REVIEW: “John Wick: Chapter 4” (2023)

Who knew that a little movie about a hitman avenging his dog’s death would evolve into the most popular action franchise going? Of course that’s an overly simplified synopsis of 2014’s “John Wick”, a movie that instantly won people over (yours truly included) with its ferocious style, exciting yet proudly tongue-in-cheek story, and the incandescent charms of its lead actor, Keanu Reeves. Great reviews from critics and strong word of mouth from audiences catapulted the film to unexpected heights.

2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2” stepped up the world-building while 2019’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” gave some fan favorite side characters more time in the limelight. Now Reeves is back for a fourth installment. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is the biggest, wildest, and certainly the most ambitious film of the franchise. It travels to more locations, introduces a slew of cool new characters, and features even bigger and more mind-blowing set pieces. “Chapter 4” takes much of what fans have loved about the previous three films and amplifies them. The results are nothing short of terrific.

Unfortunately there is a cloud of sadness that hangs over the release of “John Wick: Chapter 4”. Esteemed actor Lance Reddick, who has appeared in all four films playing Charon, the faithful concierge at the New York Continental Hotel, unexpectedly passed away on March 17th at the age of 60. It was a crushing loss for the franchise and the entertainment world. Reddick’s passing adds an extra level of emotion to a film that already has a surprising amount of feeling baked into it.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Fans of the franchise should know exactly what to expect from “Chapter 4”. Stuntman turned director Chad Stahelski returns after helming the first three films and orchestrates yet another stylish ballet of relentless heart-pumping action. Yet more than any of its predecessors, “Chapter 4” is almost poetic in its presentation, mixing together meticulously choreographed movements, pulse-pounding music, and some of the most incredible stunt-work I’ve seen in a while.

To say the affable 58-year-old Reeves has made the title character his own would be a massive understatement. His fourth venture as the almost mythical Baba Yaga is his most challenging yet (it’s said Reeves did 90% of his own stunts!!!). As mentioned, everything is bigger including the running time (2 hours and 49 minutes) and the budget ($100 million). Yet despite its waves of violence and the massive body count (140 by one pretty reliable count), in many ways “Chapter 4” may be the most intimate and personal John Wick film since part one.

Picking up where the previous movie left off, the story (penned by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch) sees John Wick in New York City preparing to enact his revenge on the formidable High Table – the powerful and mostly faceless faction of crime lords that rules the underworld. He’s helped by The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), a loyal and reliable provider of useful information, weapons, and finely tailored Kevlar suits.

John’s first order of business is to head to Morocco where he assassinates The Elder (George Georgiou), the one person who sits above the High Table. As a result, Winston Scott (Ian McShane), John’s friend and the manager of the New York Continental Hotel is summoned by Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a high-ranking member of the High Table. In response to failing to kill John in the previous movie, the Marquis revokes Winston’s status as hotel manager and then doles out some even harsher punishment.

De Gramont then hires a blind yet deadly hitman named Caine (Donnie Yen). He’s retired and wants no part in killing his old friend John Wick. But he’s forced to take the contract after the Marquis threatens to kill his daughter. Meanwhile John is holed up in the Osaka Continental which is managed by his trusted friend Shimazu Koji (the always great Hiroyuki Sanada) and Koji’s daughter/concierge Akira (Rina Sawayama). Soon Caine arrives, accompanied by de Gramont’s right-hand muscle Chidi (Marko Zaror) and an army of High Table assassins. It leads to the first of several hyper-kinetic showdowns.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Among the many joys of watching a John Wick film is relishing the incredible world-building and the colorful array of side characters. “Chapter 4” delivers both in spades. Stahelski takes us around the world, shooting on location in places like New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Berlin. At each stop we’re thrust deeper into the franchise’s vibrant (and often violent) underworld network. In addition to Koji, Akira, and Caine, we’re also introduced to other fascinating players such as The Harbinger (Clancy Brown), a high-ranking representative of the High Table, a crime boss in Germany named Killa (Scott Adkins), and a mysterious “Tracker” who adopts the name Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson).

