Movie Review: John Wick (2014)

November 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Keanu’s back! And this time, instead of Japanese demons, he’s taking on a whole army of Russian gangsters with 46 less ronin by his side.

Ted “Theodore” Logan doesn’t make a lot of films these days, so when he does I always get a little excited. After last year’s disappointing 47 Ronin, he’s back this time as the titular character in John Wick, a depressed former assassin who goes on a revenge rampage after Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the original Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), makes the mistake of messing with the wrong dude.

It sounds kinda stupid and it is, but John Wick has been a surprising hit thanks to the excellent direction of Chad Stahelski in his feature debut. The stylistic action is what sets film apart from others of the same genre, and it’s arguably the most exciting action flick in terms of gunfire and physical combat since Taken

Keanu doesn’t have a lot of expressions, and that’s perfect as Wick, a no non-sense killer and a quick, smooth and relentless one-man wrecking crew. There’s something almost mechanical in the way he beats down his opponents, and he always makes sure the job is complete with an extra bullet or two where it counts. The action sequences are long, often brutal, and extremely well choreographed, and Stahelski spares our eyes by keeping the camera steady and the rapid cuts to a minimum.

The other successful aspect of John Wick is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but not so unseriously that it destroys the mood. The film is admittedly dark and full of death, but it’s also littered with tongue-in-cheek jokes about the assassin “industry” or “fraternity.”  There’s a code of conduct and assassins have to abide by it or face the consequences of the wider community. The film is filled with these straight-faced gags, such as a hotel that caters especially to assassins, a dedicated mop-up crew, and so forth. I also noticed there was a nice little cameo from The Newsroom‘s Thomas Sadoski which I found to be quite fun.

In addition to Keanu’s typical Keanu performance, the rest of the cast also do a fine job in their respective roles. Nyqvist milks his charm to provide us with a villain who might not be much of an opponent for Wick if they met in a dark alley, but one who knows what he is up against and remains relatively calm amid the chaos. Alfie Allen is also terrific as a spineless little twat who has less balls than his character on Game of Thrones, while Adrianne Palicki is convicing as a female assassin who’s not afraid to bend the rules. Rounding out the cast are the likes of Bridget Moynahan, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick, each of whom have small but key roles.

After a rolling start, the film moves at such a frantic pace that you don’t really notice its flaws all that much, except when it resorts to the old cliche where the “bad guy” has the “good guy” right where he wants him but instead of killing him on the spot decides to tie him up and give him every possible opportunity to escape. With its style, tone and gaps in logic, John Wick feels almost like a graphic novel adaptation, except it’s not, though I hear there might be opportunities to spin this first film into a franchise of some sort.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed John Wick a lot. I also think it’s a victim of its own hype. It’s the type of film that I didn’t expect to be any good, but because the reviews were so positive, I ended up having unrealistic expectations. It is what it is — a really well-executed, exciting, stylistic, and not-too-serious action flick with near-non-existent plot and not much substance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Raid 2 (2014)

August 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Three years ago, an Indonesian film by a Welsh director no one had ever heard of came out of nowhere to take the world by storm. Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption has been dubbed by some as the best martial art action film of the last 15 to 20 years. And if you have seen it, you’ll know it’s no hyperbole.

The Raid 2 could have easily been a cash-grab sequel, but instead, with a higher budget and grander ambitions, Evans has crafted a direct follow-up that harnesses some of the best aspects of the original — except he ups the dial by at least a couple of notches — while also adding more depth to the characters and story line, the things that were criticized the first time around.

The result is an impressive sequel that is technically and on paper superior to the original, though of course, it is not, because it’s never possible to capture the same magic of a surprise hit.

The Raid 2 picks up shortly where the first film left off, with our protagonist Rama (Iko Uwais) agreeing to go undercover in order to take down a crime boss. He is inserted into a dangerous Indonesian prison, where he befriends the son of the target and works his way up to earn their trust. 

To be honest though, I didn’t really care much for the plot — I just wanted to see more of the insane action I experienced from the first film. In that regard, The Raid 2 delivers in spades, putting together a number of extremely well choreographed, tense and brutally violent fight scenes. Furthermore, the action is creative, varied and not repetitive; group battles, one-on-one, one-on-a-hundred, fistfights, knife fights, gun fights — you name it. It’s violence as an art form.

In many ways the fighting is even more stylized than in its predecessor, but it still maintains a strange level of surreal realism, if that makes sense. The stuff on the screen — the blood, the guts, the limbs, and all the martial arts moves — looks ultra-realistic, and yet you know there’s no chance in hell even the greatest of martial artists can pull off such maneuvers with such fluidity, power and grace in quick succession. The characters are also seemingly invincible and can withstand all sorts of brutal punishment until they have to die, in which case they suddenly become extremely vulnerable to a fatal attack.

Evans also does a great job of setting up what I like to call “bosses”, even though they are caricatures and not really characters, but it’s important because then we’ll understand the gravity of the situation when our heroes are pitted against these supervillains in epic “boss fights”. There was really only one epic boss fight in The Raid: Redemption; in The Raid 2 there are many.

On the other hand, you could say The Raid 2 is too excessive. Not just in terms of the length (a whopping 150 minutes, compared to just 101 minutes for its predecessor), but everything. In an attempt to trump the original, Evans arguably committed the “Michael Bay sin” — the mistaken belief that bigger, louder and more extravagant necessarily means “better”. Don’t get me wrong — I had a great time with it, but I can understand if some viewers thought it was overkill. Part of what made The Raid:Redemption so great is that it was all about one man’s survival against the odds, kind of like Die Hard (just the greatest action movie ever). It was raw and rough around the edges, and yet that was also what made it a classic. The Raid 2 tries to give audiences more action, more blood, more gore, more characters, more plot and more length, but in the process it also loses some of its essence and purity.

In the end, The Raid 2 doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. However, that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s still a kick-ass action flick, one that will likely rank as one of the best of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 3 Days to Kill (2014)

May 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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When I first saw the poster for Three Days to Kill, I was pretty certain that it would be a Taken ripoff with Kevin Costner as the Liam Neeson character and Amber Heard as his daughter. She gets kidnapped or something and he has three days to use his considerable abilities — ie, killing people — to get her back. I was wrong, but maybe it would have been better than what it turned out to be.

As it turned out, Three Days to Kill is very different to what I imagined. Kevin Costner is a CIA “lifer” sent into retirement due to dire health reasons and tries to rekindle his broken relationship with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who are both living in France. So who the heck does Amber Heard play? A CIA assassin who coaxes Costner to complete one final mission in return for an “experimental drug” that could save his life. So the film is essentially a father-daughter bonding movie (they have three days to spend together, hence the title, but it’s also a pun because his mission is to kill someone — get it?). There are action sequences and all, but the heart of it is about a dying man doing his best to make it up to his family.

The screenplay is co-written by French master Luc Besson, and you do get a sense of his influence through the dialogue and the occasional use of humour. The director, on the other hand, is none other than McG, best known for the Charlie’s Angels films and Terminator Salvation, so in that respect you know expectations ought not to be so high. The technical aspects of it, including the action, are well executed, but the film falls way short in its desire to generate any genuine emotion from the family conflicts.

Kevin Costner, who has re-emerged as of late in supporting roles, does his best here as a poor man’s Liam Neeson. You can kind of see him as an ex-CIA killer, and you can definitely see him as an old, dying man whose prime left him a long time ago. Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit, is not bad either as the typical teenage daughter, but there’s not much we haven’t seen before from characters of this type.

The WTF award goes to Amber Heard. Seriously, it’s one of the weirdest roles I have ever seen. She is introduced as a serious CIA assassin in the very first scene, but for the entire movie she does — wait for it — absolutely nothing. She just stands and observes from a distance, showing up every now and then in tight outfits for no apparent reason other than to provide (sometimes unintentional) comic relief. I thought her job was to kill people — but then why is she getting Costner to do her job for her? And why does she have access to a test drug? None of it makes any sense.

In the end, I don’t really know what they were trying to do here. It’s commendable that there is an actual story here rather than just an attempt to rip off Taken, but having said that the father-daughter relationship by itself did not have enough substance or originality to keep the film afloat. The action was adequate but nothing special, and while the black humour and one liners were welcome it was fairly standard stuff from Luc Besson. It’s not terrible, and I did find some moments entertaining and fun, but at best 3 Days to Kill qualifies as no more than a solid DVD rental.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

April 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s not often that a film with mostly western actors gets released in Asia nearly a year before in the US, but that’s the case with Snowpiercer, a wild sci-fi action thriller starring big names such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer. The reason why Snowpiercer isn’t released in the US yet (apparently it will get a limited release on June 27, 2014) is because it’s actually a South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a great name), best known for the wacky monster movie The Host (not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer adaptation) from 2006.

Anyway, despite all its flaws, I had a fantastic time with Snowpiercer, which I think is one of the more original sci-fi flicks to hit our screens in some time. It’s actually based on a French graphic novel and is about a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors of a disastrous anti-global warming experiment that has frozen the entire planet live on a never-stopping train that travels in loops around the planet. There is of course a class system on the train, with the elites up the front and the poor stuck in the back in horrific conditions. The film focuses on a man called Curtis (Chris Evans), who is sick of the mistreatment and decides to launch a revolt from the back of the train.

Snowpiercer  is ludicrous in many ways and requires a certain level of belief suspension, but it works in the end because Bong manages to balance a weird, wacky sense of surrealism often seen in Korean films with violent action and gritty drama while not forgetting about the political messages and clever satire. It’s a unique blend that sometimes treads a fine line and occasionally gets a little too surreal for my liking, but on the whole I think it gets the job done. I’m convinced a Hollywood director wouldn’t have been able to create the same type of feel, and I’m glad there won’t be any America remakes because they won’t be necessary with only two key Korean characters (The Host’s Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, who again play father and daughter).

For me, the greatest strength of the film is the depiction of the idea itself and the world in which they live in. The special effects are not exceptional, but they are good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster. The action also fits in with the rest of the film — it’s brutally violent in some respects but lacks genuine realism — in a good way — so that you never get the urge to turn away or categorize it as gratuitous.

The performances are solid, though not many characters are properly developed given the focus on the action. I had just seen Chris Evans and his blonde locks in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he was almost unrecognisable here with the scruffy brown hair and dark stubble. Tilda Swinton is also fantastic and equally unrecognisable with her huge teeth as the nasty Minister Mason, while a special mention goes out to Alison Pill (from The Newsroom) for her small but important role as a creepy school teacher.

Snowpiercer is the type of film that doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny because of how crazy its premise is, but thanks to the skillful direction of Bong and the fast-paced action it’s an excellent and thought-provoking piece of sci-fi entertainment that would make an awesome DVD rental or on-demand stream if it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves at the cinemas.

4 stars our of 5

Movie Review: Escape Plan (2013)

February 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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If you want a lot of shooting, explosions and incoherent mumbling, then Escape Plan is just the film for you.

Sly Stallone is a sly man who is a master at breaking out of high security prisons. He’s like Michael Scofield, except he gets paid for it and doesn’t need to tattoo the prison’s entire floor plan on his body every time (plus he’s really old and ugly and pumped with steroids).

Anyway, he gets a great offer to break out of an insanely secured private prison, but as soon as he gets there he realizes he might have bitten off more than he could chew. Fortunately for Sly, there’s another clever dude in the prison with him played by the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and together they have to figure a way out of the prison despite the evil warden, Jesus (ie Jim Caviezel), doing everything he can to keep them there.

Look, I was under no illusions Escape Plan was going to be The Shawshank Redemption 2.0. I knew it was going to be silly and cheesy, but I also hoped it would be fun and entertaining. The first half of the film, at least, was exactly that. I had a great time watching Sly figure out ingenious ways to overcome prison security and him slugging it out with Arnie in good natured tussles.

As the film progressed, however, it became clear that the brilliantly concocted “escape plan” was actually just to kill everyone and blow everything up, which when you think about who the lead actors are it suddenly becomes perfectly logical. In that sense I was disappointed because the beginning of the film suggested they would have to come up with something extremely clever, but in the end they just went for the dumbest, and as it turned out, most effective route. That said, Sly strutting around in massive platform boots so that he looks nearly as tall as Arnie made the mission exponentially more difficult.

One major problem I had with the film was trying to decipher what Stallone was trying to say throughout the entire movie. It was already hard enough trying to understand Arnie’s accent, but Stallone was just impossible. All I kept hearing was “ruburuburuburubu” and possibly the occasional “Adriaaaaaaan!” The man needs subtitles, or dubbing, or preferably, both. Accordingly, some of the film’s convoluted plot also went right over my head, though by the end it was easy enough to work backwards and figure it all out.

The verdict? Despite the lack of surprises, Escape Plan delivers in terms of popcorn entertainment, cheesy lines and star power. I just wish the escape plan itself could have been cleverer.

3 stars out of 5

 
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