John Wick

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Keanu keeps knocking them out of the park – he’s probably the most successful diverse A-List male star at this point in time. By that I mean that he bounces between genre films, smaller budgets, huge budgets, all generally with great box office success and audience enjoyment. John Wick is another action notch on his cap and while it doesn’t come near the majesty of The Matrix it’s still another fun, ridiculous slice of bullet mayhem and grim faces.

Sometimes in action movies, simplicity is best. We’ve seen a lot of overly grim, or needlessly convoluted, or overblown epic action movies in recent years so to have a plot stripped back to basics is pleasing. What’s equally important is that the complexity and finesse which the plot lacks is transposed onto the action – which is fantastic. As always, Reeves fully commits to this side of his character – the unstoppable hitman who never lacks a sleeve to whip out a pistil from. This being a Reeves vehicle, there is a certain moody quality to proceedings – dialogue is light, facial expressions are as blank as the victims of his bullet storm. The cast spices up any gaps in acting exuberance, with veterans such as Ian McShane and John Leguizamo bringing exactly what you would expect them too and Alfie Allen and Michael Nyqvist heading up the villains. Co Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch bring a certain brutal realism to the over the top frenetic action – the pair well versed in action and stunt co-ordination having worked with Reeves during The Matrix Trilogy. The sort of balletic gunplay merged with martial arts with be familiar to fans of The Matrix and shows that the directors have a love for the films of John Woo and friends, and the minimalist characterization of European action heroes of old.

The plot, already the subject of many a meme long before I’d even seen the film, sees John Wick mourning the recent death of his wife. She left him a puppy, hoping he could find some comfort in overcoming his grief. Enter Russian gangsters who take a fancy to Wick’s vintage Mustang – they attack his house, steal his car, and kill the dog. Wick, we learn, is a recently retired Hitman – the best in the business, and he wants revenge. The rest of the film is little more than a sequence of action set-pieces and world-building. A puzzle unfolds with each new face Wick interacts with – a random guy on a street may be a deadly assassin, a luxurious hotel is a hub for the world’s payed killers, and we get snippets of information about their rules, integrity, history, the people who hire them and the people they re paid to kill. It’s all very shadowy but it quickly reaches the point where it seems pretty much every person in the world is involved.

As furious and neck-snapping as the action is, there’s still an inevitability to it all – you know what the outcome will be – but that’s not necessarily a criticism. We’re here to see the ‘good guy’ win, and it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of faceless or gimmicky henchmen are sent his way. It takes the final premise of Game Of Death – fighting a procession of increasingly deadly warriors to reach the end goal – to the next level, toning down the philosophy but instead crafting a world of intrigue and danger. It’s the sort of film which has a charm and enthusiasm which will win over viewers who don’t usually care for this sort of thing and with the style and invention to please hardened action fans.

Let us know what you think of John Wick in the comments!

Tag

What do Battle Royale, Final Destination, Mulholland Drive, The Walking Dead, Existenz, Lost, 8&1/2, Forrest Gump, and Primer all have in common? On the surface, not a lot, but Sion Sono cares not for such concerns and instead finds his own connections in weaving this absurdist film about a person becoming unstuck in time and reality while being stalked by a powerful, murderous force. If you’re looking for a linear plot A to Plot B film, you’d be better placed heading out to the latest blockbuster but if you’re keen on something shape-shifting, ambiguous, and hypnotic you have come to the right place.

Sion Sono is no stranger to wiping out huge swathes of people. If you’ve seen Suicide Club you’ll know he’s a fan of sudden shocking moments, usually involvement mass death, and sometimes focusing on school girls. Tag starts out with a knowing homage to his previous work, as its already infamous opening scene sees two school buses filled with teenage girls sliced into pieces in an instant, leaving a single blood-soaked, bewildered survivor. That’s not a spoiler as it has made up various trailers over the past couple of years and has popped up on a variety of horror and extreme cinema sites, as well as happening in the opening minutes and being the catalyst for everything that follows. Our protagonist flees, running from what seems to be a sentient wind which cuts into any poor soul she begs for help. There’s nothing like killing around fifty people in the first six minutes of your movie to put a smile on my face.

