JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence throughout, some Language and brief Nudity

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane & Lance Reddick

Loads of people seem to gush over 2014’s JOHN WICK. As for me, I think it’s a fun little action movie that’s equal parts silly and cool. Any sequel to any action flick promises to up the stakes and be bigger, bolder, cooler, and more adrenaline-pumping. JOHN WICK: CHAPER 2 has crazy action scenes and further develops its elaborate underworld of guns, hotels, and hired killers. However, the film also encounters pacing issues and goofiness that hinder it as a whole. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is an entertaining romp. Nothing more, nothing less.

The plot picks up four days after the events of the previous film. Former assassin turned bloody avenger John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just recovered his stolen car from a Russian-run chop shop and intends on living out the rest of his days in peace. John’s renewed retirement comes to an abrupt end when he’s visited by mob boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants John to make good on a past deal. With the prospect of one last job until he’s out for good, John Wick returns to kill a target and soon finds himself hunted by pretty much everyone. Lots of bullets, hand-to-hand combat, and craziness follows.

First things first, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 succeeds at what it set out to do. There’s plenty of kick-ass action and the stakes are ridiculously high. At one point, John Wick has pretty much an entire nation of assassins chasing him and decides to become a one man army. It’s friggin’ nuts to watch. The cinematography is slick and the execution of the action is stylish. I cannot express how nice it is to actually see what the hell is happening in an action movie, as opposed to constant shaky-cam that moviegoers are usually bombarded with in lesser modern action efforts. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is just as enjoyable as the first film, meaning that it still suffers from some problems.

CHAPTER 2’s second half is where things really pick up, but its first hour is frequently dull. It’s as if the movie suddenly shifted tones after the previous film’s conclusion to briefly become a brooding hour-long thriller about a reluctant assassin. Great films have been made about similar subject matter, but CHAPTER 2 has long stretches that feature nothing more than John Wick repeating himself to different characters and suiting up for his would-be final hit. Like I said though, the second half is infinitely more enjoyable as the body count reaches crazy levels and bullets begin to fly every which way.

CHAPTER 2’s cast has a few returning faces from the previous film, while also throwing new characters into the mix. Keanu Reeves is just as wooden as he was last time, becoming comically hollow when he tries to express the tragic emotional state of his character (having still lost his wife and her puppy). Still, Keanu knows how to kick ass, execute well-choreographed confrontations (ranging from hand-to-hand, vehicular mayhem, and gun-fu), and perform really cool stunts. Ian McShane is still enjoyable as a hotel owner who abides by a strict set of rules for the killers who inhabit his grounds.

Unfortunately, CHAPTER 2’s interesting new characters are underused or totally wasted throughout the proceedings. This time around, John faces off against a smarmy mob boss and Riccardo Scamarcio’s antagonist pretty much has underlings attack John and taunts him, making for a bit of an underwhelming main baddie. However, the final scene between himself and John further ups the stakes for a potential CHAPTER 3 (ending on a fun cliffhanger). Common plays a vengeance-seeking bodyguard who is sadly regulated to about three scenes, while Laurence Fishburne is having a blast in the cameo-like role of a hobo crime king. Also, Ruby Rose is bad-ass as a mute assassin who has a history with John, though she only appears for three scenes too.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 encounters flaws in wasted potential and uneven pacing. I wish some of the more creative baddies had a bigger presence and the film’s first half is distractingly slow to sit through. However, the action remains fun, while the style reeks of being cool for the sake of being cool. I didn’t go into JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 expecting an action masterpiece and this sequel is on the exact same level of the original, meaning that it’s a fun time for those who want a kick-ass action flick and not much logic. If you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too!

