Plenty of bang for your buck
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?
Keanu Reeves, left, and Alfie Allen, below, in scenes from