‘Guns… a lot of guns.’
Keanu Reeve’s connection to the neo-western genre now goes beyond the prefix. In the latest Wickian outing, director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad put a spectacular bounty on the boogeyman’s head, switching out the Wild West for neon-scorched cityscapes and adding a breathless amount of kung/gun/dog-fu.
A single droplet of blood cues the cheesy opening credits. We’re back in the world of John Wick (Reeves); immediately following the events of Chapter 2, Continental hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) allows the hitman one hour to escape before a $14 million contract for his life is lit.
Every single killer in New York City wants a slice of that bounty; but it’ll be no easy catch. This is “John fucking Wick”, “the last thing many men see before they die”, therefore, “the odds are about even”. As the rain pours like a Vietnam monsoon, John is hunted like a dog – though we all know that action equals a deadly consequence in this franchise.
Old faces return: Lance Reddick’s low-toned, refined Charon; Laurence Fishburne on amazingly loose form as Bowery King (he belongs in Westeros with lines like “I am the throne, baby!”). But, as the lore of this canine-avenging series expands and vastly deepens, many more emerge from the shadows: Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator, representing the High Table’s reticles focused on Winston after his friendly allowance to John after breaking sacred rules; Halle Berry as Sofia, a former partner of John’s with a toe-curling knack for letting her pair of gorgeous dogs ravage her enemies genitals (it happens a lot). Not to mention the actual Anjelica Houston and Mark Dacascos as a delightfully twisted baddie.
Coins, markers, High Tables; Stahelski and Kolstad have rapidly moved from their emotive beginnings to expansive, hammy lore, constantly revealing new areas of the assassin-sphere. Your allegiances can be deciphered on the primitive question; which film did you prefer? The answer will likely indicate how you take Chapter 3, by far the most outrageous, exaggerated entry of the trilogy.
This time round though, the leaps and bounds the whacky mythos takes doesn’t always equal an exciting story. The runtime, a reasonable 131 minutes, can sag in bullet-less intervals, often woven with opaque dialogue about bonds, worths and penance. But, when the action comes back, the film kicks into a much higher gear.
The choreography here is close to The Raid 2-levels of blood-soaked quality; inventive, grim but rarely gratuitous. There’s horses, kitanas, uber-shotguns; all and more used in the act of killing, and it’s glorious. From a fight with the franchise equivalent of Jaws (Bond villain, not the shark), to a jaw-dropping move with a book, to the most impressive use of dogs in any motion picture that’s ever existed; this is premium action cinema. Stahelski is a genius in this arena, but all due credit to Dan Laustsen, the cinematographer that evokes blinding electricity from acutely framed, cross-discipline chaos.
“Art is pain” one character quips; I bet Reeves agrees. The people’s action star is known for loving the stunt-work, but this performance is one of immense physical aptitude. Stahelski said in an interview that when John looks to be struggling in the movie, panting and grunting, that’s because Reeves is. You believe it, you’re there for every punch, stab and shot he faces, every body-slam he dishes out; but with that reliable charisma he’s perfected in his renaissance, he’s also an immensely likeable hero.
There are other quibbles; Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s score is a bit uninspiring; it has momentum, but not the raw acceleration of say, Junkie XL’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s also the fact that these assassins kill people in broad daylight a lot, even in train stations, and nobody seems to notice. But, with such a remarkable plethora of sequences some directors could only dream of producing, this is an exhilarating, ooh-inducing watch (shout-out to all the good dogs again).
First he avenged a dog, now he fights alongside them. John Wick’s third chapter is an over-the-top feast of brutal, giddy, masterful violence.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm
Bewildering, penetrative sci-fi.
Endless blackness, an infinite stretch of both everything and nothing, mesmerizing but (literally) suffocating in its incomprehensible scale; the existential terror of High Life’s surrounding twinkly cosmos looms like an unconquerable inevitability. But famed arthouse director Claire Denis, making her English-language movie debut, imbues her unlikely sci-fi effort with more than fear of the unknown.
Floating far, far away from Earth, a crew of Death Row inmates is sent on a near-suicide mission to extract energy from a whopping black hole. But the ship’s doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has other ideas; battling her own demons, she wants to harvest the men’s semen and impregnate the women. But Monte (Robert Pattinson) isn’t game to make a deposit to the wank-bank.
Although, the film opens, presumably, after this gestation operation, with Monte looking after an adorable little baby; screaming for her dad as he works on the outside of the craft (the physics of Denis’ void are unique; bodies float over opening titles but a spanner drops like a pebble). The first half-hour is entrancing; dazzling cinematography from Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk evokes the lucid neon of HAL’s brain and the lingering malevolence of the Overlook Hotel’s haunted corridors (smoke pervades hallways like blood from the elevator).