From there it only gets more interesting, or weird, or off-putting depending on your preference. Describing in detail anything else that happens, plot-wise, would be bordering on spoiler territory and likely be futile. This is Sion Sono having fun; for his own pleasure, at our expense, at life in general, and finally because he’s good at it. It’s his art horror film – lots of stylized shots, close-ups of faces, floating feathers, leaves, panty shots, and a lot of running. Merged with these are frequent outbursts of action and violence which are often funny and can be shocking, even with the somewhat dodgy visual effects.

I don’t think there is any deeper meaning here beyond what one character says on our behalf – basically life is surreal and is often beyond our control, so just get on with it as best you can. It helps if you look good in a Wedding dress and if you imagine The Walking Dead theme tune accompanying your every move. Sono dabbles in issues like fate, AI, the passage of time, futility, mortality, so by all means you are free to read the film on any level you desire. In my mind, the broken mind of a tortured cynic, it’s all meaningless except for taking it at its most superficial level – as another entertaining film from the crazed brain of Sion Sono.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Tag!

Nowhere To Run

*Originally written in 2003

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Van Damme was on a roll in the late eighties and early nineties, making some of the most fun, simple action movies of the era. His ability to get a laugh while being renowned for his nice-guy qualities have ensured his continued success, even if most of his movies now are straight-to-DVD capers.

In Nowhere to Run, a mid echelon movie in terms of his output, he stars with an established cast as another misunderstood nice guy – an escaped convict who decides to help a young widow and her family who are struggling against a local developer who is forcing them out of their home. There is plenty of action, some strong performances, and some very funny moments. Van Damme plays Sam, a mysterious convict who has escaped from prison. He sleeps in a tent outside a small town where two local young kids find and befriend him. Eventually their mother Clydie, played by Rosanna Arquette, finds out and invites him into their home cautiously. Of course they fall for each other, much to the distaste of local Sheriff and love interest Lonnie, who decides to look into Sam’s background. Franklin Hale, played with typical malevolent relish by Joss Ackland, is the main bad guy, but his side-arm Levine is the main threat. Sam helps the family, foiling Hale at every turn, but all the while his own unspoken past is catching up to him…

Arquette, Culkin, Levine, and Taubman as the daughter are particularly good, and the story tries to be light-hearted yet moral. It’s another attempt to achieve a wider audience for Van Damme, and it is definitely one of his most accessible thanks to the good cast and humour. The various discussions on Van Damme’s naked body are always humorous. Overall another good Van Damme film which will please fans, and may interest a few others.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Nowhere To Run! 

Lionheart/AWOL

*Originally written in 2001

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Another of Van Damme’s best before he hit the big time, AWOL features a story written by the man himself. Again we have a revenge plot, but this time there is more depth as Van Damme’s character Lyon is trying to help his brother, and his brother’s wife and daughter from eviction. When he hears of his brother’s problems he flees the Foreign Legion, a rather large crime, and goes to America to help. Of course, the Legion sends some tough guys after him who he must constantly evade. In order to earn money for his new family he becomes an underground fighter, managed by a likable bum called Joshua. Lyon and Joshua become close friends and Lyon gains recognition as a talented fighter, rising through the underground ranks. The money is never enough though, and he keeps his way of income a secret. Before long, a rich promoter called Cynthia has noticed his talents and decides to take arrange fights for him, meaning his money increases. Cynthia is ,of course, evil and only in the game for her herself. She pits Lyon against Atilla, the most fierce fighter there is, but she fixes the fight so that all bets will go to her. Lyon must defeat Atilla, but he may lose all his money in doing so.

