Friday, 16 June 2017

LuchaScores: Action Packed

It's been a tad warm recently (to say the least!), so I've retreated from my attic lair to the cooler climes of the lounge. There, I've indulged in a few new movies – it's been a while since anything has really taken my fancy, but two recent releases have continued in the vein of a couple of my favourite movies of recent times, so I eagerly snapped them up!


Directed by: Timo Tjahjanto & Kimo Stamboel
Starring: Iko Uwais, Chelsea Islan, Sunny Pang & Julie Estelle

I really enjoyed Merantau. I bloody loved The Raid. I love The Raid 2, so when I saw Iko Uwais' new movie up for purchase, I jumped at it. The basic plot behind Headshot is a mysterious man (Uwais) washing ashore with a bullet in his head and a body covered in scars. In a coma, he is watched over by a young doctor (Chelsea Islan), and named "Ishmael" after the character in the book she is reading (no prizes for guessing what book that is, or what the last line of the film riffs on...). Soon, he wakes up, and finds his past catching up with him in the form of fistfights, gunfights, and whatnot.



Right. Now that the kids are in bed, allow me to gush a little. This was a cracking little action movie.

First off, Iko Uwais actually got to do more acting here than he really has in a while, and while he's not going to beat out Daniel Day-Lewis to any awards, it was certainly better than I'd normally expect from an average martial arts film. He was fairly convincing as the confused amnesiac struggling with both excruciating head pain, fuzzy flashes of memory, and mobsters coming at him left, right, and centre. Chelsea Islan was good as the sweet, plucky, and eventually badass-when-the-chips-are-down doctor that befriends Uwais' Ishmael, and whose capture by the villains lures him to them, but the real hero of the piece is Sunny Pang as, ironically, the villain, Lee.

Lee is introduced in a manner that makes it clear just how dangerous he is. Not only is he shown to have the influence to organize a jailbreak, but his action chops (Sunny Pang is a veteran Singaporean actor and martial artist) are swiftly shown off, as is his cunning as he sends inmates running to their deaths to clear the way for his own escape. His crimes are hinted at from the off, and while it doesn't take long to figure out that he's kidnapping children to brainwash into loyal followers, the exact nature of this is drawn out until just before the final sequence, and it's an effective means of filling in the blanks for both Ishmael and the viewer, and emphasising how villainous Lee is.

Speaking of the final sequence, the film boasts some great fights, following the usual structure – nameless mooks, then sub-bosses with a bit more personality and their own gimmicks, then the final boss. None of the fights really match the intensity of those in the first Raid movie, which used its claustrophobic setting and the shockingly brutal and realistic nature of the fights to its advantage. Here, the fights are still brutal, but the shock value has diminished a little, and the choreography less inspired. What they do have is frenetic, breakneck pacing – while the outcome is never in doubt, Uwais gets messed up sufficiently badly and often that it is still genuinely exciting. Even when he's fighting a nameless mook, there's a palpable sense of tension, whether because the opponent is his equal, he's trying not to kill, or (in perhaps my favourite scene) he's handcuffed to a police interview room desk, and facing a mook with a machete.

I did particularly appreciate the sympathetic nature of the sub-bosses. A couple are shown to be assholes, but one is pleasant and philosophical about his fate, and another is conflicted about fighting Ishamel. Once the source of Lee's recruits is made clear, you do start feeling for them a tad, even while seeing them execute rival gangsters and cut ribbons off the hero. When the exact nature of the recruitment process is revealed, it's a bit of a wrench when they fall.

Overall, this was a stonker. The basic story was predictable enough, given the tropes involved, and the general approach an Uwais movie takes to plot development, but a host of good performances, nice character twists, and the expected quality of fight scenes more than made up for it. It's not The Raid, but then it'd have to be something really special to hit that level! I enjoyed it immensely, and look forward to director Timo Tjahjanto's next film, The Night Comes For Us, which stars The Raid badass (not that that narrows it down much) Joe Taslim alongside Headshot's Uwais, Pang, and Julie Estelle. Can't wait!

4 Luchas

John Wick: Chapter 2

Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Laurence Fishburne & Common

I did enjoy John Wick, despite all initial evidence suggesting I wouldn't. Keanu Reeves in a revenge movie about a retired hitman... everything smacked of a Taken-clone featuring a fading star attempting to prove they've still got action chops. There have been many of such movies, and aside from the original Taken, they're pretty poor

The original was a surprise hit with me – great action, simple story – and I was very pro-sequel.