There are shades of other wonderful features here: a glorious green garden is reminiscent of the environmental isolation of Silent Running; the team’s objective is similar to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, although tonally disparate. But as the narrative opens up to the other inmates, Denis’ opaque trip turns extraordinarily carnal.
“It’s called a taboo,” Monte says at one point – High Life certainly falls into that challenging category. Taking us back to others onboard (a terrific ensemble, including Mia Goth and André Benjamin), we’re transferred into a sensually charged prison, where bloodlust is normal and the risk of rape (both male and female) is prevalent. While its mood is similar to that of Under the Skin and thematically in the same ballpark as Children of Men, it’s a mind-bending, unique experience – quite possibly the horniest space expedition to hit cinemas.
The composition of every frame is impeccable (the way Denis commands dread from a gaze is chilling), and the pace is calculated; stretches of ominous inactivity are punctuated with violent vignettes. For the cast, it’s not exactly breezy fare, but they manage to shine; Pattinson puts in an engrossingly fractured performance, navigating his way through with a natural gravity (particularly as the film heads towards its conclusion). Binoche makes the bigger impression though, terrifying throughout and stopping the show with a barnstorming, intensely visceral, almost-occult solo sex scene inside the facility’s “fuck box” (with a heart-thumping score from Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples), akin spiritually to 2018’s Suspiria – indeed, “it’s a whole other rabbit hole”.
But like Guadagnino’s remake, High Life can be an easier film to admire than enjoy. The script allows itself to lean on exposition instead of letting mystique take the wheel; but at the other end of the spectrum, its frequent ambiguity doesn’t always inspire cohesion. Worst of all, towards the end there’s an abhorrent scene with dogs that is so overtly horrific, so difficult to stomach, it made me upset to the point of being physically ill.
But in a complex tapestry of ideas, Denis’ direction is quite remarkable. The content is troubling, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll likely be craving a cold shower. The filmmaker purposely tests your patience, drags you through the depths of morality; but it’s undoubtedly indelible. Plus, there’s a triumphant snippet of ‘Flower of Scotland’ that granted me merciful elation before the nausea took control.
Human nature and Mother Nature come to blows with uncomfortable consequences in this disturbing, mystifying sci-fi odyssey.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm
If each month of every year had a gravestone, April 2019 would have “Part of the journey is the end” etched on it. The final season of Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame – the two biggest events of all time in their respective mediums. Hype can be both friend and foe in the tumultuous build-up (particularly when spawns of Satan leak footage), but the directing Russo brothers have proved themselves to be dab hands in this particular pop culture arena. And, with this masterful, galvanizing conclusion to more than 10 years of movies, they’ve provided fans with the rarest thing of all; a true end.
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sets the scene: “Thanos did exactly what he said he was gonna do, he wiped out 50% of all living creatures.” The film picks up after the catastrophic events of its finger-snapping predecessor, and survivors’ guilt is rife. Team members have turned to self-help groups, others to exacting vengeful violence on those who made it out alive who perhaps don’t deserve to be, and a few are trying to push on through the grief and preserve that oh-so-cherished “suit of armour around the world”. The fact is, they now know what it’s like to lose, to feel so desperately that they’re right, but to fail nonetheless.
Appropriately, the first act of Endgame is indeed a somber affair, right from the ultra-downbeat, perfectly pitched opening scene; a painting of post-trauma life for our very human heroes, with hurt dripping off the canvas as they strive and struggle to do something with the world that’s left. It’s no spoiler to say that Tony (Robert Downey Jr) and Nebula (Karen Gillan, who’s “only a tiny bit sadistic”) are stranded in space from the off, following their final boss stint on Titan. But, as Steve Rogers says: “Some people move on, but not us.” Through an absolute fluke, there’s a small chance to do something; and that’s when the madness really begins.
It’s a long film, 181 minutes to be exact. But it feels much, much shorter; similarly to Infinity War (but entirely different in tone), there’s a brilliant momentum through the acutely paced vignettes of the story, allowing for deep-cutting character work and 10 years of plot threads to finally tie together (Tony and Steve’s precarious relationship is a highlight). If the first third burns, the second dazzles. Like a victory lap of the MCU’s triumphs, the directors and writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, orchestrate angst, wonder and poignancy in all the right moments, their love for these icons shining through every reunion and callback. Only a few moments stumble; a certain character’s alcoholic arc loses its charm, the comedy is occasionally clunky, one moment of intended welly is hampered by a scrappy structure and a shot reminiscent of Black Widow, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) team-up in Infinity War is cool but contrived.