The fights here are good, well staged and filmed, and there are some good performances. Van Damme is his usual self, but Harrison Page and Deborah Rennard add some skill to the proceedings, raising it above the average 80s martial arts movie. Lisa Pelikan gets our sympathy as the young wife, and Ashley Johnson is okay as the daughter. There are enough simple twists to keep us involved and the plot has its cheesy charm. There is also some good dialogue which will get a few laughs. Another must for Van Damme fans, this one will appeal to a wider action movie audience, but it’s never going to win any awards.

Enjoying my older reviews? Me neither! Let us know in the comments what you thought of Lionheart/AWOL!

Hard-Boiled

*Originally written in 2004

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One of the true ‘must see’ action films of the Nineties, not only because it was the first to fully establish John Woo as the master of action movies and Chow Yun Fat as a superstar (at least in the West), but because it has had a massive influence on every action movie made since, and is easily one of the most entertaining, over the top, gung-ho action movies ever. Slick, stylish, violent, funny, clever, with interesting characters, a superior plot which will keep you guessing, and filled with set pieces, explosions and chases, Hard-Boiled is a genuine classic.

Chow Yun Fat stars as Tequila, a cop with a love of Jazz, a man whose skills are never questioned, but whose methods are sometimes checked as they have a tendency to end in death and demolition. He also enjoys the odd bit of existential musing, and is always trying to win back his love, who happens to be a superior within the force. The film opens with a fight between cops and arms dealers which ends in the death of Tequila’s partner. Tequila kills all possible subjects so they are left with no evidence as to who the boss is. We meet Tony, played by Tony Leung, who is one the arms dealer’s lead men. He does his job flawlessly, and at all costs, but doesn’t want to see his boss harmed. However, when a rival with greater ambition wants to recruit him, Tony double-crosses his old boss. Tequila intervenes and many more are killed. Tony and Tequila continue to come into contact with each other, and we learn that Tony isn’t who he appeared to be. Soon Tequila works out where the massive armoury is, and a massive gunfight ensues, taking up the last 40 minutes of the film. Will Tequila get revenge, will any more twists enter the story, who will make it out alive?

The film is incredibly clever for an action film, with a twisting near-convoluted plot, but this is all the more astounding when you witness the level of action which takes place. The set-pieces are almost overwhelming, with so much going on at one time they beg to be re-watched repeatedly. Each actor is convincing, and it seems Fat and Leung were born for these roles. The final hospital scene has some of the best, most exhilarating action ever filmed, and no-one is safe as patients, doctors, kids, cops, and bad guys are slaughtered. Almost every window is smashed, all manner of guns are fired, and Woo is on top form. His slow-motion style and balletic gun play have never been better, and there is one Steadicam shot which goes into a lift, moves between floors, and features many deaths and explosions, plus dialogue -it’s one of the most awesome things you’ll ever see and must have been a nightmare to film. Few action movies can suck the viewer in like this does, so that we care about the characters and are not just watching vacantly. Hard-boiled succeeds on all levels, and must be seen by all action fans. It is the benchmark of the genre.

Jeepers, my old reviews were all plot, weren’t they? Let us know in the comments what you think of Hard-Boiled and how it ranks alongside John Woo’s other films!

Kickboxer

*Originally written in 2001

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Probably the most famous of Van Damme’s early work, Kickboxer is another simple story of revenge and a showcase for his skills as a martial artist. It has some good fights, and some interesting moments showing the arduous difficulty of training and trying to achieve your best while not losing your focus. Although it suffers from some cheesy acting, dialogue, music, and a highly disturbing dance scene, this is a must for Van Damme fans, and those with an interest in martial arts movies who don’t want to stray too far from the West.