Grade: B

DEATH RACE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

DeathRace poster

Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Written by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke & Frederick Koehler

A lot of people despise Paul W.S. Anderson, but for my money, the man has made a few legitimately enjoyable films. His remake of DEATH RACE had been in the works since 2002. The script went through many rewrites and changed leading actors multiple times (Tom Cruise was originally slated to star at one point). After his disappointingly lame crossover ALIEN VS. PREDATOR that still managed to make a lot of box office bank, Anderson decided to helm a remake of the low-budget Roger Corman B-movie DEATH RACE 2000. Taking a more “serious” and “gritty” approach to the material, Anderson made a stupidly enjoyable guilty pleasure. This film is the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to a TWISTED METAL movie. While it definitely has noticeable problems, DEATH RACE is a fun ride nonetheless!

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In the distant future of 2012, the U.S. economy has crashed into the ground. This has resulted in: jobs being lost, desperate people trying to make ends meet, and a prison population soaring beyond a breaking point. Former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) has been laid off from his factory job, but his day is about to go from bad to worse because he’s been framed for his wife’s murder. Wrongfully convicted, Jensen finds himself thrown into the brutal Terminal Island Prison. Things begin to look up when warden Claire Hennessey (Joan Allen) makes Jensen an offer he can’t refuse. Hennessey runs a huge pay-per-view gladiator event within the prison called “Death Race.” This “race” puts vicious killers in heavily armored, weaponized cars and pits them against each other on a trap-laden track. If he wants a ticket out of Terminal Prison, Jensen must survive three rounds of combat-filled racing…but not everything is as it seems.

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No matter what piece of crap he might be starring in, Jason Statham always seems to command instant charisma and attitude. If there was a movie about a guy sitting on a toilet for 90-minutes straight, I’d probably watch it if Jason Statham starred in the leading role. With my admitted fandom for this bald British bloke, I’ll say that he makes a good action hero in this film. Though he’s pretty much playing the same tough guy type that he’s become known for, Statham was clearly having fun with the silly material and bulked up to an insane degree to play this revenge-driven racecar driver. As Ames, Statham growls, scowls, and also cracks the occasional one-liner. Joining Statham are a bevy of other familiar faces, some of whom probably only took these roles for a quick paycheck.

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Mainly known for the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, Tyrese Gibson gets into a totally different type of vehicle as the aptly named Machine Gun Joe. Though his character is a one-note thug, there are a couple of moments that attempt to give him a bit of a personality…including his knack for getting his navigator partners killed and remaining totally unscathed himself. Ian McShane plays the old, wise Coach and isn’t taking this movie seriously at all, which makes for a lot of fun. He whips out wise cracks, pulls funny faces, and tries to have one character driven conversation with Statham that only serves to make his old man character all the more enjoyable. Coach feels like James Whitmore’s librarian from SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was turned into a cheesy B-flick sidekick and then given to Ian McShane.

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Natalie Martinez plays Statham’s navigator, Case. She only serves as eye candy though, which the film blatantly states in a bit of throwaway dialogue about female prisoners being thrown in to add sex appeal to the already trashy pay-per-view death races. Is it really so hard to believe that TV producers wouldn’t be doing something along the lines of DEATH RACE if society crumbled? We’ve already suffered through Honey Boo Boo for crying out loud. Still, the most surprising faces pop up in the film’s antagonists. Academy Award winner Joan Allen plays conniving warden Hennessey and seems to have taken this role purely for a paycheck, but she also receives one of the most mind-boggling one-liners I’ve heard in any action movie ever. This film is pretty much worth watching for that moment alone. Also, a young Jason Clarke makes an appearance as Hennessey’s smarmily sadistic security guard.

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For all of its fun silliness, DEATH RACE definitely has annoying faults that can’t be ignored. The actual rules of the race itself don’t make much sense in the scheme of the story. Ian McShane’s Coach explains that the first two races really don’t matter because they only serve as a means to slay the competition, which makes you wonder why keep the racing structure to begin with and not have a total free-for-all slaughter. There are also buttons on the track that function as Mario Kart-like activators for defenses and weapons in the cars. This means that DEATH RACE sort of feels like a video game with big actors, fiery explosions, and impressively constructed cars. As silly and stupid as that may sound, there’s dumb sense of entertainment to be found in DEATH RACE’s mindless violence and car-filled chaos. Even though the action scenes aren’t without some distracting shaky-cam and quick editing, they’re mostly well put together and feature plenty of cool demises.

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Despite running a bit too long, having many glaring plot holes, and featuring a closing credits warning that treats its viewers like morons (advising you not to create backyard Death Races of your own), DEATH RACE manages to retain a stupidly simple charm that makes it into a big dumb guilty pleasure for me. If you can turn off your brain for two hours, then you’ll probably enjoy this dose of dumb-as-a-rock action carnage. Not every movie has to strive to be high art. Different genres aim to accomplish different goals. Sometimes. all you want to do is cut loose and watch a stupid action movie with cheesy dialogue, over-the-top characters, dumb writing, and things going boom. DEATH RACE is the equivalent of cinematic junk food. You’re not likely to retain much from it, but it’s fun and satisfying while it lasts.

Grade: B-

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Crude Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence, Language, and some Drug Use

Grimsby poster

Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Phil Johnston

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis & Ian McShane

Sacha Baron Cohen seems to be a polarizing figure in comedy. You either love him or you don’t. While he made a huge splash with the 2006’s controversial hit BORAT, Cohen has continued to make raunchier than raunchy R-rated comedies that have received varying degrees of success among critics and the general public. THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is pretty much just another cinematic vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen to run hog-wild with over-the-top sex jokes, disgusting humor, and offensive one-liners. If you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll enjoy this movie. I am a fan of that sort of thing and was very entertained for 83 minutes.

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Nobby and Sebastian are two brothers who were separated by adoption. Sebastian is a deadly secret agent and Nobby is a white trash soccer hooligan who has spent years searching for his baby brother. Fate just so happens to throw Nobby into Sebastian’s path during an assassination plot. This encounter results in Sebastian’s dangerous mission being compromised and MI6 believing that their best agent has gone rogue. Soon enough, the mismatched pair of brothers are on the run from terrorists and MI6 agents. That’s all I’ll say about the plot because it’s rather inconsequential and merely serves as an excuse for lots of crude humor…almost all of which is very funny.

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Sacha Baron Cohen has played many colorful characters during his career and Nobby is normal when compared to the likes of Ali G, Bruno, Borat, and Admiral General Aladeen. Nobby is just a white trash soccer hooligan who happens to have a secret agent for a brother. This sort of idiot sibling character has been done before, but Cohen still manages to make this role his own with great line delivery and sheer body language. Playing the straight man to Cohen is Mark Strong, who never once gives anything resembling a comedic performance in this film. He’s an eternally serious spy who becomes increasingly distressed by his brother’s stupidity. The chemistry between Strong and Cohen is the best thing in BROTHERS GRIMSBY. Watching these two very different performers play off each other provides some of the biggest laughs in the film.

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Though the two leading performances are fun, GRIMSBY’s supporting cast is a bit weak. None of these characters really have a purpose other than being plot devices or glorified cameos. Isla Fisher (as an agent) only exists to spout exposition. Ian McShane (another agent) barks orders. Rebel Wilson (as Nobby’s white trash girlfriend) is only in the film for a combined total of ten minutes. Penelope Cruz (playing a wealthy environmentalist) doesn’t exactly have a big part to play in the proceedings, even though we’re told otherwise. These side characters aren’t important though as this is mainly a two person show and the leading duo are more than up to the task of making us laugh our asses off at inappropriate jokes.

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GRIMSBY’s humor is beyond juvenile and downright repugnant at times, but it still made me laugh very loudly the whole way through. Sacha Baron Cohen (also serving as one of the three writers on this film) is still a master of taking simple jokes and pushing them to hilarious, uncomfortable extremes. There is plenty of gratuitous nudity and crudeness, but both of those come expected with any R-rated Cohen flick. He relies on gross-outs and shock humor…and just happens to be very funny at both. The promotional material has not given away the best parts of this movie either as they simply wouldn’t fit within the confines of a green band or a two-minute red band trailer. A scene involving an elephant made me laugh to the point where I had to wipe tears away from my eyes.

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The biggest problem that I have with THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is that it tries to incorporate emotional flashbacks of Nobby and Sebastian as children between ridiculously funny moments. Though these flashbacks gave additional information to these characters’ pasts and developed them a bit beyond one-note jokes, the tone didn’t meld with the rest of the over-the-top proceedings. The movie goes from having a gross-out fellatio joke to a sad scene of children separating. These tonal shifts just didn’t blend well together.

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As a whole, BROTHERS GRIMSBY will likely satisfy fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s extreme shock humor. GRIMSBY may not be on the same level of BORAT or BRUNO, but I’d rank it alongside THE DICTATOR as a good-but-not-great R-rated comedy. The side characters were bland and the flashbacks were distracting, but the chemistry between Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong as well as the extreme gross-out humor are the real reasons to watch this film. If you appreciate those latter qualities, then you’ll probably be entertained by this comedy that’s short, sweet, and to-the-point.

Grade: B

SEXY BEAST (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Strong Violence and some Sexuality

SexyBeast poster

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Written by: Louis Mellis & David Scinto

Starring: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman, James Fox & Cavan Kendall

Though he only has three films under his belt so far, Jonathan Glazer has been compared to Stanley Kubrick by a number of film critics. Now having seen two of those three movies, I can definitely see that description being somewhat accurate. Glazer first made waves with this British crime flick that polarized audiences upon its release and rightfully got Ben Kingsley an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Kingsley’s performance is undoubtedly the best part of this film, but the rest of the performances and the so-so screenplay make for a fun hodge-podge of a stalker flick and a typical heist thriller. As a whole, SEXY BEAST is an enjoyable flick, but not without a good share of problems.

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Gal is a retired safecracker. After spending nine years in prison and pulling off many successful jobs, he has settled down with an ex-porn star and retired to a gorgeous Spanish villa. Gal’s nasty life of crime catches up with him in the form of Don Logan. Don has come to Spain in order to recruit Gal on for one last job. It only seems natural that Gal is hesitant to return to the criminal underworld, even if it’s just for one final robbery, but Don isn’t going to take “no” for an answer. Verbal sparring soon turns into violent confrontations and things quickly spiral out of control.

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Ben Kingsley has said that he based his performance of Don on his grandmother. Whatever his inspiration may have been, it works wonders as he completely steals the show. Don Logan is a memorable sociopathic villain for the ages. If the rest of the film had been up to the same level as this psychopathic baddie, SEXY BEAST would be a masterpiece in my eyes. However, the movie slightly suffers during every scene in which Kingsley is absent. I like Ray Winstone, but Gal seems to be a fairly run-of-the-mill reluctant ex-con. We’ve seen this character in a million other movies, though Winstone does his best to make him likable. Ian McShane is enjoyable as the intimidating mastermind behind the heist, but doesn’t receive enough screen time to really cement his presence in this film. The rest of the side characters are forgettable and don’t add much to the story. This film is all about Ben Kingsley’s Don and his performance warrants a viewing alone.

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The script of SEXY BEAST wanders from conversation to conversation. While a film full of talking heads can be riveting given the right story (e.g. A MOST WANTED MAN), SEXY BEAST happens to be a heist thriller in which the thrills make up little over a third of the running time. As the movie goes along and Kingsley gets more unhinged with each passing second, I found myself getting more invested in watching his lunatic gangster as opposed to actually being interested in the plot at hand. The final third is satisfying, especially in later moments involving Ian McShane becoming nearly as unhinged as Kingsley’s Don. However, this still feels like a standard heist movie that happens to feature a vicious psychopath in it. The movie also ventures too far into pretentious areas with a man-sized rabbit who makes a couple of appearances in dreams. Though this movie was made slightly before DONNIE DARKO, all I could think of was how much better that film pulled that off as opposed to SEXY BEAST throwing in this monster for a few minutes.

