Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

In 2014, the surprising hit John Wick created a diverting comic-book riff on the revenge drama, seeming like a one-off set piece that hit all the buttons action fans look for.  However, with John Wick: Chapter 2, the writer/director team of Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski have taken what I consider to be a significant step forward in the evolution of American action filmmaking.  Ditching the sentiment almost completely, they dove into the lunatic alternate reality they created, and came away with one of the most consistently enthralling and artistically expressive action movies I’ve ever seen.  It left me gasping, and as I pant for more I’m forced to admit that though this movie’s influences are many, from the riveting gun-fu of Hard Boiled to the intense close-quarter combat of Ong-Bak, in sheer audacious bravado this film stands alone (except for maybe Hard Boiled).

I say audacious because according to the entertainment section of businessinsider.com, the kill count of this blood-drenched magnum power shot stands at a staggering 128, meaning that the average stands at just over one kill every minute of the movie’s 122 minute runtime.  This mass of fatalities, however, is not stretched out over the entire movie, but is rather concentrated in two or three central shootouts (depending on how you determine when one shoot out ends and another begins), which see the inimitable Keanu Reeves transform into the mechanized killbot it seems he was always meant to be.  Because of his strangely vacuous performance style, which made him perfect for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the object of derisive laughter in Dangerous Liaisons, makes him this movie’s perfect protagonist.

I refer to Reeves’ character, the eponymous John Wick as a protagonist, not a hero, because John Wick: Chapter 2 has no real heroes.  In the first John Wick, the eponymous character’s thirst for revenge was ignited by the death of his beagle puppy named Daisy, a symbol of the love he’d had for his recently deceased wife.  In this second volume of the Wick saga, the movie’s central villain simply destroys his house, without even harming the new dog he never bothers to name.  It is notable that whereas Daisy, the puppy from the original film, was a cuddly little bundle of love, Wick’s new dog is a very obedient pit bull.  This is a signifier that in the first movie, Wick lost his soul, and though he at first remains reluctant to return to death-dealing, he ends up taking to it like a master executioner, killing without thought.

This singularity of purpose and lack of true motivation are two of the things that I believe make this movie a significant advancement in American action cinema.  Too often, even in justifiably regarded tentpoles of the genre like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, the action has to pause for the insertion of sentiment or (god forbid) romance, giving viewers like me a chance to go to the bathroom.  John Wick: Chapter 2 eschews any sentimental subplots, replacing them instead with an extraordinary visual panache.  Shootouts in an art exhibit containing a hall of mirrors and a topiary gallery that changes color depending on which side its viewed from are entrancing; so much so that they forego the need of an emotional undercurrent.  The movie’s director Chad Stahelski began in movies as a stuntman, most notably doubling for Reeves in The Matrix, and with this viscera-speckled opus, he shows that the closer one draws to violent action, the more such warfare becomes part of his identity.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

“Caius said no weapons right?”  Big D croaked as he lifted himself over the seats of the M train, pressing his hands and feet on the stabilizing rails.  He was watching Max balance a chef’s knife on his knee with the point down and the tip of the handle resting against his forehead.  The very tall, stick-thin gangster hoisted himself over Max, staring daggers down.  D’s question might have seemed like a threat, given their relative sizes and positions in the train car, but Max, the far smaller of the two, held all the power.

Max was annoyed,  “Yeah,” he began, taking the knife by its handle and casually tossing it from his right to his left hand and back again.  “I’m a stash it.”  He silenced Big D’s concern with a flick of the wrist.

Overpowered, Big D ignored the slight Max had given with his somewhat cavalier response.  He knew that he had no power, because he wasn’t even an official Treetop yet.

Both Big D and his brother Roly had joined the Treetops only two years previous.  Every member of the Treetops had to procure their own uniform, and Big D’s uniform wasn’t even finished.  D still had to find and steal shoes, but size 24’s were few and far between.

