Monday, May 27, 2019

Under the Table and dreaming


Show of hands, who loves the John Wick movies for their conversations?  Oh, really?  Way more than I would've thought.

Directed by Chad Stahleski
Written by Derek Holstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mark Abrams

Spoiler alert: mild

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a great movie; and, as it turns out, in no danger of being eclipsed.  It did something that very few middle parts ever manage, which is tell a story that set up a tremendously compelling sequel hook, without actually feeling in the slightest way narratively or emotionally incomplete.  It also did this by way of some of the best practical action ever presented in an American film, rendered within gorgeous, technically-audacious cinematography, all set against startlingly-bold production design that underlined the series' insistence that grueling stunt-based fake murder really is one of the fine arts.  But, above all, it concluded the Orphic journey of John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a man who emerged from the underworld bloodied but not bowed, who had broken all the sacred rules that bound him to his dead dog, his dead car, and his dead love, and who was ready to destroy anybody who reminded him of his so-called obligations.  So, both the first film and Chapter 2 were about death.  Obviously, literally; but in a deeper way than John putting a pencil through some lucky extra's eye.  Hence, any sequel would have to be about life.

It's not, it's more of the same, and somehow less of the same, and for all that John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 are excuses for great stuntwork and cool gun-fu, it turns out that the hard core of myth that animated John's bloody sprees was more necessary than even I would have suspected.  So what replaces the ancient myth that we can find repeated everywhere from Greece to Sumer to Japan is this franchise's own urban fantasy mythology, explored in greater, goofier detail than even a fan-wiki editor could appreciate; what replaces John's hollowed-out grief is a series of what amounts to job interviews.  There are stakes, theoretically, but by this point in John's heroic evolution, it's hard to feel the damn things.  He has a bulletproof suit.  Oddly, this only slightly cuts down on the number of people attempting to kill him with bullets.

Chapter 3 ("Parabellum" if you must, someone showing off a piece of Latin they learned) benefits, nevertheless, from Chapter 2's transcendent ending, when John killed a man who had it coming on sacred ground, and broke his bonds in the process.  That act branded John excommunicado from the guild of assassins to whom he once belonged.  It put a price on his head.  And, given the belief-beggaring reach and resources of the guild he had betrayed, it essentially put him at war with the whole wide world.  For twenty minutes, maybe thirty, Chapter 3 comes close to living up to the John Wick Against Earth that was promised, forcing John to rely upon his wits and frantically-improvised half-measures.  He has an hour head start, giving him the chance to treat his wounds, and to get his new hound to safety.  But a few of his former colleagues like the mountainous Ernest aren't even waiting that long (Boban Marjanović provides a Richard Kielian turn that's as nostalgic as John's classy dispatch of him is wonderful).  Meanwhile, the council in charge of John's underworld, the High Table, has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), to follow up on John's friends and allies, like Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (Lance Reddick) and the Homeless King (Laurence Fishburne), and even John's childhood teacher in the ways of dance and death (Anjelica Houston).  Somehow this fails to crystallize into the ninjas vs. ballerinas setpiece it blatantly suggests.  You  see, the Adjudicator has likewise engaged one of their guild's other greatest assassins, Zero (Mark Decascos), to tie up these and other loose ends.

It's unfair to say this uniformly fails to work; and it's untrue to say that one of the Wick franchise's pleasures is not its loopy bureaucracy of killers.  Dillon, in particular, is superb in the role of a soulless functionary, which is an astonishing achievement considering the basic nature of this series and that the Adjudicator doesn't actually adjudicate jack or shit on their own.  But it's awfully repetitive.  All the Wick movies have their downtimes—John Wick kind of stops being very interesting as it moves into its endgame against an old man in the rain; Chapter 2 has a half-hour stretch of first act it doesn't badly need—but none of them have hurt as much as Chapter 3's endless navigation around the legs of the High Table.  There's probably some way to do Kafka as a martial arts/gunplay extravaganza, but not this way.

Especially because John is never truly alone in his struggle against the machinery he threw himself into—the masterpiece montage of running battles that serves to demonstrate the consequences of the last film's second act "twist" does such a superior job of demonstrating the way John's universe has collapsed upon him that I was half-expecting Chapter 3 to be entirely that, or at least allude to that in form.  That sequence gave us the fragmented experience of a demigod taking on all challengers.  Chapter 3 somehow doesn't bother to have that many challengers in the first place.  And so, once Chapter 3 has exhausted its stores of NBA giants and motorcycle killers and horse targets, it never recaptures the sense of desperation that Chapter 2 managed throughout.  And only a lot of people wanted to kill John in Chapter 2, not everybody.  Basically, Chapter 3 should barely even have dialogue.  Yet it has so much.  Less from Reeves than ever before, maybe, but his co-stars absolutely pick up the slack, while Reeves' phantasmal presence is less justified by the themes, and therefore less effective.

In any event, John finds numerous allies in his lone stand against ultimate power, from his old friend Sofia (Halle Berry) to an Elder of the High Table itself (Saïd Taghmaoui).  This scene serves, basically, to recreate a status quo, just so it can be tossed out a second time—in other words, it's entirely pointless, so the whole chain of scenes it belongs to is pointless, serving as questionable excuse to production design "Casablanca" and to have one more fucking conversation about "consequences" and "rules" and "stuff" with the Table's mint master Berrada (Jerome Flynn, who, by crazy coincidence, has wound up Master of Coin in two highly disappointing things this season).  It also, of course, serves as an excuse to have a very long battle involving Sofia's trained attack dogs, which apparently a lot of people seem to rather like, so I can't say it's objectively the worst action scene in the franchise, though that's exactly how I feel about it.  It is in some respects like watching someone else play a video game, except the camera is incredibly interested in watching a dog chomp down on bad guy dick.  Yes, that sounds like something the camera ought to be very interested in.  But it stops being particularly engaging by the tenth (or twentieth) time it whip pans to some dude's crotch.  This is also where the narrative structure, which somehow required four writers to construct, and has clearly been built in order to let the audience catch their breath between setpieces, lets Chapter 3 down real hard: what it means in practice here is that the audience gets to fidget through three boring scenes in a row.

Though just three might be generous.  This is also the John Wick film that invests in the innovation of steel plate body armor for some of its baddies, which leads to the pacey spectacle of John needing to blast them at point-blank range multiple times through the gaps—another neat, complicating idea, that becomes rather less neat the more guys John has to do it to.  One also starts to wonder about the marginal value of overkilling in an evolving shootout when you've already definitely blown a hole in a guy's neck or clavicle; in other words, it makes you start to wonder whether these enemies might just be stuntmen playing along with Reeves' moves.  By the time John calls out for more firepower, one might be apt to ask, "Since you mentioned the armor before, why didn't you just start with the armor-piercing rifles, and let this scene be five minutes shorter?  Rather than interrupting it in the middle to gab about guns?"

The Wick films have grown in budget, technical sophistication, and runtime (and show-offy indulgence) three films in a row; this is where we start to see not just diminishing returns on that investment, but honest-to-God counterproductivity, Chapter 3 being the first of them to run over two hours, and the first one to fail to earn its minutes.  It has the right elements, more-or-less, just so much of them.  Like, I do realize that the Wick films are joking when they deep dive into their mythology, that the recitations of obligation and duty and John's legend are supposed to be funny, dry but too absurd not to laugh at.  Just like I know that the films are, in their way, what most martial arts films are: physical comedies, that seek to entertain through the whoops of glee they provide when somebody eats it in a novel way.  Chapter 3 admits that it's a comedy; one of its first images is John running through New York, while the frame is dominated by a giant screen in the background with Buster Keaton riding the General.  But here's the thing: Buster Keaton movies are not 130 minutes long.  And Buster Keaton movies, needless to say, don't have nearly this much talking.

It does get itself back on track in time for a climax, which is a huge relief: what Chapter 3 comes down to is a battle between John and Zero in a room of glass, a room that has a nominal explanation that's as amusingly silly as anything in the whole franchise, and serves mainly to emphasize that it really only exists because series director Chad Stahleski and returning Chapter 2 cinematographer Dan Lausten thought it would be beautiful if people had a big fight in it.  They are, in this instance, totally right, and everything that Chapter 3 has done wrong with Zero up until now—turning John's chief physical antagonist into a Wick fanboy is kind-of funny, and gives him some personality, but I can't think of any quicker way to defuse Zero's threat than by John all but rolling his eyes out of his head every time he encounters him—fades into insignificance.  (Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian, Zero's pupils, are also there to lend their Raid-honed silat to the proceedings.  In fact, Zero and his students have been mostly excellent all along: there's a lot of going in and out of the shadows, as befits great assassins; some of it is obviously effects, but a lot of it at least looks enough like really cool in-camera trickery for my brain to register it as such.)  Anyway: this final battle, fought with worthy adversaries amidst transparent breakable barriers and lit with harsh blue neon—it's got a lovely TRON: Legacy vibe to it—is superb, in contention with the "Reflection of the Self" and bathhouse sequences as the franchise's coolest moment, even if it does fall a little bit short of both.  (Chapter 3 also has less-than-impressive music, it bears remarking; like Chapter 2, nothing so much as tries to match the audiovisual accomplishment of John Wick's bathhouse.  One assumes "music" was David Leitch's thing.)

So, it's satisfying enough... then it all concludes with a bullshit twist that is actively terrible, leaving a bad enough taste in my mouth, at least, that I barely care what Chapter 4 might have in store.  I mean, I love John Wick, and I love Stahleski's unblinking choreographic ethos.  But I could not love this, and I doubt any other movie will prove so disappointing to me this whole year.  Then again, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is, like, three days away, and I really oughtn't tempt fate so brazenly.

Score: 6/10

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