REVIEW: “John Wick”

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Let me say I have always liked Keanu Reeves even when his movies didn’t quite hit their mark. He has always come across as a likable guy which has often translated onto the screen. That’s why I’m glad to see him put out a movie like “John Wick”. Let’s face it, Keanu’s career reached its high point during the 1990s and early 2000s. Now at 50 years old he stars in a stylized revenge thriller that tips it hat to several films that came out during his heyday.

Let’s get this out of the way first, “John Wick” is a hyper-violent action movie and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. There isn’t much character development. There isn’t a lot of shoehorned drama. There aren’t hidden deeper meanings. But there are a ton of bullets, blood splatters, and broken limbs not to mention a body count that would rival anything from Stallone or Schwarzenegger. In many ways it’s a throwback flick and I really appreciated what it set out to do.

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Reaves plays the title character John Wick, a retired hitman mourning the recent loss of his wife to an unspecified illness. We don’t get any drawn-out backstory about their relationship or the onset of the illness. Just quick flashes that indicate they had a very healthy and loving marriage. After her funeral he receives a delivery – a puppy his wife had arranged to be delivered upon her death in hopes that it would help John cope with her passing. It doesn’t take long for John to take a liking to the puppy and it appears that it may be helping him deal with his loss.

That changes when he meets three thugs tied to a Russian gang led by Iosef (Alfie Allen). Iosef takes a liking to John’s ’69 Mustang and is angry when John refuses to sell it. Later that night the trio attack John in his home, kill his puppy, and steal his car. This triggers the other side of John Wick – the side directly tied to his past as a lethal hitman. He sets out to find Iosef who we learn is the incompetent son of the Russian mob boss Viggo (played by Michael Nyqvist). Viggo knows John Wick which means he knows what’s coming so he sends his mob army out to kill John before John kills his son. Obviously that is no easy task.

From there directors Chad Stahelski and the uncredited David Leitch stomp the accelerator and rarely take a breather. The action comes furiously and without remorse. And the influence of Hong Kong action cinema is undeniable. Both the early martial arts flicks and the later stylized John Woo shoot-em-ups are represented in some form in “John Wick”. It’s that style and sense of homage that keeps this from being your run-of-the-mill action tripe. The fight choreography is intense and the gunplay is absurdly entertaining. It’s so insanely over-the-top but it never becomes dopey or farcical.

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Recently Keanu Reeves has shown his affection for foreign action movie formulas so he is right at home here. In fact you can even see reflections of his popular “Matrix” series which makes sense. He first met Stahelski and Leitch on the set of “The Matrix”. In “John Wick” he becomes the familiar but convincing blank-faced killing machine, but he isn’t restricted to that thanks to some subtle, timely humor and the feeling of sympathy we have for his character.

“John Wick” may not do anything to reinvent the revenge thriller or action genre, but does it really need to in order to be successful? Not for me. It’s definitely a movie made for a particular audience and if wall-to-wall action and stylized violence isn’t your cup of tea neither is “John Wick”. But as someone who grew up during the time when big action movies were topping the box office, this was a satisfying and entertaining retreat. It is a cool nostalgic trip that also managed to feel surprisingly new. It definitely had more to offer than I ever expected.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”

“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is the fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s action spy series and it’s also the best of the bunch. It’s a fast paced summer-styled popcorn picture that is perfectly constructed and moves from one big action set piece to another with an almost rhythmic and poetic flow. I wasn’t surprised that I liked the film. But I was surprised at how polished and effective this Mission Impossible movie was.

Director Brad Bird, best known for his Oscar winning work in animated films such as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”, makes his live action debut and one of my biggest questions was how he would make the transition. Bird is to be commended for his handling of material that necessitates moving from location to location and not allowing the audience to spend too much time thinking about plot details. He melds together those fun elements from high octane action movies and clever spy pictures and the result is an energetic, globetrotting, gadget-filled piece of robust entertainment.

Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt and he is in true movie star form. He and his team is framed for a terrorist attack on the Kremlin which leads the President to execute “Ghost Protocol”, the complete disavowing of the IMF. On their own and with limited resources, the team seeks to track down the individual responsible for the bombing, a dangerous mystery man who works under the name of “Cobalt” played beautifully by Michael Nyqvist. Cruise continues to be a perfect fit as Ethan Hunt and he’s certainly comfortable in the role. Simon Pegg returns as the team’s tech geek and comic relief and Paula Patton is a field agent with information on the bombing. But the best addition to the team is Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, and IMF analyst with a few secrets of his own. Renner gives a more reserved performance than what we have seen from him in films such as “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town”. This role required a bit more subtlety and Renner nails it.

The story moves all over the globe stopping at locations such as Moscow, Dubai, and India. The movie captures each location with energy and vibrancy and I was completely engaged. The action scenes are huge and sometimes jaw-dropping and Bird’s visual style makes it easy to overlook the sheer unbelievability of some of the sequences. The Dubai skyscraper scene alone is worth the ticket price. The gadgetry is as futuristic and outlandish as anything we’ve seen in the series but who cares? It works perfectly in this picture. I could go on and on but simply put, “Ghost Protocol” is technically flawless. Now just imagine it in IMAX.

As with the other Mission Impossible films, the plot does fall together a little too neatly and sometimes you just have to take things at face value. But the film moves along at such a fast pace that you’re never left to dwell on it. To be honest, I didn’t care that everything fell together so smoothly. I was having too much fun. Even at over two hours the film never lost me. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is getting a lot of critical praise even though it’s not the type of movie that would get awards buzz. But I judge a good movie by many things and one of them is how much fun I have watching it. Based on that, “Ghost Protocol” is surprisingly one of the better movies of 2011.

VERDICT – 4 STARS