Saturday, November 1, 2014

Movie Reviews: John Wick, The Purge: Anarchy

John Wick
directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
What do you get when you combine actors from The Wire, The Matrix, Game of Thrones, Deadwood, The Warriors, Oz, The Boondock Saints, and Hanging with the Homeboys among others? Well you get John Wick, that's what you get.
This is a very good, very simple, very direct payback/revenge movie. It's no more than that nor does it try to be. So Keanu Reeves, who plays the titular character, actually has a role that plays to his strengths as an actor. Wick, who lost his wife to cancer, spends a great deal of the film in a fugue state of confusion, grief and anger. There's initially heavy emphasis on the confusion. There aren't many actors who can look confused better than Reeves can. It's virtually his default state of being. So how fortunate for him and for us that he was cast in this movie. There's very little fat in this film. It has a taut running time of around 100 minutes. There are a few predictable setpieces common to the genre with one or two exceptions these are mostly done well. And with a virtual who's who of character actors and "don't I know that guy/girl from somewhere appearances" any writing flaws are more than made up for by smooth performances. The camera work is excellent. It changes throughout the movie to help express Wick's feelings and experiences. I've learned that a horrible thing about getting older is that you attend more funerals. Some are just business affairs but when it's someone you loved the feelings of sadness, isolation and meaninglessness can be very strong. 

We are all indeed dust in the wind. The zooming crane shots at the funeral of John's wife (Bridget Moynahan) establish John's grief and make you feel it just as surely as the John Woo The Killer and Equilibrium inspired hyperactive camera work during the gunfights makes your blood pressure rise.

So what's this movie about? In many gangster stories the mob boss often has a special who reports only to him. This special guy is not just a killer. Heck any hoodlum can pull a trigger or tug on the end of a garrotte. The special is a fellow who never misses an assignment, has rock solid loyalty, possesses deadly talents which are far beyond the normal, is almost unkillable, has completed jobs previously thought impossible and without even lifting a finger or raising his voice terrifies some very scary people. The classic example is Luca Brasi from the Godfather movie/book. Here John Wick is that guy. Or to be precise he was Viggo's guy before leaving the lifestyle. As the top Russian mob boss Viggo Tarrasov (Michael Nyqvist) warns his subordinates "John Wick isn't the boogeyman. He's the guy you send to kill the f***** boogeyman!". John is out of the game. He's just become a widower. The most important things he has to remember his wife by are her bracelet, a phone video of better times and most poignantly a puppy named Daisy, delivered posthumously by his wife with a message of her deep and abiding love. John also has a black 1969 Mustang. A classic. While John is filling up at a local gas station, a Russian man named Iosef Tarrasov (Alfie Allen "Theon" from A Game of Thrones) tries to get John to sell his car to him. When John declines the offer Iosef makes a threat in Russian but is taken aback when John, neither impressed nor intimidated, responds in Russian. Unfortunately neither John nor Iosef recognize each other (John has been out of the game for a long time). Iosef and his men follow John home and later that evening break in to steal the car. Not satisfied with that they also beat him and kill his puppy Daisy.
That was a mistake.
John learns from the local auto theft czar Aurelio (John Leguizamo) that Iosef is Viggo's son. Aurelio, who works for Viggo, punched Iosef and refused to take the car. Viggo declines the request to turn over his son to John. He sends a platoon of men to deal with John. Well. Some ideas work better than others don't they. The tripwire has been tugged. A nightmarish killing machine is starting a Roaring Rampage of Revenge. As John later snarls to Viggo, "..that dog was the last memory of my wife. And your son killed it!!! So you can either give up your f***** son or die screaming beside him!!!!" I really enjoyed this action movie. It should be required viewing for folks who want to make entertaining, tight action films without flab. It is violent in the EXTREME though so if that is not your thing then you know what to do. But whatever you do, you never kill a man's dog. He might take it personally. The premise is perhaps dopey and could even be a satire. But it's played straight and works because of both the disrespect involved in violating John's house and killing his dog AND because of what the dog represented. Although Wick is deadlier and more dangerous than any of the men he's killing we still root for him because after all, they killed his dog. John Wick is a man. A core truth of American film and cultural myth is that a man handles his own affairs. He does not ask for help. He does not ask for directions. Wick will provide his own justice against those who wronged him. Wick's back tattoo translates as "Fortune favors the strong" . Enough said, right?
One of the film's interesting asides is the existence of an underground hitman superstructure, complete with special currency, lingo and assistants. One such place is the Continental Hotel. It's managed by a polite, quiet and exacting man named Charon (Lance Reddick). This is doubly symbolic because Charon was the Greek entity who provided souls a trip to the afterlife for a fee of a gold coin. Those who couldn't pay were doomed to roam the earth as ghosts, a fate literally worse than death. When John Wick goes to stay at the hotel he pays Charon a gold coin. Charon and other denizens of the criminal underworld continually ask Wick if he's back, which could imply that his previous existence was temporary or ghostly. William Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, Clarke Peters, and David Patrick Kelly (Luther from The Warriors) also appear. Allen does a great job portraying a slimy, cowardly horndog. There is routine comedy when everyone except Iosef immediately realizes just what a horrible mistake Iosef has made or when Viggo's number two (Winters) has to constantly ask people to translate Russian, a language he does not speak. If I were a member of the Russian Mafia I might consider asking Hollywood to pay royalties because these days it seems like every bad guy is Russian Mafia in origin. If you like action movies, see this film. It more than makes up for 47 Ronin.

The Purge: Anarchy

directed by James DeMonaco
The Purge: Anarchy, hereafter called Purge 2, is that rare sequel which is just as good as if not better than the original. Whereas the original strongly hinted at the race and class elements of "purging", Purge 2 brings those to the forefront. It is clear that the primary purpose of purging, at least as far as those at the pinnacle of economic and political power are concerned is not to allow millions of individuals to indulge their warped fantasies of rape, murder, assault and theft  but rather is a deliberate culling of the lower elements of society. And by lower elements I mean anyone with darker skin tones, anyone on public assistance or especially anyone who makes their money by salary as opposed to profit taking and dividends. To paraphrase Mitt Romney, the Makers want to ensure that the Takers don't get too large in number. So the Purge combines evil of both a personal nature and of an institutional framework. The low class people who gleefully plan rapes and murders are too stupid to see they're just doing what the upper classes want them to do.
Whereas the initial movie was centered around one man's struggle to protect his blood family during the purge night, Purge 2 moves people outdoors. It imagines a family made up of strangers who must come to trust each other. Purge 2 skillfully ratchets up the dread as we watch people attempt to make their homes safe in the hours before the Purge, try to make it home, or more ominously make their preparations to join the Purge. Evil can be seductive. Most of us know a few people who we really don't like. That's just part of being human. Some of us might even know a few people who we think have done us serious harm and gotten away with it. What if, for just one night, you could exercise a little payback on such a person? Hmm? If someone cavalierly misdiagnosed what turned out to be a loved one's terminal cancer or was found not guilty of raping your sister or committed some other act of mayhem against a person you loved, would you be immune to the thought of vengeance? Maybe you would. Depending on the act though, I would at least have to think about it. And that's how evil can be justified. It can worm its way into our psyche through what we think of as justified reasons.
As Purge 2 opens, a waitress, Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo), frets about staying too late at her workplace. The Purge is coming but her greedy boss hasn't let the workers leave early to get home in time. Anyway Eva has to ask her boss about a raise so that she can afford the medicine for her chronically sick father Papa Rico (John Beasley). Papa Rico is disgusted with how society has turned out and has no hope of anything getting better. He tells his granddaughter Cali (Zoe Soul) to place no hope in the messages of anti-Purge revolutionaries led by Carmelo (Michael K. Williams). Carmelo ties all the race, class and civil liberty elements together but he's having trouble getting his message out. Across town Shane (Zack Gilford) and his girlfriend Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are at a dead end in their relationship. They are about to call it quits. However it being Purge night they are arguing about whether they should make this official and tell family members that their relationship has gone belly up. One of them enjoys arguing; the other is more passive-aggressive. They are trying to make it to Shane's sister's home before the Purge starts.
Finally an ominous man who we later discover is named Leo (Frank Grillo) is arming for the Purge. He has guns, body armor, knives, and of course a bada$$ armored car. He's a man with a plan. You wouldn't want to be on his bad side. Grillo initially brings some of the intensity that one might expect from a seventies era Harvey Keitel or Robert DeNiro. He's smoldering with fury and doesn't say much. Through a series of unfortunate events many of these people end up together on the street. The movie is almost a cinematic interpretation of the classic 90's Ice-T cut Midnight. The ending is not quite as strong as it could have been but all in all this was a good action movie. I don't know that there needs to be a sequel but I'm sure that there will be. A dangerous looking group of bikers led by a man in a white mask with "God" engraved on it (Keith Stanfield) provides some additional scares. Obviously the film is very violent. If something like this ever took place it might make even the most resolute anti-gun individual run down to their local gun shop and stock up on everything. Nevertheless it's still a moral film or at least tries to be. There are anti-violence messages included within. Things get a little confusing on that point but I don't think anyone would watch this and think that purging is a good idea.
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