Van Damme stars as Kurt Sloane, the younger brother of a flashy American Kickboxer. They train together, but his brother Eric seems to be more interested in looking like a good fighter than actually finding the ability and skill to be one. Eric takes part in a fighting competition and is crippled and almost killed by Tong Po – a fearsome Kickboxer with a great rage and discipline. Kurt decides to avenge his brother, but no-one will train him as they believe Tong Po is too popular and strong. Eventually he finds a wizened old trainer in the middle of nowhere who teaches him to reach his full potential and push through barriers which he never though he could surpass. He also meets Winston Tyler who provides some laughs, and Mylee who provides a potential love interest. Of course it is the fights that matter, and the revenge plot is safe enough to give the fights reason. Rather than cheap montages, we see the tough training regime Kurt goes through, and see Tong Po kicking a cement wall to build up the strength and invulnerability of his foot. Sounds odd yes, but how else would we know he’s a hard lad? Throw in a sub-plot about gangsters and kidnapping and it all builds to a thrilling in ring climax. A good film for fight fans, light-hearted, fast, and worth watching.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Kickboxer – just another crappy action movie or one of Van Damme’s better films?

El Mariachi

*Originally written in 2003

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The Nineties gave us a surge of impressive, stylish, innovative young film-makers from all around the globe, with Robert Rodriguez leading the way in his ability to make a low-budget film look like a Blockbuster. El Mariachi was filmed in a short time with a minuscule budget, but put him on the map. A solid story, good acting, great music and cinematography, confident and effective editing, and explosive action that many directors fail to achieve with a much larger budget – El Mariachi delivers thrills, laughs, good dialogue, and one of the coolest characters of the decade.

Carlos Gallardo stars as El Mariachi, a travelling musician who simply wants to carry on his family tradition. The next town he wanders into is run by crime-lord Moco. One of Moco’s former employees Azul has become a hit-man and is wiping out Moco’s men as Moco had turned against him. His trademark is his guitar case filled with weapons. When El Mariachi wanders into the town he is mistaken by Moco’s men and he finds himself in constant danger. He tries to find a way to prove his innocence, but when local woman Domino becomes involved the stakes grow. Soon a war erupts in the town.

This is constantly impressive when considering the $7000 budget. Rodriguez ensures that every scene seems like it drips with gold and style. The action is swift and exciting, the performances (mainly by total amateurs), particularly from Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez, and Peter Marquardt are very strong with each portrayal making sure each character sticks in the head. El Mariachi is an innocent forced into a deadly game which will transform his life and haunt him forever. Domino is also drawn into the seedy world, is feisty but vulnerable. Moco is a cigar smoking, white-suited menace who oozes villainy. Truly one of the best ultra low budget films ever.

Let us know what you thought of El Mariachi and any of the sequels and how you feel the director’s career has progressed over the years!

300: Rise Of An Empire

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Right, so, I liked the original – it looked all stylish and fancy, there was uber-violence, shouting, muscle men and hot women, and a basic plot which allowed the action to run riot. The battle of Thermopylae is one I had always been interested in at an early age, and continued to learn about as I studied Latin in school and Classics at University. This entirely unnecessary sequel is a mess, leaping about in time without warning, introducing new characters and battles which are not as interesting as those in the first movie, and there is a heavy focus on the visuals which are no longer as attention grabbing as they were first time round. It probably made a bunch of money though, right?

Lets start with the positives – there’s a decent cast with Lena Heady, David Wenham and others reprising their roles from the original and Jack O’Connell and Eva Green joining in. O’Connell is a great actor but doesn’t have a lot to do while Eva Green relishes the role, throwing her all into it and coming over as both impressive as hammy. There is plenty of action in the film, bone-crushing fights, swordplay, naval warfare…. and that’s about it really. Even on the positive points we have negatives – Sullivan Stapleton is a good actor but seems too wooden here, like a beardless Gerard Butler with less SHOUTING, while the fighting and gore is all very samey and gets boring quickly. Every fight is disappointingly repetitive, with the same slow-down and zoom-in technique to show yet another blade slashing through flesh and CG blood bubbling towards the camera. The naval scenes aren’t as epic as they need to be – scenes like this only work if they are massive in scope and you can see what is happening, but here everything is too small, too dark, and there’s only so many times you can watch a naked guy fisting a man in a helmet before it gets silly (usually between 1-2 times). The original managed to avoid being boring by offering something different with each battle sequence, almost like a beat-em-up videogame – each enemy required a new tactic or had some new type of weapon to cope with. Here it is just wave after wave of faceless nobodies with Eva Green shrieking in the background.

