall). This is all enforced by a ruthless corporate thug for hire (Michael Rooker) and his foxy assistant (Sarah Wynter). Schwarzenegger is faced with the daunting task of taking down this un-sanctioned empire, reclaiming his family and blowing up some stuff along the way. It’s a terrific flick, and Arnie gets to say the best line he’s ever spoken, directed at Goldwyn, which I won’t spoil here but it’s pure gold. Goldwyn is hateable and malicious, the horrific third act prosthetics fitting him like a slimy glove. Duvall strikes a noble chord and almost seems to have wandered in from a more serious film. Rooker is intense, evil and scene stealing as always. Watch for Wendy Crewson, Michael Rapaport and Terry Crews as well. In a movie so committed to the trademark Ahnuld fireworks, it’s cool to get a whiff of actual thought provoking, Asimov-esque intrigue with the cloning, a concept which is fully utilized and really a lot of fun here.