#firstimefriday John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum The World Is A Better Place For Having Keanu Back On Centre Stage

I’m old enough to remember when it was cool and knowing to slag off Keanu. ‘He’s going to play someone with no brain you say [Johnny Mnemonic]? How appropriate?”. How we laughed! I hope I’m also old enough to know better now. Of course, Keanu has been in his share of bad films and has been bad in a few films too. A glance through his back catalogue will also show how many damn good movies he’s been in. As I heard one critic put it recently, his strength doesn’t lie with his voice so much as it does with his body. And your body is a big part of the actor’s trade.

We come now to the third John Wick movie, a franchise that has put Keanu centre stage in the film-goers’ consciousness once more. I think the world is a better place for that. This is a series of films in which Keanu channels grief and its attendant stages – anger, denial, bargaining – through the tightly wound coil of his body, inflicting pain on anyone who crosses his path. By the end of this film, the whole set of three has only covered a few weeks of narrative at most. This is a man whose grief and his reaction to it is leading him further and further down the rabbit hole.

John wick 3

It’s utterly relentless, breathlessly entertaining. You feel every bone snap and every shattered pane of glass deep in your bones; there’s wit laced with the violence too. Death by horse, death by dog, death by book (carefully placed back on the shelf in the right place afterwards, naturally). The world of assassins with a moral code is expanded and doesn’t make sense, but somehow that’s all part of the fun. Asia Kate Dillon is particularly good as the person who makes seemingly arbitrary decisions as to what’s going on on behalf of the ever invisible High Table. There’s a staggering sequence on motorbikes that I would have liked to have lasted longer. There’s a direct quote from The Matrix, and several other cinematic nods besides. And there’s neon. So much neon.

It’s balletic, stylised violence by way of John Woo and The Raid films; the sort of thing Tarantino reached for in Kill Bill but never found as conclusively as he seemed to think he had. It’s absurd, but deliriously entertaining – if two hours of more or less relentless fighting and killing is what you’re after. It’s violence so choreographed as to not be exploitative; this is unreal violence as a spectator sport, as performance art. A man – Keanu – and others, bending bodies to their will, in service of a story and characters you come to love almost despite yourself.

It’s hard to imagine why you’d see this film if you didn’t know what to expect; for me, it was slightly weaker than Chapter 2, which I enjoyed more than the first film. Either way, this is one just to relax and go with. The world is a better place for having Keanu back in big films on the big screen, channelling grief and anger through a body that is cartoonishly unlikely to break. Long may this wick burn.

The Raid: Redemption (also known as The Raid) (2011)

The Raid (or to give it it’s full title in some countries The Raid: Redemption) is an Indonesian set and spoken action movie directed by Britain’s Gareth Evans. It’s a an absolute blast. If you can take it; if you’re not a fan of action films, best to stay away.

The plot is necessarily simple. A tenement block is controlled by a mobster and his thugs; a heavily armed police SWAT team is sent in to take it. That’s it, really. What unfolds is heavily influenced by martial arts movies (all the hand to hand fighting is in that mould), video games (in that the SWAT team need to advance floor-by-floor to a ‘boss’ at the top), and as the plot unfolds films like Infernal Affairs (remade as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) are referenced. The film unfurls breathlessly as a brutal and brilliantly choreographed ballet. The soundtrack (contributed to by, among others, a member of Linkin Park) is as much in the kicks landing and the bones breaking as it is in the brilliantly appropriate music. Anything and everything gets used as a weapon – from the conventional body parts, guns and blades through to furniture and as creative a use of a fridge as you’re ever likely to see. It’s graphic in the extreme (for the genre), but somehow never tasteless. It’s designed to do nothing other than thrill and exhilarate; but for me, free as it was of CGI effects, the film’s raw physicality also felt like a strange celebration of the capabilities of the human body, a kind of action movie Olympian celebration. The stunt-work is exemplary; every blow is real and carries consequences. In that sense it doesn’t so much glorify violence as present a heightened version of its reality. Exhilarating as it is, you’re not left with any desire to take part. It’s thrilling, exciting, over-the-top … but never does it incite.

If you can stomach it, you won’t regret it.

Viewed on iTunes download, on laptop. I rated this film 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 9/10 on imdb.com. 

World War Z

We like a good story, and every now and then film journalism alights upon a film to prophesy certain failure about. There are some common ingredients to these stories: the budget of the film must be both high and perceived and ever-expanding; it must be a high-profile film, often adapted from a much admired source; it must involve at least one very well-known star or director. Journalists and readers salivate at the prospect of high-profile failures like this  – it punctures hubris and we all laugh. Heaven’s Gate. Bonfire Of The VanitiesWaterworld. We do love a good story about a bad one.

World War Z had all the ingredients, and was frequently presented as such. It stars Brad Pitt. It’s directed by Marc Forster – he’s clearly not that well-known, but he did direct the critically adored Monster’s Ball as well as the messy Quantum Of Solace. It’s adopted from a book loved by many as ground-breaking, challenging example of what you can do with the familiar material of a global zombie-crisis. And yes, the budget kept rising. To complete the picture there were re-writes and ending changes.

The scene was duly set for disaster and blood-letting.

Here’s the thing, though. Despite the gleeful promises of doom, it’s quite good and it’s making enough money to already have had a sequel commissioned.

I haven’t read the book, but those who have read it tell me it does diverge significantly from the source. Clearly this was done to translate what was a deliberately un-structured narrative into something more coherent. The coherence is only partially there in the film, which is a real mix of genres and tones. Brad Pitt is a former United Nations worker who narrowly affects the escape of his family from a zombie epidemic to UN safety. In return he agrees to help get to the bottom of the crisis sweeping the world. What is the virus and why is it spreading so quickly? Improbably the answer is in Wales.

The first section is solid zombie-shocker fare. There’s a few jumps and scares; the chaos of suddenly spreading epidemic is well-handled. Pitt’s family, importantly, do feel like a family. Then the first change of gear. After some family deliberations, Pitt is off to solve the crisis. The film moves off too – away from shocker to action movie with a few jumps. It’s well handled, directed and choreographed action – especially when there are large crowds involved. The main tone is suddenly thrills not fear, though. Then in the final 3rd we’re into haunted house/hospital territory as a solution is honed in-on. Again effective, again odd.

It’s all entertaining. It’s all clearly the product of an uncertain vision of how to take the film forward. It’s exciting and gripping, but I was jolted out of the film too often by the changes of tone and shift from one genre to another. It’s a let-down to the zombie genre in that it doesn’t use the format to explore bigger issues – witness Romero’s classic …Of The Dead films, 28 Days Later and sequel or even Shaun Of The DeadWorld War Z verges on indelicate issues of geopolitics and even religion on one or two occasions but never has the guts to explore the themes properly.

Speaking of guts, this is (as the title implies) an action film not a horror one. There’s not of the literal or metaphorical guts of those films named above or TV’s The Walking Dead. There are a few winces, but this is a zombie film lacking teeth.

World War Z is uneven, clumsy and imperfect.

It is also fun, exciting and entertaining.

I look forward to a sequel with more confidence and coherence.

And maybe some guts.

I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com