If there was ever a movie that showed the need of Oscar categories for stunt-work and choreography, it’s “John Wick: Chapter 4”. Whether throwing down in a famed Berlin nightclub or on a never-ending outdoor staircase in Montmartre; in a neon-bathed hotel in Osaka or on a busy roundabout circling the iconic Arc de Triomphe, Jeremy Marinas” graceful yet intense fight choreographer stuns and the work from stunt coordinators Scott Rogers and Stephen Dunlevy will routinely have your jaw on the floor. And it’s all emphasized by Dan Laustsen’s gloriously precise cinematography.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is a full-on action extravaganza and an unforgettable cinematic experience. It’s an adrenaline-fueled spectacle but with a beating heart. It’s also one of the best action movies of the last decade-plus. Keanu Reeves, with his quiet charisma and amazing physicality, once again has us rooting for his tragically heartbroken yet intensely lethal former hitman who remains trapped between his insatiable thirst for revenge and his longing for some semblance of peace. John Wick has evolved into a legendary character – one who I’ll follow to his grave. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “Jesus Revolution” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

In recent years there’s been a noticeable maturation of “faith-based” movies. It’s been visible in both the quality of the filmmaking and the depth of storytelling. Not only are their characters becoming more rooted in the real world, but they’re demonstrating a more lived-in faith. And filmmakers are finding that they can still convey their faith-centered messages without pounding their pulpit or speaking to their audience in platitudes. Obviously these welcomed shifts don’t guarantee great movies. But they do help these films to be seen and judged by a more equal standard.

The latest example is “Jesus Revolution” from co-directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle. Based on Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn’s book of the same name, the movie tells of the Jesus Movement and its growth in Southern California during the early 1970s. The Jesus Movement was a Christian counterculture revolution that emerged in the late 1960s and exploded across the country in the early 1970s. Born out of the burgeoning hippie sub-culture, the movement wasn’t just restricted to disillusioned flower children. Young people from around the country left their traditional church settings and joined fellow “Jesus Freaks” in the many communes along the West Coast.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Some within the Christian ranks have celebrated the Jesus Movement as the last great “spiritual awakening”. Many have praised its use the culture to draw young people; how its anti-establishment roots helped redefine church services; and how it gave birth to today’s lucrative contemporary Christian music industry. Critics saw it as more of a cultural movement than a biblical one. And they noted its emphasis on signs and experience over doctrine and theology. There’s certainly no doubting which side the movie lands on.

“Jesus Revolution” is taken from megachurch pastor and producer Greg Laurie’s early experiences as a member of the Jesus Movement. It’s a well made, well directed, and well acted mixture of biographical, coming of age, and faith-based elements. The “based on a true revolution” story (written by Erwin and Jon Gunn) covers a lot of ground and does so by focusing on three key characters: Greg Laurie (played by Joel Courtney), Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), and Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie).

The film opens in 1968, a time when you couldn’t turn on your radio or television without hearing about the growing peace-and-love hippie movement bursting out of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and across Southern California. It’s here that we meet a young Greg Laurie who lives in Newport Beach with his hard-drinking and hard-living mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). Greg gets a good taste of hippie culture after meeting and falling for a spirited and beautiful girl named Cathe (a terrific Anna Grace Barlow).

