Revenge tale that is gleefully pulpy, yet never mannered

“John Wick”

Legendary Pictures, Summit Entertainment

1 hour, 36 minutes

 

Have you ever watched a Jason Statham or Liam Neeson movie and thought, “You know, this would be good if he’d just shoot three times as many guys.” If so, you’re in luck. In this week’s action-packed shoot-em-up “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves caps at least three disposable bad guys for every one dispatched by those other, lesser trigger men. And if that were all that were different, “John Wick” might not be the minor sensation that it’s become. But first-time director, former stuntman Chad Stahelski and his affable star manage to craft a revenge tale that is gleefully pulpy, yet never mannered or winking. “John Wick” is the equivalent of taking your favorite song and turning up the volume nearly as high as it will go. The quality of your sound system determines whether this is a good idea or not, and luckily “John Wick” is top of the line.

John Wick is that rarest of creatures, a retired hitman. There are plenty of other tales in his past, including the “one last job and I’m out,” but in John’s case that one last job really was the last one. He cashed out, settled down with the love of his life, and did so with the blessing of the brutal Russian mafia for whom he used to work. But, as one of his enemies advises through a mouthful of blood later in the film, everyone in this line of work is cursed and no one gets away clean. John’s new love, wouldn’t you know it, gets cancer and dies four years later. And if this isn’t enough to tug at your heartstrings, her final act of love is to buy John an adorable puppy, to “give you something to love now that I’m not there.” Wow. And lest you get too comfortable with the thought of poor John Wick learning to love again, fate steps in in the form of a hotheaded mafia punk who, randomly, decides to steal our hero’s car and in the process, kills the dog. Wow again. Needless to say, this turns out to be a very poor decision. Turns out John Wick isn’t just a retired hitman, he’s THE hitman, the one that even the worst of the worst are afraid of, the bogeyman. And they just set him off. (Ok, I stole that last line from the poster.)

Much of what’s written above sounds schmaltzy and ridiculous, and on one level, it is. But the difference is that “John Wick” never looks away. This is confident filmmaking, trusting that the quality of the action, the effects, and the energy are going to keep the audience from giggling at the wrong places. And lo and behold, it works. It’s not perfect, of course. “Wick” is a B-movie through and through and won’t be up for any Oscars. Some of the mayhem gets a little monotonous and, as in every shoot-em up, the audience is left to wonder how it is that every other member of the mafia are such terrible marksmen while Wick seems to get the headshot every time. That said, Reeves and his supporting cast, including Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Michael Nyqvist commit fully and most of the quibbles are minor. “John Wick” is a blood-soaked blast. Grade: B+

 

“As Above, So Below”

1 hour, 40 minutes

Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures

 

This week I also saw another film that was much better than the genre of films that proceeded it, though the contrast wasn’t quite as sharp. “As Above, So Below” is a found-footage film, a genre trend I think we are blissfully seeing the end of, about a group of “scientists” who trek beneath the streets of Paris, into the famous catacombs, in search of the fabled Philosopher’s stone. Down in the depths, the group of friends take on Voldemort and with a flick of their wands they… no. Sorry, that’s a different movie. This little R-rated horror flick couldn’t be more different from “Harry Potter” if it tried, and yet I was intrigued at how well it maintained a claustrophobic sense of dread, all the while amping up the spooky factor as the team ventures farther and farther below the city. There’s a lot of set up, and much of it is silly, naturally, but I appreciated the work that went into the film, the effort and the detail work that you don’t usually see in these low-budget movies. The setting of the catacombs, essentially massive tombs under the city of Paris, is a brilliant idea for a horror movie.

And, much like the terrifying space horror flick, “Event Horizon,” “As Above” isn’t playing softball. Yes, the labyrinth may hold the stone that grants eternal life, but it also may just lead to a certain gate that no one wants to find. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

The film starts strong and ends strong, but does manage to get somewhat repetitive. Most of the actors, though attractive, seem like catalog models and I never once bought them in their defined roles of archaeologist, filmmaker, and linguist. That said, they do their best and the found-footage model is more than a little forgiving when it comes to acting.

Like “John Wick” I found “As Above, So Below” to be audacious in its willingness to push the genre tropes as far as they could go without breaking. I don’t know if I’d watch it again, but it wouldn’t be because of a lack of quality. “As Above, So Below” is just plain scary. Grade: B

“John Wick” is rated R for excessive violence and language.

“As Above, So Below” is rated R for gruesome violence and language.

 

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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