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SEXY BEAST is worth watching thanks to Ben Kingsley’s performance. Without Kingsley in the role, this would come off as a merely okay heist thriller. The film is entertaining throughout, but also seems to be a little too in love with itself during certain moments (that damned rabbit). It’s an entertaining run-of-the-mill crime flick that just happens to have a lunatic villain at the center of it. I recommend SEXY BEAST on those merits, but this was clearly an early effort for Glazer. The man has definitely improved over time (2014’s UNDER THE SKIN may just be his defining masterpiece).

Grade: B

JOHN WICK (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong and Bloody Violence throughout, Language and brief Drug Use

JWick poster

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane & Lance Reddick

The promotional material for JOHN WICK didn’t try to hide how basic this action flick was in the trailers and TV spots. It looked like something Schwarzenegger or Stallone would headline during the 80’s boom of big dumb action movies. These kind of films are made for a certain crowd of people (not to be sexist, but it’s mostly a male audience). JOHN WICK is every bit as ridiculous as the marketing made it look. It’s also ridiculously fun thanks to kick-ass style, unexpected talent, and an incredible body count of bad guys.

JOHN WICK, Keanu Reeves, 2014. ph: David Lee/©Summit Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection

John Wick, a former contract killer, is grieving over the death of his wife to cancer. However, John’s deceased spouse thought ahead and sent an adorable little beagle to keep him company. John grows attached to the dog and blows off steam by driving down an abandoned runway in his ’69 Mustang. After a group of Russian punks kill his dog and steal his car, John sets off on a bloody quest to get even with a gang of pissed off gun-totting Russians. Some of which include head honchos, sexy assassins, and an endless supply of nameless thugs. The dog and car would be valid enough reasons for any person to go on a killing spree of gangsters, but John’s very good at taking down tough guys. This leads to lots of mayhem, gun fights, and explosions.

JOHN WICK, from left: Alfie Allen, Michael Nyqvist, 2014. ph: David Lee/©Summit

The plot is as simple as you can get. Little details are thrown in to make things even more creative than it might have originally been (I loved the addition of a special hotel). They killed his dog and stole his car, so now he’s going to kill them. No qualms are made about what kind of film JOHN WICK is. It’s an R-rated flick that piles the bodies high and splatters gallons of blood everywhere. There’s a neat style to the whole movie that adds glossy visuals to city battleground between one man and a league of gangsters/assassins. The cast of characters is interesting, in spite of acting faults (more on that in a moment). John Wick is easily the most likable hitman worth rooting for since Leon in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL.

JOHN WICK, Keanu Reeves (left), 2014. ph: David Lee/©Summit Entertainment/courtesy Everett

Keanu Reeves still can’t put on a believable emotion to save his life, but he’s well-cast as John Wick for the most part. He’s mainly a killer out for vengeance who doesn’t have much in the way of emotions other than being pissed off. At the beginning of the film, he does need to show sadness and can’t seem to deliver the dialogue in a convincing way. This isn’t a massive portion of the film though. The other thugs are enjoyable to watch in getting their well-deserved demises. Faces like Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and even a super brief John Leguizamo are all welcomed additions. Dean Winters (a.k.a. Mayhem in the All-State commercials) is totally underused as a wussy second-in-command to the Russian mafia lord.

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Another major issue that detracts from the enjoyment factor in JOHN WICK is the ending itself. While I don’t necessarily dislike the conclusion, but it almost feels like a script for JOHN WICK 2 condensed it down to the last 15 minutes. That may be seen as a plus for many, but it almost feels as if the movie was oddly structured. I would have actually been a lot happier if a few scenes had been rearranged from the conclusion and put earlier on,. The best final shot that this film could have ended on was a scene that occurred 15 minutes before the closing credits actually rolled.

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JOHN WICK is a strong and competent action flick that will satisfy those looking to get their rocks off on Keanu Reeves offing Russian gangsters in bloody ways. We’ve now had two big action movies revolving around big name actors picking off the Russian mafia in creative ways in the space of less than two months (THE EQUALIZER being the first). Now all we need to see is a crossover sequel that unites Reeves and Denzel Washington as mismatched partners taking down even more foreign gangsters. Imagine the possibilities. You should already know if JOHN WICK is for you by now!

Grade: B

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