Meanwhile, Pastor Chuck Smith has watched his Costa Mesa church’s numbers dwindle down to a faithful few. His first inclination is to blame the culture, specifically the shaggy-haired, barefoot, drugged-out hippies who are all over the news. But when Chuck meets a traveling hippie street-preacher named Lonnie Frisbee, he’s immediately captivated by what he hears. He invites Lonnie and some of his Jesus-loving friends to his church. Of course it initially upsets Chuck’s congregation who the movie paints as a bunch of old starched and stuffy squares. But soon the church is drawing hippie youth from all around, including Greg and Cathe.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

The movie’s blinding affection for the Jesus Movement ultimately shapes how it’s portrayed. The filmmakers don’t offer any real critique and there’s certainly not much interest in a biblical assessment. It even comes through in their treatment of the real-life characters, most notably Lonnie Frisbee. He was undoubtedly a central figure in the Jesus Movement but also a complicated one. The movie touches on some of his later missteps but dodges the more controversial parts of his life.

But despite its obvious lean, “Jesus Revolution” still makes for an diverting look at a more recent slice of America’s spiritual and cultural history. The impressive production value, costume design, and needle-drops create a vibrant and authentic late 60s and early 70s atmosphere (although I did chuckle at a character in 1968 singing along with a song that actually came out in 1970). And there are moments that inspire, both spiritually and socially. There’s a good chance it’ll speak to those whose faith needs recharged or to those who simply need a reminder that people from different camps can come together in meaningful ways. Now there’s a message that we certainly need today. “Jesus Revolution” is out now in theaters.


REVIEW: “Jurassic World: Dominion” (2022)

Hot on the heels of the mega-hit “Top Gun: Maverick”, “Jurassic World: Dominion” is the next big blockbuster on the 2022 summer movie calendar. It’s predecessor, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was a monumental disappointment, lacking the awe and wonder that made even the lesser Jurassic installments entertaining. And its story devolved into something too absurd, even for a movie based on a modern day dinosaur amusement park.

Still, “Fallen Kingdom” earned well over $1 billion at the box office and a sequel was all but assured. Enter “Dominion” which takes place four years after the events of the previous film. To “Fallen Kingdom’s” credit, it did leave the series in an interesting place. If you remember, dinosaurs were suddenly loose across our country. The fabulous Jeff Goldblum pops up in a cameo (reprising his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm) and tells a U.S. Senate committee that we have entered a neo-Jurassic Age where humans and dinos must co-exist.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

That leads to “Dominion”, an ambitious movie that attempts to bring together the old and the new. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return from the “Jurassic World” movies while Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum are reunited from the “Jurassic Park” films. It’s a cool idea and there are moments of nostalgic glee even for a lukewarm Jurassic fan like me. But “Dominion” is a weird movie that struggles to find a rhythm. There’s entertainment to be found, but you have to wade through some messy parts to find it.

With so many characters, director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow backs himself into a corner. He has to introduce each in a way that gives them stakes in the story. He has to develop them so that they have purpose beyond just refilling their character’s shoes. So we get the film’s first half that is literally and figuratively all over the map. It does set the table for its better second half, but getting there is a bit of a chore.

The most disappointing thing is how “Dominion” never really lives up to its promise. Ian Malcolm’s words in the “Fallen Kingdom” cameo made it sound like “Dominion” was going to give us mankind and dinosaurs fighting to co-exist. Instead the bulk of the movie once again moves to a fairly confined space and again features an overambitious (and in this case utterly mad) scientist who never questions what he’s doing. It fits with original writer Michael Crichton’s sharp critique of genetic tinkering. But it doesn’t expand on Crichton’s idea in the way it advertised.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The movie sets its two batches of character on different paths before inevitably bringing them together in the final third. Everyone’s favorite (and I’m quite sure only) Velociraptor trainer Owen (Pratt) and former Jurassic World park manager Claire (Howard) are living a secluded life high up in the the mountains. They have adopted young Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the world’s first successful human clone (I had completely forgotten her angle). But when a group of baddies kidnap Maisie, Owen and Claire set out to find her.

Meanwhile, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Dern) is secretly studying a destructive swarm of giant prehistoric locusts. She traces their origin to an evil corporation called BioSyn that is headed by the slimy Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). Ellie wants to link Dodgson to the swarm and convinces her old colleague, paleontologist Alan Grant to help. And it just so happens Ellie has an inside man – mathematician and smooth-talker extraordinaire, Ian Malcolm (Goldblum).

