John Wick: Chapter 2

jw2Director: Chad Stahelski

Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, and Laurence Fishburne

So the fact that there’s a John Wick 2 is like a surprise Christmas gift for me. I watched the original John Wick in 2014 in the same way one would watch say, any Jean Claude Van Damme movie; which is to say, with limited expectations. I was surprised, as many others were, with the craft, choreography, and cleverness that went into it and I was content with that. However, I never expected a second “chapter,” nor did I expect it to be the best movie of 2017 so far!

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a true sequel. It moves the plot forward, it introduces new characters, it broadens the world from the original, and it ups the body count…like way ups the body count. We start right where you want to start, if you recall the conclusion of the previous film, with John (Keanu Reeves) getting his car back. Still wanting, “out,” John reburies his recently resurrected hitman persona along with his small armory of tactical weaponry. He gets a new dog and is ready to return to retirement. That is until an unwelcomed caller, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at Chez Wick with a request to hire him for a job. Of course, Wick refuses, but it turns out D’Antonio has a curious little item known in the underground hitman community as a marker. This marker was given to D’Antonio by Wick in exchange for assistance in his “impossible task” that earned him his previous retirement, and the holder has the right to demand anything from whoever granted the marker with no risk of refusal. But Wick refuses. And D’Antonio blows up his house. Thems the breaks in the hitman world.

Wick reluctantly decides to revisit D’Antonio’s request, which is a big one – go to Rome, and kill Santino’s sister Gianna to make room for him at the “table,” which is to say, the global underground hitman governing body. When things go afoul, Wick discovers a price has been put on his head, and Wick now must now search for redemption while thousands of the world’s greatest hidden assassins are around every turn looking to take him out.

What follows is a garishly fun and sadistic ride through a more realized hitman underworld. We get a deeper glimpse at the rules, regulations, and inner-workings of the ancient society. We also have almost no down time in this movie. It is action packed and fast-paced at every turn. The fighting choreography is outstanding, and even though there are numerous long-play fight scenes, none of them seem stale, each of them have tangible stakes attached to them, and they all have a creative twist that makes them unique. Take the worst action sequel in the last 5 years, A Good Day to Die Hard, and notice how spending the time to make the action work, makes the movie work! Wick’s scenes with friend turned nemesis, Cassian (Common) are especially enjoyable.

Of course with action as revved up as this, character development is the biggest casualty. There is no time for exploration of previously developed characters like Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), who make glorified cameos in this film. We get a little more of Winston (Ian McShane), but otherwise we are making way for newbies, most notably the reteaming of Reeves with fellow Matrix-er, Laurence Fishburne, who plays the local underworld Kingpin of the New York area, and who has also had some past run-ins with Wick in the old days. Also, the ancient Greek/Roman thematic motif furthered by characters named Ares, Charon, Winston, and Cassian is not lost on me, but it is a little silly.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is the blueprint for action sequels. It ups the action, and it ups the game, but it stays true to what made the original succeed. I daresay this film accomplishes its own “impossible task” of outshining its original. I am excited to see stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski continue his work with creator and screenwriter, Derek Kolstad in future chapters because this teaming was flawless. I have heard rumblings of a prequel John Wick TV series, which would showcase Wick’s impossible task, and while this excites me, it also worries me. However, in this day of mixed media and the entertainment models followed by the Marvel universe, there is certainly potential for this world to continue to expand and dominate in multiple mediums! A-

John Wick is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BvSDirector: Zack Snyder

Screenwriters:  Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Gal Gadot, and a couple hometown heroes (Debbie Stabenow and Jay Towers)

There is a lot of bad press out there on this film, and while some of it is valid, there is a real piling on happening that surprises me having now seen the film.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally unites the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in visually spectacular fashion that while still on training wheels is in no way the disaster it’s being made out to be.

Picking up right on the heels of 2013’s Man of Steel, Batman v Superman opens with the greatest scene of either film!  The perspective of the destructive trail left by the battle of Superman (Henry Cavil) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel is now shifted to the pedestrian view of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) from the streets of Metropolis.  The carnage left behind is on full display as two aliens duke it out, and humans pay the price; thus setting the table for a fundamental conflict between the two heroes.  While this scene may be a reaction to some of the complaints on Man of Steel’s relentless final battle scene, it was a good choice.  Affleck literally hits the ground running in his first appearance as Batman, and he along with director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer successfully qualm any residual worries of miscasting that circulated upon the revelation that Affleck would be next to don the cowl.  His dedication to the Dark Knight as well as his alter ego, Bruce Wayne puts him potentially as one of the best cinematic Batmen yet!

Unfortunately for Batman v Superman, the film does not build from here but rather desperately tries to keep its head above water.  As good as Affleck is in his role, Cavill is still pretty morose.  In fact, the entire film is.  Where Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were dark but edgy, Batman v Superman is mostly just dark.  The good news is we’re going someplace new this time.  Where Man of Steel basically retold the origin story that we’ve all known for 75 years, Batman v Superman does tread new territory for our heroes.  Snyder rightly glosses over Bruce Wayne’s dark past in the opening credits and gives us a distinguished, older, (wiser?) Batman who is trying to decide how he still fits into the world he’s now spent so many years trying to protect.  Not only do we not dwell on his past, we jump years into his future with just small glimpses at some of the events that have gotten him to where he is now, but not without his loyal butler, Alfred (played nicely by Jeremy Irons). Glimpses of things I can only imagine will play a role in future films.

The conflict over the destruction to Metropolis in the opening scene is not the only dividing line between Superman and Batman.  Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of industrialist Lex Luthor has discovered the largest payload of the Kryptonian element ever found and has been given license to test it (on the remains of Zod) and perhaps weaponize it to protect against future alien invasions.  The problem is, Luthor is inexplicably off his rocker.  Unlike Gene Hackman’s portrayal of this character (or even Kevin Spacey’s from Superman Returns), Eisenberg has no business being powerful, no ingenuity, and no purpose other than to be evil.  This is fine, but then why not just make him the joker?  I heard that James Woods voices Lex Luthor in an animated series about Superman.  I kind of wish they tapped him for this version as well!

Eisenberg aside, this film clips along at a decent pace and offers plenty of excitement and showcases the title characters nicely.  The title “battle” may seem a bit overhyped, but at least it doesn’t last for the final third of the film! Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman is also mostly successful.  Some confusion does set in regarding an influx of “dream sequences” that still has me scratching my head, but fanboys who are “in the know” claim there is some solid development in these scenes.  Unfortunately the casual viewer will be wondering what the hell just happened.

While an improvement on its predecessor, I can only marginally recommend this film higher than the last.  Perhaps Warner Brothers should take some very copious notes as Marvel’s version of this storyline, Captain America: Civil War, is released in May.  Details on this film are very hush, hush, but Marvel’s track record speaks for itself.  It may be unfair to compare the Marvel films to the DC ones in terms of tone or mood, but it is fair to compare them in agenda.  These are all “comic book” based films, and the best comic books do not set off to only entertain; they attempt to hold up a mirror to reality and use the extraordinary to make observations on the ordinary.  Marvel Studios has been very good at this, and DC has not managed to pull it off since The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.  In my 2013 Man of Steel review I said, “Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel.”  When Man of Steel was released, Warner Brothers immediately green lit a sequel that was supposed to be released in 2015 to usher in the Justice League film for 2016.  Those plans were dashed, and that sequel became this film – yet another bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel (and one that is developing far too similarly to The Avengers).  While the money is pouring in (which I expect is their reason for stretching this franchise out), Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Still there is enough to whet our appetite one more time to see if these characters can get the treatment they ultimately deserve. B

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes. Kudos to director Zack Snyder’s shout-outs to principle filming location, Detroit Michigan!  Keep an eye out for many recognizable shots of the city (especially in that opening scene) as well as some familiar faces like Senator Debbie Stabenow and radio/TV personality Jay Towers.

Man of Steel

Image“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…” But what lead to all of this? That’s the question director, Zack Snyder attempts to answer in the latest treatment of “the last son of Krypton,” Man of Steel.

It has been 75 years since Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics’ premier issue. Since then, the character has starred in countless comics, TV shows, and movies. Yet, with Man of Steel, Superman’s sixth cinematic appearance, most of the buzz revolved around Christopher Nolan’s involvement with the project. Nolan, most known as the director of the remarkable Dark Knight trilogy, teamed up with his Dark Knight series co-writer, David S. Goyer to write the screenplay for Man of Steel. Nolan and Goyer successfully revitalized the Batman franchise by making it edgy, making it smart, and taking a fresh take on a familiar story. Thus, the hopes are that they were able to do the same to DC Comic’s most popular hero, Superman. Man of Steel, unfortunately, does not quite deliver the goods.

The film opens on Krypton as the doomed planet is self-destructing after its inhabitants have mined the nutrients of its core, causing a full on apocalypse. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Laura decide to place their newborn son, Kal-El in a capsule headed for Earth in the hopes that he will know a better life and continue a form of the Kryptonian line of people. Kal-El is, of course discovered and raised by Kansas farmers, The Kents where he is famously renamed “Clark.” Conflict arrives when Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth searching for Kal-El as part of his mission to obliterate man-kind in a genocidal plot to repopulate Earth with pure Kryptonians.

Man of Steel sets out to offer a different tone than is usually found in a Superman film. Henry Cavill’s performance as the title character is far more serious, insightful, and raw than any previous Superman. Additionally, this is the most violent Superman film to date, proliferated with tragedy and destruction. Director, Snyder does offer a fresh take on the well-known origin story with a non-linear timeline that bounces back and forth through Superman’s first 33 years on Earth. He also, gives audiences a lengthier glimpse at Krypton than found in previous films. The non-traditional timeline works very well, preventing the film from hitting snags as the character grows. Instead, audiences are able to see Superman earlier with a peppering of flashbacks to add context to his story. With all of this being said, the film lacks the edge and intelligence necessary to allow it to, well, soar. The opening sequence on Krypton is a welcomed change, but the planet is already experiencing so much unrest that it is hard to believe these alien people are anything but flawed and miserable. In fact, this scene introduces a sort of Brave New World motif where choice has been bred out of Krypton, and society chooses the fate of all inhabitants. The screenplay opts for simplicity over complexity, which forces the film into a brainless extended action scene for the final hour; a scene that puts the “never-ending” in the “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Coupled with these extended action scenes is Snyder’s shooting technique. He uses a lot of shaky, hand-held camera shots, which do become strenuous at times.

Perhaps the most major missed opportunity is the weak exploration of young Kal-El’s/Clark Kent’s struggles as an alien in a strange world. While Snyder does explore this, he does so in a fashion that merely glosses over the surface. Scene’s involving Superman’s youth are far too underdeveloped and border on stereotypical. Furthermore, the fun and the romance that are expected from a Superman story are in short supply in Man of Steel. Instead, this reboot attempts to ground a movie about alien superpeople living and battling on Earth in some sort of reality, which is a bit preposterous.

The casting is certainly the film’s major strength. Cavill is, of course, an excellent choice for Superman. He looks the part and has great presence on the screen. Amy Adams gives a performance as Lois Lane that veers far from her just being a silly girl getting into trouble all of the time, and Michael Shannon gives another full-tilt-crazy performance as Zod. Other familiar minor characters are also well cast including Laurance Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent.

All together, Man of Steel shows promise, but mostly for what is yet to come. Warner Brothers has already green-lit a sequel that will be fast-tracked to release before 2015’s Justice League. Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel. B-

Man of Steel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes. The film was post-converted to 3-D, however there are some exciting sequences that are enhanced by the conversion. Nonetheless, 2-D is recommended and there is no stinger after the credits, so feel free to go home if you’re not interested in who the 2nd assistant sound editor was.