The plot is basically the same as the first movie, with Greece facing the onslaught of a massive Persian Army – on one front Gerard Butler’s 300 defended Sparta, while here Thermistocles defends the beaches. Eva Green is the face of the enemy this time around, a Greek defector with a brief backstory who is the true tactician and ruler of the Persian advance rather than Xerxes. There is an interesting conflict going on at various points, with Green’s Artemisia simply looking for a worthy adversary or someone to help her conquer the world. The film takes place both before, during, and after the events of the first film but fails to make the necessary connections between what is happening elsewhere and why any of it actually matters. The story doesn’t matter, it’s just an excuse for shouting and fighting, and you’d get as much sense by hanging around outside a city club at 1.30 am and watching the drunks fight. It’s all so stupid, pointlessly masculine, but without anything that made the original… what’s that word….. fun! There are much better movies out there which look better, with better fights, stunts, action, so there isn’t really any point in spending any time or money on this unless you’re a die-hard Eva Green fan.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of 300: Rise Of An Empire. Was I too harsh? Did anyone like it?

Death Wish 2

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While Clint Eastwood starred in a bunch of violent action and crime thrillers throughout the 70s and 80s, he made enough equally successful films in different genres to ensure he had plenty of other options. The success of Death Wish meant there would inevitably be a sequel and Charles Bronson got sucked into this world for much of the rest of his career, playing tough guys who take the law into their own hands (with the notable exception of The Indian Runner). Death Wish II is neither as bad as you think it’s going to be nor any different from what you would expect. What?

Bronson returns as Paul Kersey, still recovering from the events of the first movie. He has moved with his daughter to LA and has a relationship with a new lady friend. On a routine day trip, Kersey has his wallet stolen. Chasing down one of the perps (and getting a good look at him) he decides to count his losses and let go. The crooks of course have other ideas, needlessly deciding to go to Paul’s home to loot and rape some more. His daughter is kidnapped, his maid is killed, and he is left for dead. Carol (Paul’s daughter) is plucky and manages to escape, only to dive out a window and impale herself on a fence – woopsy.

Kersey goes on another rampage, tracking down the gang members one by one and sending them to hell on the back of a bullet. There’s a sub-plot about the cops in LA and NY getting together to decide what to do about Kersey but it’s not overly important. The cops aren’t made to look 100% incompetent, but still this is a movie about personal vengeance and not letting the man get in you way. Kersey doesn’t come across as a soulless killer or some unstoppable machine – he’s just a guy with a gun and a plan. My main issue with the movie isn’t the violence or the cloudy message, it’s more the motive and the emotional side of things. I get that you want revenge when someone you love is killed, but Bronson doesn’t seem that phased by it. I get that this is supposed to be a macho movie with blood and snarls and no tears, but a little more emotion wouldn’t go amiss.

But then it wouldn’t really be the same movie, would it? Charles Bronson weeping over the body of his child, shrieking at the heavens for forsaking him. Twice!? All we want to see here are bad guys getting slaughtered, no questions asked, no remorse, and that’s what we get. Bronson does what he does, working his way through petty scumbags like Lawrence Fishburne and Thomas Duffy, and getting a few knocks along the way. Jill Ireland is there for the glam purposes, and everything looks authentically seedy. Some parts appear to be a little too glamourized for their own good, but that’s another grey area. Then there’s the soundtrack. As big a Led Zep and Jimmy page fan as I am, the soundtrack is mostly a mess. I’d heard the soundtrack long before I’d seen the movie and… well, I don’t have much to say about it to be honest – as my dad would say ‘it’s just noise’.

So, Death Wish II. It is exactly what you think it is – if you like that sort of thing there’s no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy this. If that’s not your sort of thing, then stay away. It isn’t Bronson or Winner’s finest hour but it’s still a perfectly fine, well enough made revenge thriller. Let us know in the comments what you think of the movie and the series as a whole.