As things play out we do get a cool action sequence in Malta (although the story surrounding it is pretty absurd). That’s where we’re introduced to a new character, Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise). She’s a pilot-for-hire who out-of-the-blue decides to help Owen and Claire. Kayla adds a little toughness to the story but not much else.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

All roads eventually lead to the BioSyn laboratories and dinosaur reserve where the movie finally picks up a little steam. There, Ellie, Alan, and Ian are reunited and do a little super-sleuthing. That also happens to be where Maisie is being held. You can probably already see how all of the character pieces start coming together. The final act plays much more like a traditional Jurassic Park movie, with our heroes caught in a madman’s domain where dinosaurs are roaming free. Here we get some genuinely fun moments and it’s where the characters feel most like themselves.

Again, “Jurassic World: Dominion” is messy and it takes forever to get its footing. And I can’t help but be disappointed by it shortchanging the who “coexisting” angle. And there are logic questions galore. For example, I’m still trying to figure how the dinosaurs multiplied to such vast numbers and spread all over the globe in only four years. But “Dominion” is a pretty dramatic step up from “Fallen Kingdom”. There is a big variety of dinosaurs for old and new for fans. And we get plenty of scene-stealing lines from the terrific Jeff Goldblum (he’s also part of the funniest laugh-out-loud joke I’ve seen in a movie this year). But these things can’t fully cover the film’s numerous shortcomings. I can appreciate the ambition, but this is a case where Trevorrow and company bit off more than they could chew. “Jurassic World: Dominion” opens today (June 10th) exclusively in theaters.


REVIEW: “Jackass Forever” (2022)

I wasn’t planning on seeing “Jackass Forever”, the fourth film based on the once weirdly popular MTV reality show. The proudly dimwitted franchise’s crude and over-the-top antics earned it a pretty vocal legion of fans. Though admittedly amusing at times, the “Jackass” schtick ran its course with me a long time ago. Yet here sits “Jackass Forever”, a revival of the series that hasn’t been on the big screen since 2010. And that it sits at almost 90% on Rotten Tomatoes is more bewildering than the movie’s existence after over a decade away. That’s why I decided to see it.

Created by Jeff Tremaine, Spike Jonze, and Johnny Knoxville, the “Jackass” television series ran on MTV from 2000 to 2003 before blossoming into its own film franchise. Routinely crossing the bounds of taste and decency became equally if not more important to the showrunners than good comedy. And you could argue that that trend continues in “Jackass Forever” which isn’t as much of a movie as it is a collection of stunts, gags, and pranks pulled between friends.

Some have tried assigning deeper themes to the film (masculinity, the rituals of male bonding, etc.). But “Jackass Forever” is really just more of the same – grown men doing stupid stuff for the camera to shock their audience and test the MPAA’s limits. The big difference here is the guys have gotten older and it seems they can now get away with pretty much anything.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Knoxville and company bring back some of the old stunts from their past shows and add a few new ones in that same vein. Stuff like getting bucked to the moon by a bull. Blowing up portable toilets. Or shooting themselves out of a cannon. The hidden camera pranks have always been my favorite bits. Unfortunately there aren’t many to be found in “Jackass Forever”. That’s because so much time is spent punching each other in the privates, shooting paintballs at each other in the privates, electrocuting their privates, putting honey bees all over their privates, putting costumes on their privates, luring a vulture to peck their privates, and so on.

Maybe I’m expecting a too much from a stunt-based reality television show brought to the big screen. Then again, maybe I’m not. Maybe it’s not a stretch to want a glorified sketch show to go for more than cheap lowbrow material. Yet it keeps going back to it, which will probably satisfy the hardcore fans, but it ultimately becomes an endurance tests for those of us lacking the nostalgic attachment to this nutty franchise.