Thanos was the twisted protagonist of the last outing, but here he peeps in and out, delivering signature grandiose, purring dialogue in calculated doses with lingering dread (“I am inevitable,” he says, smugly). It’s the best showcase of the cast’s acting talents so far. Some members, naturally, aren’t afforded as much of the spotlight but still do well with what they have (Gillan’s underrated Nebula, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Don Cheadle’s Rhodey and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel). The stars are undoubtedly Evans and Downey Jr: the former offering a broken, transformative performance that changes the character forever; the latter at his most touching and contemplative. Sarcastic and snarly but earnest, recalibrated like a fresh Iron Man suit.
It’s not all agony – the third act of this movie is a pure-hearted, unbelievable, fist-pumping extravaganza of stupendously geeky delights. The Russo’s weaponise nostalgia and fan-service and wield it like Thanos does his Infinity Gauntlet, delivering a feast of cathartic pay-offs you are absolutely not prepared for. The effects work here is vastly impressive, building upon coherent choreography and cinematography (brilliantly versatile work by Trent Opaloch, from awesomely giddy shots to honed-in intimacy) as Return of the King syndrome looms. Fights have a barnstorming, nervous energy, like the ruthless pressure of every encounter in 2014’s Winter Soldier. This is peak blockbuster: extraordinary entertainment that is as concerned with dropping your jaw as breaking your heart. With Alan Silvestri’s melancholic, rousing score in the mix to stir the anguish and pump the blood, by the time those credits roll, you’ll be booking your tickets for round two, three, four and so on. Is it the best MCU movie? Perhaps. The most ambitious? Certainly. A deserving champion to knock a certain trip to Pandora off its podium.
A spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime epic. Avengers, dismissed.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm
A lousy, grotesque reboot.
Not too long ago, The Kid Who Would Be King hit cinemas; a rollicking throwback to the Amblin adventures of old, full of whimsy and juvenile charm. If that Arthurian tale was Jekyll, Hellboy is its Hyde; a nasty, volatile reboot with an ugly penchant for f-bombs, violence and complete nonsense.
We open with a frenzied voice-over, painting a vivid but rapid history of the film’s villain; Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) – try not to yawn – who wants to kickstart armageddon to give birth to “a new Eden”. While she assembles a dismembered plan with the help of a crass hog-fairy (Stephen Graham), watching the odd episode of Love Island in the process (I’m not kidding), Hellboy (David Harbour) is placed on a collision course with the foe while discovering his lineage, with the assistance of psychic-of-sorts Alice (Sasha Lane), scar-faced soldier Ben (Daniel Dae Kim) and boss man/father Trevor (Ian McShane).
The film has a startling immediacy; in that, you feel Guillermo del Toro’s absence from the get-go. Once a gothic fairytale hybrid (fuelled by a love affair of monsters), now unsophisticated guff, the real horror in Neil Marshall’s hard-edged, maladroit effort is how off-putting it all is. The violence is extreme to the point of tedium; intestines are spilled, faces are ripped straight off skulls, bodies are ripped apart Bone Tomahawk-style. It’s almost comically disgusting, sparking bemusement rather than white knuckles (from a modest $50 million, less expensive films are definitely laughing).
Then there’s Andrew Cosby’s screenplay. Glimpses of potential are present (a horrific trip to another dimension stands out in its own twisted grimness) but brief amidst the stream of misplaced bad language and unforgivable logical inconsistencies. (We’re supposed to believe, for example, that Nimue’s body parts haven’t decomposed after multiple centuries.) There’s shoe-horned commentary on society and rudimentary attempts at humour that range from barely laughable to entirely ineffective (“Some dads get their kids lego’s” Hellboy says after being gifted a gun), all woven into an insipid, overly familiar story.
Harbour had big shoes to fill; a shame, really, that the film is such a disaster. He has the makings of a fit Big Red – the figure, attitude, scowl and odd bit of badassery. But not only is he not a match for the effortless transformation of Perlman, Harbour’s performance feels more formed by the layers of make-up, rather than aided by it. Other cast members don’t fare well either; McShane is picking up a pay cheque, and Thomas Haden Church shows up in a flashback as a bizarre, hilariously wooden Nazi assassin – he even says “Guten Tag” with a customary gunshot upon arrival.
It doesn’t add up. There’s solid talent involved; on music you have Benjamin Wallfisch, but his composition barely chirps through, and when it does, it’s often in aid of a gigantic tonal shift. Lorenzo Senatore’s cinematography is suffocated by an overwhelming use of CGI and red-fisted editing. And at the centre, Marshall’s directorial voice, felt in The Descent and the criminally underrated Dog Soldiers, does not come through the pungent smell of shit. The Kid Who Would Be King was tailor-made for 11-year-olds – Hellboy, in all its excessive blood and expletives, will probably be enjoyed by the same crowd for the wrong reasons.
There’s a parallel universe where Del Toro made Hellboy 3 – you can find me there.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm