Gary Fleder’s Don’t Say A Word is one of those slick Michael Douglas thrillers with a juicy cast, luxurious runtime and that classic ‘Hollywood thriller’ feel. It’s one of those scripts written with people like him or Harrison Ford in mind, the middle aged high profile professional whose family is menaced or kidnapped, forcing this straight laced Everyman to take action. This one is particularly strong and terrifically entertaining thanks mainly to the late Brittany Murphy in my favourite of her onscreen roles as a disturbed teenage girl whose broken, traumatized mind hold the secret to the film’s central mystery. When she was a young girl she witnessed the brutal murder of her father at the hands of a dangerous career criminal (Sean Bean) and his marauding gang of thieves. It’s now a decade or so later and he’s back to terrorize her again in hopes of unlocking a clue lodged deep in her head, information she’ll do anything to hide. Douglas is the hotshot psychologist who finds himself and his family targeted by Bean & Co., extorted into treating her and gaining the information so badly desired by all. Douglas and Murphy have terrific onscreen chemistry and she even upstages him in many scenes with her trademark raw, potent and very candid style of acting that seems almost out of place in such a glossy high profile thriller but really gives the thing its most valuable spark of life. Bean’s villain is admittedly kinda one dimensional in terms of script but he can take any character and give it something memorable with his talents, he’s utterly ruthless and despicable here, making the peril feel real and relentlessly threatening. The supporting cast is stacked to the nines with work from Famke Janssen as Douglas’s terrorized wife, the late Sky McCole Bartusiak as his cunning daughter, Oliver Platt as a shady colleague clearly hiding something, Jennifer Esposito as a shrewd homicide detective on everyone’s case, with additional support from Shawn Doyle, Guy Torry, Lance Reddick, David Warshofsky, Paul Schulze, Aiden Devine and a cameo from Victor Argo as a wily coroner. Fleder is an accomplished director (Runaway Jury, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, Kiss The Girls) and knows his way around a flashy big budget thriller without losing a palpable sense of character and setting. This is one of my favourite Michael Douglas thrillers, mainly because of Brittany Murphy’s super affecting, down to earth work, Bean’s cold, psychopathic baddie, the blue and grey hued NYC cinematography full of hustle, bustle and urgent incident and the overall orchestration which has a classic ensemble thriller mentality that you just don’t get from Hollywood anymore. Great film.
The world is currently obsessed, it seems, with 80’s throwback media, and as a die hard fan of the style, I say bring on as much of the delirious synth music, lurid body horror and deep cut, bleeding neon as possible. From Stranger Things and It Follows to The Void it’s been a heyday renaissance, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest is a bit more obscure but no less of a celebration of the genre. Working from a vague Terminator/bone smashing action vibe, it’s a neat reworking of the ‘invincible antihero thrown into quiet suburbia’ vibe, but that’s so specific that maybe it just invented a new sub-sub genre. Dan Stevens is a a steely eyed new talent who has shed his Downton Abbey pretty boy image like a snakeskin and emerged as a serpent of solid tough guy portrayals (check out his awesome bad/good guy work in A Walk Among The Tombstones), and he carries the whole flick here as the mysterious David, a strange and scary dude who shows up on the doorstep of an all American family, claiming to be the army buddy of their deceased son. There’s clearly more to the story, as the familiar formula sinks in and unwinds, but it’s terrific fun watching it all play out time and time again. He’s got a particular set of skills reminiscent of the super-soldiers of that era, impresses the family patriarch (Leland Orser) who shows simultaneous fascination and suspicion with this new dark stranger in their household. He also gets close with their daughter (It Follow’s Maika Monroe), until he’s heavily invested in her’s and the family’s life, but it’s also the one thing that’s putting them, and the whole damn neighbourhood, on a course for trouble. Death and danger seem to follow David, like when a shadowy Army spook (Lance Reddick subtly channels 80’s Danny Glover) shows up looking for answers, and despite his emerging best intentions for the family, at the end of the day he’s a volatile black ops asset that can barely control his own trajectory. It’s a slight film that breezes by and never hits too hard, but sits in the genre groove wonderfully, with all cast members giving good shout outs. Wingard made his debut years ago with an impressive little Troma-eque bizarro slasher flick called Home Sick, went on to collaborate on the famed VHS anthology series and has wowed yet again here, I hope he continues to be a wicked voice for horror. Composer Steve Moore lets the synths rip, roar and rumble for a score that’s right up my 80’s fanatic alley, and gilds the film neatly. Cool stuff.
John Wick: Chapter 2 expands nicely on a mythology that we caught a glimpse of from behind the shadowy curtain of assassin’s anthropology in the first film, a fantastic meld of stylish world building and hyper violent, stunts driven action that saw Keanu Reeves come blasting back onto the big screen in probably the best role so far of his career. Chapter 2 has one big challenge to face though: the first one was driven by the fact that those fuckers killed his dog, and the man’s subsequent bloodlust over it. That was the crux, the catalyst, the reason we cheered so loudly each time he maimed or mauled someone. Now, I don’t need an excuse like that to watch an antihero slaughter people, but some might, and the dog thing just propelled him forward faster and furious…er. What’s the catalyst here? Well, they destroy his house. Not quite the emotional kick in the nuts you get from seeing a beagle murdered, but it seems to be enough to light Wick’s fuse again, so there you go. He’s faced with a figure from his past here, some fruitcake of an Italian mobster (Ricardo Scamarcio) who wants him to come out of retirement and kill his powerful sister (Claudia Geroni) to ensure his seat at a revered council table of international crime figures. It’s basically John Wick’s Eurotrip, as he treks across the pond to kill more goons and thoroughly destroy more night clubs and other such convenient set pieces than you can shake a stick at, before returning back to New York for an ultra-violent third act. John Leguizamo, the always awesome Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan and David Patrick Kelly all reprise their wicked cool roles, whilst Common, Ruby Rose, Peter Serafinowicz and Franco Nero create new characters that flesh out this fascinating world of killer’s mythology even further. The film is special though for two important reunions for Reeves that give wonderful callbacks to earlier in his career: the prologue sees Wick ferociously reclaim his stolen car from Abram Tasarov (Peter Stormare) the more gregarious brother of Viggo, villain from the first film. Reeves and Stormare played Constantine and Lucifer in the underrated 2005 comic book adaptation, where they faced off with just as much menace and charisma we see in their little bit here. It’s also a reunion for Neo and Morpheus, because Laurence Fishburne shows up as the godlike Bowery King, a rooftop dwelling, pigeon keeping derelict who runs a vast crime syndicate that all disguise themselves as dishevelled hobos. It’s wonderful references like these that pack the pedigree with solid gold and moments to remember, not to mention it’s just a worthy sequel, a slam bang screamer of an action flick and a great time all round. Bring on Chapter 3, and I request an Al Pacino villain turn so we can get nostalgic for The Devil’s Advocate all over again.
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.