“Jackass Forever” seems to operate under the banner “the trashier the better”. It seems more interested in pushing the envelope with full frontal male nudity, bodily fluids, and constant butt shots rather than pushing itself to be funnier, crazier, and more spontaneous. Shock and gross-outs take precedent over anything creative or original. It’s just exhausting. I suppose there is something to say for a bunch of long-time friends having fun doing their own thing. I just don’t remember their “thing” being this unbearable. “Jackass Forever” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “Justice League: War” (2014)


In 2013, “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” ended with the revelation (sorta) of a new alternative DC timeline. This cracked the door to the DC Animated Movie Universe, a shared-world series of feature-length films taking place within the new timeline. The first to fully explore this new space was “Justice League: War”, an action-fueled animated movie that essentially tells the story of the formation of this world’s Justice League.

“Justice League: War” is an adaptation of the 2011 “Justice League: Origin” comic book storyline from writer Geoff John’s and penciller Jim Lee. It told the rebooted origin story of the Justice League of America following the events of “Flashpoint” which reset the entire DC Universe. In the same way, “War” sets out to define this new world while also introducing the major players in DC’s superhero catalogue. Much like “The Flashpoint Paradox”, this is a tall order that proves to be a little more than an under 80-minute movie can cover. But “War” manages the wealth of material in a surprisingly fun and agile way.


Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

The story begins with Batman (Jason O’Mara) looking into a series of abductions around Gotham City. During his investigation he crosses paths with a wisecracking Hal Jordan aka Green Lantern (Justin Kirk). The two don’t necessarily hit it off but join up to fight a Parademon who leads them into into the sewer where the creature activates a mysterious device called a Mother Box. Unsure of what they’re dealing with, Batman and Green Lantern head to Metropolis to seek the help of a powerful meta-human named (you guessed it) Superman (Alan Tudyk). After a not-so-friendly first encounter, the three join forces to fight the waves of Parademons overtaking the city.

Elsewhere another Mother Box is being studied at S.T.A.R. Labs in Central City by scientist Silas Stone (Rocky Stone). This introduces both Cyborg (Shemar Moore) and Flash (Christopher Gorham) into the story. In Washington DC, Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan), serving as a political envoy, arrives to meet with the President of the United States but is greeted by a sea of protesters. Meanwhile a young delinquent foster child Billy Batson (Zach Callison) witnesses a Parademon and transforms into the mythical powerhouse Shazam (Sean Astin). These burgeoning superheroes from dramatically different backgrounds will have to come together once the threat behind the Parademons, Darkseid (Steve Blum) reveals himself.


Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Heath Corson zip through the story with an action-packed pacing that can be both exhilarating and a bit numbing. The big set pieces are well choreographed and nicely animated but eat up so much of the running time, especially in the last 20 minutes or so. And as with many of these films, the action ends up taking precedent over any emotional stakes. The character models are top-notch – a nice combination of classic style and the newer look inspired by Jim Lee’s “Origin” design. The voice work is mostly good especially from O’Mara, Moore, and Gorham (not so good from Astin). But the biggest surprise is the humor. Corson’s script has some unexpectedly well-timed jabs and witty one-liners that land well and aren’t overpowering.

But not everything lands as well. Wonder Woman shines in the action sequences but her cringe-worthy introduction is tough to watch. The movie goes for some wacky fish-out-of-water vibe that makes her more oafish that heroic. Thankfully Oliva and Corson steer away from that in the later scenes. And I can’t help but wish the story took a more intimate look at its characters. As it is, only Cyborg’s story is given a personal touch; Batson/Shazam to a degree. Still, “Justice League: War” is a fun early entry into the DC Animated Movie Universe and serves as a pretty interesting introduction to a world with lots of potential. It’s available to stream on HBO Max.



