Plenty of bang for your buck

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS -

THAT dog is a give­away. Painful ex­pe­ri­ence has taught me that when the main character in a film has a strong at­tach­ment to his dog, the poor creature is bound to meet with a bad end about a half-hour into the movie. I’m not talk­ing about Lassie Come Home, but the sort of film where dog-killing is a warn­ing sign, an act of vengeance or a por­tent of grim­mer threats to come. In Hol­ly­wood’s lat­est hy­per­ki­netic slaugh­ter-fest, Keanu Reeves’s dog Daisy is too cute for words — all the more rea­son to fear for the safety of both.

Reeves plays John Wick, a pro­fes­sional hit man, and I’m spoil­ing no one’s plea­sure by re­veal­ing that Daisy is a post­hu­mous present from his beloved wife, who dies of can­cer in an early scene. De­liv­ered to his front door by a courier, Daisy takes a shine to Wick from the start, leap­ing all over him with slob­ber­ing rap­ture and climb­ing into his bed to share his lonely nights. When a gang of Rus­sian thugs in­vades Wick’s home and beats him half to death in re­tal­i­a­tion for an imag­ined slight, the dog is an ob­vi­ous tar­get.

Bleed­ing from her wounds, Daisy crawls across the floor and dies in Wick’s arms. Talk about mo­tives for re­venge. I don’t think I’ve seen a more shame­less ex­am­ple of au­di­ence ma­nip­u­la­tion since the early scenes of Love Story.

This ex­tremely vi­o­lent film, a non-stop orgy of shoot­ings, head-bust­ings, neck-snap­pings, bath­room drown­ings and other modes of sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion, is co-di­rected by an ac­tion stunt spe­cial­ist, Chad Sta­hel­ski, and writ­ten by David Kol­stad. More sym­pa­thetic crit­ics have been prais­ing its bal­letic grace and en­ergy, its almost mythic sense of style. Much the same was once said about Quentin Tarantino’s vi­o­lent gang­ster films, and how trite and pre­ten­tious some of them look to­day.

But Reeves is in his el­e­ment: a nat­u­ral in hard-edged ac­tion thrillers from Speed to The Ma­trix, he has the ben­e­fit of a screen­play that gives him lit­tle to say. We see a lot of him driv­ing around madly in his pre­cious 1969 Mus­tang con­vert­ible, which I sus­pect he loves as much as his dog, per­haps even as much as his wife.

We dis­cover that Wick quit his job as a hit man for the Rus­sian mob after meet­ing his wife and de­cid­ing he wanted to spend more time with his fam­ily. But mob boss Viggo (a splen­didly sin­is­ter Michael Nyqvist) doesn’t take kindly to Wick’s de­fec­tion and hires a con­tract killer (Willem Dafoe) to take him out. He makes Dafoe an of­fer he can’t refuse: “Will you kill John Wick for $2 mil­lion?” (That’s rather more, we gather, than the go­ing rate.)

“Con­sider it done,” says Dafoe’s character. But tak­ing out Wick proves no easy job, as I could have told him. It turns out the killer of Wick’s dog was none other than Viggo’s creepy son Josef (Al­fie Allen), and if the film has a cen- tral flaw it’s that the vil­lain­ous types — Dafoe, Nyqvist, Allen — come across with more charisma than poor, be­lea­guered Keanu.

John Wick has so many scenes of homi­ci­dal may­hem that it feels more like a war movie than a gang­ster flick. Wick has no trou­ble dis­pos­ing of three or four on­com­ing heav­ies with a few deft side­steps and flicks of the wrist (rather like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock) and, as in most Hol­ly­wood westerns and gang­ster pic­tures, his firearm never needs reload­ing.

So although I hated John Wick and found its story pre­pos­ter­ous, I’m giv­ing it points for an ironic sense of hu­mour. Wick calls reg­u­larly on the ser­vices of a house-clean­ing firm to dis­pose of bod­ies, blood­stains and bro­ken fur­ni­ture. The Rus­sian mob’s se­cret hide­out is in the crypt of a cathe­dral. Lo­cal cops on the pay­roll make their oblig­a­tory calls about “noise com­plaints” and see no need to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.

To al­lay any fears of gen­der im­bal­ance in the gang­land sec­tor, one of the Rus­sians’ top as­sas­sins is Ms Perkins, played se­duc­tively by Adri­anne Pal­icki.

There is a twist at the end of the pic­ture of which an­i­mal rights ac­tivists will most cer­tainly ap­prove. Con­firmed ac­tion freaks will go along for the ride, and should not be dis­ap­pointed.

is a Hol­ly­wood love story based on a best­selling novel by Ni­cholas Sparks, master of the ro­man­tic block­buster and best re­mem­bered for The Note­book, which be­came a no­to­ri­ously gooey movie with Ryan Gosling. That story moved be­tween past and present, and a sim­i­lar for­mula is at work in di­rec­tor Michael Hoff­man’s The Best of Me, about two high-school sweet­hearts who meet again by chance after 21 years in their small Louisiana home town and dis­cover they are still in love. Daw­son (James Mars­den) is keen to rekin­dle the old flame, but un­for­tu­nately Amanda (Michelle Mon­aghan) is mar­ried and has a child. So noth­ing do­ing.

In real life, this dilemma would be re­solved by (a) Daw­son leav­ing town on the first Grey­hound bus and al­low­ing Amanda to get on with her life, or (b) Amanda leav­ing her hus­band, a mean-spir­ited con­trol freak, and mar­ry­ing Daw­son in­stead. But that’s not how things work in a Sparks novel.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Amanda protests at once point, im­pa­tient with Daw­son’s per­sis­tent ad­vances. “I guess I don’t,” says Daw­son, and I have to con­fess that for much of the film — with plot com­pli­ca­tions pil­ing up and char­ac­ters never clearly iden­ti­fied — I didn’t get it ei­ther. It doesn’t help that the ac­tors play­ing the child­hood sweet­hearts (Luke Bracey and Liana Lib­er­ato) are eas­ily con­fused with their grown-up selves. So here’s a tip: the older Daw­son is the one with fa­cial stub­ble, fash­ion­able to­day but a no-no in 1992.

You may think all the in­gre­di­ents are present for a stan­dard ro­man­tic weepie, whose mood of dewy-eyed nostal­gia is typ­i­fied by shots of starry skies and the cou­ple re­vis­it­ing old child­hood haunts. But as Ce­cil B. De Mille (or was it Sam Gold­wyn?) used to say: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The Best of Me turns into a half-baked dra­matic thriller, with vi­o­lent con­fronta­tions, gun­fights, plenty of nasty char­ac­ters and one big scary ac­tion scene. Daw­son bears the scars of a tor­tured child­hood and Amanda’s dad is a tyrant of a dif­fer­ent kind.

The knock­out plot twist ar­rives in the fi­nal min­utes, and you’d bet­ter have plenty of tis­sues on hand. What was I just say­ing about au­di­ence ma­nip­u­la­tion? Or doesn’t it count if it comes too late to save the pic­ture? Or too late to save a pic­ture that isn’t worth sav­ing any­way?

John Wick

Keanu Reeves, left, and Al­fie Allen, be­low, in scenes from

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