Universal Soldier – Day Of Reckoning

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Universal Solider is arguably one of the last great films of the action hero era and surely one of Van Damme’s finest. The film was so successful that it spawned a number of confusing sequels, some which seemed to have little to do with prior entries, some which retconed other events, and which were all without exception drastically inferior to the original. You can imagine that when I took a gamble on this, I was hoping for (at best) some Van Damme on Lundgren action, with a few funny one-liners and nice kills. What I got was something I didn’t expect at all, and something much better than I could have ever hoped for.

Day Of Reckoning is a nightmare. I mean that positively. It is a horror movie with some genuinely shocking violence and powerful martial arts based action. The film veers into some surreal, dream spaces where the viewer isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Van Damme and Lundgren do appear, but are not the focus. Instead, star Scott Adkins and director John Hyams conspire to take the story in a completely different and new direction – removing much of the charm of the original, and instead crafting a snaking revenge movie where the seemingly tenuous links to the series mythology only become more clear and insidious towards the end.

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Scott Adkins wakes from a coma to discover his family has been massacred. He has lost his memory, but with help from the FBI identifies the killer as none other than Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). So far so normal, aside from the twist of JCVD being a killer. It should be noted that the flashback scene of the family being killed is brutal and unforgiving. While Adkins searches for Van Damme, we see another series favourite Andrei Arlovski living a normal life but being suddenly ‘activated’ and going on a murderous rampage. It turns out that (most of) the people he kills are Universal Soldiers, and that Lundgren and Van Damme have been trying to free agents from the control chip or something by which the government has been controlling them with. They are recruiting and forming a separatist army to destroy the program once and for all. Then things get complicated with clones…..

There’s a hell of a lot going on here and it is never easily explained. Rather than finding all this confusing, I think the often dream-like or nightmarish nature of the movie (deliberately or otherwise) covers the flaws in this type of storytelling. We know it is still convoluted, but we are placed essentially in the character of Adkins – he doesn’t know what has happened, and only has the memory of his family being murdered to spur him on. As viewers it is that image which also keeps us watching – to get to the bottom of the mystery. Adkins does well in the role and while he isn’t the most expressive actor, he lets the more physical side speak for itself. And so we get some outstanding and vicious fight scenes – imagine a martial arts version of Saw and you’ll get the idea. The blood and guts flow freely, but it isn’t in a cartoon Kill Bill style or slowed down and stylized like 300. It feels real, even though the combatants are super strong and super fast, the punches, kicks, and everything else connect with a raw force – I was left gaping after a couple of these and wondering why other movies don’t follow suit.

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It isn’t only the fights which are horrific. This is at it’s heart trying to be a horror movie, with Hyams at the very least emulating a Lynchian atmosphere. If you are aware of the series, then you will be aware of the loose political roots – dead soldiers are resurrected, have their memories removed, and are forced to do the Government’s bidding like robots. While the questions about patriotism and control over individualism have been clear throughout, there is a much more personal and angry vein of accusation here. We learn that the older model of soldier performed better when they believed they were fighting for their country, but that the newer models truly exceed when they think it is their family who is in danger. Warriors simply don’t respond to patriotism anymore, and the only way for a government to teach it’s soldiers to kill is to give them a more personal, devastating fear – it’s basically boiled down to kill the enemy or you family will die or even one step further – the enemy has already killed your family, so go do what needs to be done. Echos in current world politics are all too clear.

Day Of Reckoning is not for the faint-hearted. The violence is extreme, and I’m saying that as a seasoned gore hound. I loved it, but I’m aware that others with a low tolerance will be put off quickly. Gone are the japes of the original, and the half-assed crap of the sequels. This is a horrific movie which just happens to exist in the Universal Soldier universe, and it’s one of the most impressive action movies I’ve seen in recent years. Hell, it’s one of the most impressive horror movies I’ve seen in recent years. Let us know in the comments what you thought of the movie and how you rate it alongside others in the series!