REVIEW: “Jolt” (2021)

You can make a convincing case that Kate Beckinsale is an underrated actress who too often flies under audience’s radars. She also has a remarkable range. One minute she’s starring in a period comedy based on a 1794 Jane Austen novel and the next she’s leading a vampire coven as they shoot through packs of ravenous enemy werewolves. She brings her sharp wit and knack for action to her new film “Jolt”, a kinetic jaunt from Amazon Studios with some clear franchise ambitions.

The film is directed by Tanya Wexler (“Buffaloed”) from a script written by Scott Wascha. Both approach the story from just the right angle and never try to make “Jolt” more than what it’s meant to be – a crazy and at times deliciously over-the-top action flick with attitude and humor to spare. And while this first film doesn’t exactly scream “franchise”, I had a good enough time with “Jolt” that I would happily jump back into this world again.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Beckinsale is in cracking form playing Lindy, a woman with serious anger management issues. A brief narrated prologue gives us a little backstory. From an early age she had a “condition” that would hurl her into a violent uncontrollable rage whenever people do bad things. Over the years it grew harder to control these impulses, and the lack of love at home made her angrier and more volatile. Lindy was eventually diagnosed with Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). Her teen years were spent as a lab rat until she was old enough for the military, but that too proved to be a disaster. So just when she thought she would end up in a cell for the rest of her life, a harsh but surprisingly successful treatment came her way.

Now an adult, Lindy gets by thanks to Dr. Ivan Munchin (Stanley Tucci), a psychiatrist whose “cutting-edge avant-garde treatment” helps her keep her condition under control (sorta). She wears a vest of sorts that jolts her body with electricity whenever she pushes a button that she keeps in her hand. Whenever she feels that fiery impulse…bzzzz…impulse gone. But as her body grows more tolerant, Dr. Munchin remains nervous about upping the voltage. He’s certain that the only real way to overcome her condition is by mentally facing her demons. And finally engaging in some normal social functions would hurt.

Lindy decides to give social interaction a try by going on a blind date with a genteel accountant named Justin (Jai Courtney). She tries to run away at first but is ultimately taken in by his nerdy charm. He seems like the perfect guy and a chance for Lindy to get a taste of a normal life. But remember, this isn’t a romcom or a Hallmark Channel original. Lindy’s dream of normalcy is shattered when she learns that Justin has been murdered. Understandably fearing the worse, Dr. Munchin tells her to let it go, but she’ll have none of that. So against her doctor’s recommendations, Lindy sets out to find who killed Justin and make them pay. “I hurt people. Might as well put it to good use.”

As Lindy sets out on her quest for revenge she crosses paths with a number of baddies and one particularly powerful businessman/crime boss played by a surly David Bradley. She also has the police hot on her trail led by a sympathetic and slightly smitten Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and his cranky yet dogged partner Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox). Through it all Wexler shows off her eye for action, letting loose with several high-energy fight scenes and one especially cool car chase. And while the movie gets a little action-heavy in the second half, it never loses its self-awareness and sharp sense of humor.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There are so many ways that “Jolt” could have flown off the rails, but Wexler’s smart and confident direction keeps it on track. It turns out to be a delightfully weird and consistently entertaining romp. That’s not to say there aren’t a few hiccups. While Bradley has the cold smugness of a good villain, his character doesn’t have much depth. I never had a good grasp of who he was or the outfit he ran. And there are parts of the story just don’t click. Take when Lindy enters a police department full of detectives, hidden only by a pair of sunglasses, and marches right into the evidence room without an ounce of resistance. And there’s a final act twist that leads to a fun moment yet isn’t the least bit plausible.

But you can’t really get caught up in plausibility with a movie about a woman running around in an electrified vest shocking herself to keep her anger in check. You just go with it and have a good time. There’s just so much here to like starting with Beckinsale’s magnetic presence. Full of attitude, snark, and a snappy comedic timing, the 47-year-old actress gives the movie a charge and carries it through. I’m not sure where the series goes from here, but I’m certainly onboard for another ride. “Jolt” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.