The Treetop’s uniform was cheap, that was its operative characteristic.  The Treetops came from the far Southeast suburbs, a place where incomes were very often subsidized by nickels earned recycling cans.  Their uniform was just a dark T shirt and jeans, often sheared at the knees with a knife or a broken bottle.  These uniforms were scavenged from fences and clotheslines, stolen from citizens and fished out of dumpsters, as they could not be paid for.

Big D had yet to find and steal shoes gigantic enough for his feet, so he’d had to buy them.  Since he wasn’t able to steal his shoes, he was technically a prospective Treetop, and on a lower social rung than the others.

Simon, one of the founders of the Treetops on the same train, saw that Big D needed to be reminded of his station.  “Fresh kicks, D, you rollin’ large, moneybags?” Simon purred with a sick grin on his face.  This was, for Big D, a joke he’d heard since he’d begun initiation proceedings, and he was growing tired of it.  His eyes flared and his lips spread apart showing his teeth.

Noticing the aggression growing, Max held a bare palm up above everyone, said “Not now,” and that was the end of it.  Max was the most senior members of The Treetops, and also quite smart, so he held a position of expertise and authority.  Max knew it was pointless to squabble, as the gang needed to stay calm.  He knew rash action could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Treetops’ destination was possibly now already drowned in bloodshed.  They were heading to a speech, the audience of which was to be made up of representative groups from gangs all over the city.  They all knew that this would create a tinder box of blades and egos.

It seemed that the impossible had happened.  It seemed that Caius really had brought everyone together.  It was rumored that he was very near to granting an immediate and retroactive amnesty to all on behalf of all.  As he put it in his weekly radio hour, which was broadcast on a low frequency unknown to the police, “All beef will be squashed and put to bed.”  It was fantasy, it was a fever dream.  Many including Max wanted to believe that Caius could usher in an era of peace, but considered it a virtual impossibility.

This speech was meant to be some sort of coronation, or state-of-the union, or list of commands.  If it was a coronation or a state of the union, many gangs would chaff under any kind of leadership.  The Nomads, for one, didn’t even have an official territory, they lived by their wits wherever they found themselves, and would surely refuse bearing allegiance to anyone.

If the speech became a list of commands, there was no telling how many would die.  Whatever happened, Caius would be killed, Max reasoned, very likely.

Max considered himself a student of human moves, of the way people at all times kept their eyes open for ways to gain personal advantage.  Just as it was in the straight world, in gangster society war was big business, and economics seemed to demand boodshed. Max knew that the peace Caius promised was a dream.  Beyond this pessimism Max reserved for the obsession with money, everyone knew the danger of the event they were nearing.

Bad blood ran too deep and too many gang leaders were agents of chaos to make a lasting peace feasible.  Threats had flown freely for many years, and gang backlogs were full of debts to collect and wrongs to revenge.

Despite all the bad blood, the speech was happening.  The morning of Caius’ speech, Max, Art, and Simon had all received messages in letters slid under their front doors inviting them to a “rebel summit.”  By that time, the grapevine had been alive with talk of Caius for months, and these invitations told everyone where and when they could see him; midnight, Norwood Park.

After much debate, the Treetops had decided to send a small running crew.  The running crew consisted of Max, Art and Simon, the most senior of the Treetops, as well as Roly and Big D, brothers who seemed like they were from a fairy tale.  Big D was tall and skinny, Roly was short and fat.  Big D was dumb and trusting, Roly was clever and spiteful.  Both of them could fight, and in defense of one another they were unstoppable.

The fact was that the Treetops’ crew was minuscule compared to some of the others.  Many of the other gangs certainly would come in force, and likely outnumber The Treetops by five or six times.  To reach Norwood Park, The Treetops needed to take the subway all the way from Evergreen, the southeastern suburb they called their ‘hood.  This meant that if they had a crew of twenty or thirty, they would very likely draw stares from the Pigs, so they kept the crew as small as they could.

Every gang and every gang member had the same mortal enemy, the Pigs.  They were all the same; liars and cheats, thieves and pushers, same as they said of the gangs.  The thing the gangs really hated about the Pigs was not the deception in their words or the evil in their deeds, it was their self-righteous swagger.  They walked their beats as if the neighborhoods belonged to them, but Caius had foretold of the day fast approaching when the Pigs would know what true power is and find themselves wanting.

Caius had risen to be a prominent figure in the world of the criminal underground through “The Bulletin,” his weekly radio show on 123.7 AM, a low-wattage independent radio station he ran out of his headquarters.  All the gangs including The Treetops were avid listeners, as Caius’s brash anti-authoritarian take on lifestyle and philosophy appealed to them.  “We must lay low on a day-to-day basis,” Caius said regularly, “but our time will come.”

Within each neighborhood, every gang had created a unique network of alleys, shortcuts, side streets and backdoors to avoid the Pigs.  Caius had told them, if every gang’s network were connected, the Pigs could never find them.  Caius sketched a plan with his words, that if a member of a gang had too much heat on him anywhere in the city, there could be a stash house on every block, and they would all be communal.  He encouraged all to imagine a future war, one where the gangs could unite, recognizing that they all had the same true enemy.

Caius called it paradise, utopia, and more than anyone else had before, he made people believe in it.  Caius, the revered one, he could make everything like it should be.

Roly sat across from Max and shrank his voice to a low growl.  His eyes were still and locked in to Max’s, holding them tight.  “So what do you think?  I’ve never met Caius, I don’t even know what he looks like, so why am I gonna listen to this guy?”  Roly’d heard the same rhetoric everyone had, and he knew that many were praying for the dawning of a new era, with some even counting on it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s heard him speak in person says it’s like nothin’ else.”  Max rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, as if the top part of his head was falling away from his face.  “I don’t know, he might just be smooth, all I know is everybody’s gonna be there, and whatta you wanna be left behind?”  As he finished his question, Max closed his mouth and looked into Roly’s eyes.

“All I’m saying is we’re leaving our territory, that’s all.”  Roly’s face quivered.  He looked scared, which made Max nervous, as Roly wasn’t the type to be easily shook.

Simon giggled, “You scared?”

Roly’s eyes narrowed and and he tightened his lips, “No.”

Max interrupted, “Everybody listen up.  I know this isn’t ideal, we’re gonna be exposed.  But I think we can smash anyone, and if we can’t they’ll know us when we’re gone, and they’ll know where we come from.”  He looked over the Treetops as he spoke, and it gave him no confidence.

Simon blew contempt through his lips, “Yeah our names will be on official documents at the morgue.”

Max normally enjoyed Simon’s gallows humor, but he wasn’t in the mood.  “The morgue?”  Max stared at Simon, trying to show him rage, but it came across like terror.  At Simon’s jape, Art guffawed, but it was more in agreement than mirth.

Spurred on by the show of support, Simon continued.  “Yeah this is about to get blown up, man.  Caius said no weapons, but whatta they gonna do, check?  Fuckin’ forget it, this’ll be a free-for-all, I ain’t scared though.”

“So it’s agreed, we pack blades at least,” Max raised the point of his butcher knife to be parallel with his line of sight.  “Got mine,” Max grinned.

Big D seemed to be getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t dare try to tell Max anything, he’d learned his lesson.  He just tried to change the topic and shift focus from Max, “None of us have heard Caius in person, though.  So what—what if they’re right and he is the one?”D finished his statement with a trailing off voice, as if attempting to seem mystic, or like he knew some securet the others didn’t.  However, Simon was listening, and he couldn’t stand for what seemed like soupy-eyed optimism.

“What if who’s right?  The one!?”  Simon spoke quick and loud, loud enough so that everyone could hear his voice break.  “Caius’s head of the Eastside Forty-Niners, what if he wants everyone to be a Forty-Niner?  I’m not a fuckin Forty-Niner, I’m a Treetop.”  Simon hadn’t put his fear of the summit in such stark terms before, and he he put a colloquial capper on it for good measure: “I’m-a stay a Treetop, too.”

As Simon spoke, Max eyed him suspiciously.  His chin dropped, leaving him slack-jawed, portraying a knowing gloom.  “You holdin’ anything that shoots, Simon?”

Big D rushed Simon and held him by the collar, “I swear to god, if you fuck this up I’m gonna kill you.”

Simon laughed as he slid a snub-nosed .38 out of his pocket and threw it on the ground.  He sat back as far as he could and held his hands in the air.  “Fuck me man, fine, I’m not carryin’ anything.  I was gonna stash it before we got there, jesus.”

Roly looked at the gun for a few seconds considering, then pulled out his own and put it on the ground next to Simon’s.  “I believe in Caius, I think there’s too much money at stake for anyone to fuck this up.  So, we don’t wanna get caught with nuthin’.  Stash all pistols in the same place.”

“Money?”  Art said, his voice laced with a mocking suspicion, “There’s money?”  At the mention of money, Art’s ears picked up and his tail wagged.  Art had been standing on a seat near the door between train cars, but as he spoke he lowered himself to the floor and stood in front of the others.

Roly knew that Art’s blood ran green, “Well if Caius brings us together, the way everybody’s saying, we can make real money.”

Big D hated when gang members talked about money.  “This is fuck all all about money, this is about finding a way to live.”

Art rolled his eyes and stretched over a couple of seats on the train, laying still as he pretended to snore.  Max seemed to shrink in his seat, pulling his feet close to him and wrapping his arms around his knees.

They were all frightened, this was new, heading to a speech.  Workers and administrators and servants went to speeches; gangsters didn’t go to speeches.

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (comic), Park Chan-wook, Chun-hyeong Lim, Jo-yun Hwang (screenplay)

Actors: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Hye-jeong Kang

Available now on Netflix

When I first saw it in 2005, Park Chan-wook’s seminal standout Oldboy knocked me on my ass, enrapturing me in a world of heretofore unrealized filmmaking potential.  It seemed so alive.  From the first scene of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) yelping in drunken rage from a bench in the police station, it was plainly evident that this film was the work of a master.  From the exquisitely crafted set pieces to the relentless movement of the action scenes, it is easy to see why this movie, which was not originally submitted for competition to the Cannes film festival, ended up winning the Grand Prix (unofficial second place).  Though at it’s heart, Oldboy is in many ways a horror movie, and the squeamish might do themselves a favor by staying away, for those with the stomach for it, there is scarcely a better movie-watching experience to be had.

At the beginning of the movie, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a nondescript, drunken Korean office worker, is kidnapped and imprisoned in what seems like a shabby hotel room.  He is kept prisoner in this one room for fifteen years.  In these fifteen long years, while he trains himself obsessively, he also becomes increasingly unhinged.  When he is unexpectedly released inside of a suitcase on top of a high-rise, he has only one goal, to discover what happened to him.  This is a very compelling plot line, and though I believe it would have been engrossing enough to hold my interest whoever the performers were, Choi Min-sik does a superb job of making his character seem genuinely deranged.  When he is released on the skyscraper’s roof, he stops a man from committing suicide, only to break into a wide grin as the man finally does kill himself moments afterwards.

As the plot twists its way through various insane and unseemly revelations, Park Chan-wook fills the movie’s running time with unforgettable scenes and sequences, creating an entrancing head-trip of a movie.  One scene that is undoubtedly the movie’s feature attraction, a three-minute fight scene where the hero dispatches with a hallway full of faceless thugs using only a hammer, is only one of the notable scenes in Oldboy.  Choi Min-sik devouring a living octopus whole, as well as the villain (Yoo Ji-tae) clad in a gas mask and hazmat suit spooning a naked Oh Dae-su are two more examples of the enthralling artistry on display in this movie.

As the particularities of the plot reveal themselves and the story delivers a sickening denouement, the true intricacy of Oldboy reveals itself.  As the movie ends and each character’s path finds its own twisted conclusion, a message finally makes itself clear.  This is a movie about obsession, showing the way that vengeance, especially when taken to its greatest possible extremes, brings only evil into the world.  Through his use of ecstatically inventive filmmaking, Park Chan-wook has created an unflinching, deeply entertaining, and philosophically relevant work of art.

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Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)