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: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

November 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Prince (2014)

August 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Prince is yet another one of the those action flicks inspired by Taken (one of the best action flicks in the last decade) — about a father with considerable man-killing skills doing a lot of man-killing to rescue his daughter from people who totally deserve to die.

I didn’t have a problem with the rip-offish premise — and I admit the film looked great on paper with an A-list cast featuring Jason Patric, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, 50 Cent and Korean superstar Rain (donning the worst haircut since Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code) — though  I can’t say I was surprised that The Prince received virtually no attention or critical acclaim. The film is getting a limited theatrical showing along with a simultaneous VOD (video on demand) release, meaning they have pretty much resigned themselves to low expectations.

Instead of a former government agent like Taken’s Bryan Mills, Jason Patric plays Paul, a widowed father working as a mechanic in some country bumpkin town. His finds out that his daughter Beth (Gia Montegna, daughter of legendary actor Joe Montegna!) is no longer at college and has gotten mixed up in some nasty business with a drug kingpin (50 Cent). But Paul is no ordinary mechanic — he’s a former crime boss and psycho killing machine known as “The Prince”. And so Paul goes off looking for her with the aid of Beth’s skanky friend Angela (Jessica Lowndes) and old buddy (Cusack) and starts beating up and killing whoever gets in his way. Meanwhile, all that killing has Paul coming up on the radar of a former foe (Willis), who is determined to ruin Paul’s life as payback. For some reason he has hired a Korean “consultant” (Rain) to do the dirty work for him.

The pieces look to be in place for a semi-enjoyable popcorn action flick, but The Prince fails due to a couple of big reasons. First of all, the characters are boring. Paul might be deadly, but he’s is a sleep-inducing hero without a proper mean streak or edge to him. Bruce Willis is now just signing up for supporting roles in movies for the cheques. And so is John Cusack, who does close to nothing in the entire film. Jessica Lowndes is not uneasy on the eyes, but she’s a pointless character. It’s not like she’s a love interest, so all she does is try to act seductive and annoying for no reason. The worst has to be poor Rain, whose Hollywood dreams appear to have fallen so far that he’s been relegated to a “henchman” role in which he is forced to spew out crappy lines in strained (albeit much improved) English. And I haven’t even talked about 50 Cent’s…um…cameo.

Secondly, and more importantly, the action is laughable. Everything else can suck in a movie like this, but not the action. I say it’s laughable not because it’s badly shot — it’s because it defies all logic. Paul might be a super killing machine, but in this film he’s the luckiest man alive. Guys shoot at him with machine guns from point blank and all miss him, while he picks them off one by one with his trusty hand gun. He walks up a set of stairs without noticing that a bunch of guys are pointing their guns at him. They don’t shoot for some reason, and then they all miss from within 20 feet, just in time for him to look up and kill them all. Rain sneaks up on Paul from behind and could shoot him dead at any time. But what does he do instead? He disarms Paul so they can have a shitty hand-to-hand combat scene. So predictable and so lame. Bruce Willis holds Paul’s daughter hostage and says he will kill her in front of him, which is what he has wanted to do for years. But he doesn’t. And he waits and waits and waits for no reason whatsoever while telling Paul he’s going to do it, until of course he loses his opportunity.

I didn’t think The Prince was THAT bad when I saw it, but the more I think of it now the more I think it sucked. Great cast but crap characters, stupid action and completely devoid of the pace, style and charisma of the film it was trying to emulate.

1.75 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: Non-Stop (2014)

March 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s kind of crazy that we now automatically associate Liam Neeson with action thrillers, but that’s what he’s been giving us time after time since 2008. His latest, Non-Stop, is another solid entry that is, uh, non-stop entertainment from the get-go, and despite its implausibility and flaws, is arguably his strongest effort since Taken, one of the best in the genre in more than a decade.

When director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Liam Neeson in 2011 they delivered Unknown, a fairly interesting action-mystery that kept audiences guessing until it collapsed under the pressure of being forced to provide answers. Non-Stop has that similar semi-surreal feel to it where the mystery is seemingly too bizarre to be real, but in my opinion it is more thrilling, more riveting and more daring, and even though the explanation is expectedly a letdown, it’s actually not too lame, relatively speaking.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US federal air marshal battling some personal demons. He is assigned to a flight from New York to London, and shortly after takeoff, begins receiving strange messages on his secure phone line telling him that passengers will be killed unless a ransom is paid. Without divulging too much more, the mystery begins to get stranger and stranger the more Marks tries to find out who is responsible. It’s a classic “locked room mystery” set on a plane, where any one of the 150 passengers — including the pilots, the crew and the passengers — could be the culprit.

That’s the wonderful thing about Non-Stop, which takes full advantage of the situation to deliver clues, red herrings and misdirection at a frantic pace to keep audiences off edge. The script and Collet-Serra’s direction cleverly bring out suspect after suspect, each of whom seem equally capable of being the villain. I would be very surprised if any audience members managed to solve the mystery in advance.

And the action, considering the confined space, is well executed too, gradually ramping up to a climatic finish. There are no breaks in the pace, an impressive feat given the 106-minute running time. The initial scenes are intentionally blurry and choppy so there is minimal set up, and audiences are soon thrust into a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that never stops twist and turning.

Liam Neeson, even at 61, is perfect as Marks and looks like he can still kick plenty of ass for at least another 5 years. I was also surprised at some of the big names and familiar faces in the supporting cast. There’s the always pleasant Julianne Moore as the mysterious stranger in the seat next to Marks, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as his trusted air hostess, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as another hostess, model Bar Paly as a skanky seductress in first class, and Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as suspicious passengers.

With a film like Non-Stop you obviously can’t take things too seriously or think too much, because the moment you do it all starts to unravel. There are about half a dozen problems with the way the plot progressed and the way the characters reacted, just off the top of my head, but I didn’t let them get to me during the film because I was having too much fun going along for the ride.

The dialogue and character interactions are also cheesy and “scripted” in that they in no way resemble reality, but none of these issues are deal breakers either. They serve their minimum purpose so we can get on with what we want to see, and that’s Liam Neeson being a badass.

Ultimately, I found Non-Stop to be one of the stronger action thrillers I’ve seen in some time. It plays to its strengths, shies away from its weaknesses and milks an intriguing scenario for all it’s worth. The unfortunate reminder of topical events (ie, missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370) is of course pure coincidence, but it does make one ponder how secure commercial flights really are in the post-911 age.

4 stars out of 5

 
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