As expected, this was a worthy sequel to the original. Keanu Reeves continued to be a pretty expressionless plank of a man (I find him eminently likeable... just not particularly compelling in some films – much like Kevin Costner, I can really only stand him in certain roles), but it works in the context of a recently bereaved retired hitman forced back into action.

My favourite part of the original was the mythos surrounding the underworld – The Continental, a hotel run by Winston (Ian "Lovejoy" McShane) in which the criminal fraternity can operate without fear of assassination or assault; the gold coins which seem to be the default currency for the various hitmen operating in New York; Winston himself, an enigmatic titan who wields absolute power within his hotel. Happily, the sequel took all these things and expanded on them. John Wick goes to Rome, where he is received in the Rome Continental by Franco "Django" Nero (marked out for that one) and asked one question before being given his room key (not going to spoil it, but it did please me mightily), and eventually acquires an arsenal from the in-house Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz). I like the introduction of the Continental as a chain, operating under the same rules from country to country. Markers are introduced – faintly occult-looking icons bearing bloody thumbprints that represent unshakeable debts (along with no killing in The Continental, honouring markers is one of the two unbreakable rules of the underworld). We also learn about the High Table – the heads of the world's most powerful crime syndicates – and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the kingpin of the syndicate of beggars and vagrants on the streets of New York, and see the rockabilly call centre that coordinates global assassination contracts. I was reminded of the 100 Bullets comics, with their criminal mythology of the Trust and the Minutemen – one of my favourite comics.

Plot-wise, where the first was about John Wick taking revenge, this was about his past catching up with him – an old marker given to a crimelord being called in in the form of a high profile assassination attempt against a member of the High Table, and the hijinks that ensue. Here, the basic plot actually works in the favour of the film – it really allows attention to be called to the quirks that make the underworld of John Wick unique, and is richer for it in my eyes.

The action sequences are (with a couple of issues that I'll get onto in a sec) spot-on. Like Headshot, they're fast, ferocious, and brutal, but with more of an emphasis on style and less on pure visceral impact. Gunfights take place in halls of mirrors and Roman tunnels, with lighting effects and muzzle flash illuminating the combatants. Fights tend to incorporate both hand-to-hand combat and gunfire – "gun-fu" – which is now standard for this kind of movie, but which I think John Wick shows off far better than most. From the outset, John Wick takes a licking and keeps on ticking – his badassery is clear. Unfortunately, when he's preparing for the initial hit, along with arming himself from the Sommelier's stock, he also buys a bullet proof suit. I was okay with this – it was a daft conceit in a slightly daft movie – and it didn't make him invincible. He brushed off some shots, but it was clearly skill not tailoring that was the deciding factor. That is, right up until he tucked his head under a lapel as he fled an ambush. Retreat was the sensible tactical move, and I like that he made that decision... I just can't get the image of him doing so while caught in a downpour without an umbrella... In fairness, I got over it quickly enough.

One of the big final scenes as he pursues the villain is in the aforementioned hall of mirrors. I really cannot express how much this trope annoys me. It's overused and lazy. Now, John Wick 2 does this gimmick better than most (although the only one I really like is in Tango and Cash – go watch it, thank me later), but come on, Hollywood, mmmkay?

By and large, everyone in it is good. John Leguizamo's cameo is a bit pointless, but he's in the first movie and I like John Leguizamo, so fair enough. Ruby Rose appears as a mute bodyguard to the villain. She's a good opponent for Keanu, but I don't know why she's mute. All I know about her is that she's Australian, so I choose to believe that she has an accent that would make her a shoe-in for the Crocodile Dundee reboot (come on, Hollywood, mmmkay?). Aside from Ian McShane, who I would, quite frankly, pay to watch build an Argos bookcase, the stand-out supporting actor is Common. As Cassian, the bodyguard of John Wick's initial target, his personal vendetta makes him a more interesting opponent than either Ruby Rose or the actual villain. There's a great scene where a fight brings them back into The Continental where Franco Nero tells them off and suggests they go have a pint. His fate (stabbed in the heart and left on a subway train with the warning that pulling out the knife would kill him but leaving it in might allow him to survive – a "professional courtesy") also gives me hope in light of the now-announced John Wick 3 movie and The Continental TV prequel series.

Speaking of those new expansions of the franchise, the word is that the High Table will become a more significant presence, as the stakes following the end of John Wick 2 keep rising. There also seems to be the suggestion that a trilogy is the extent of current plans – if true, this does please me. Much as I love the setting and the story, I do wonder how many times they can come back to it, and – like Justified – I'd like to see it end on its own terms, rather than burn out.

As an action movie, I'd give this a solid 4 Luchas. However, because of the world-building, and the mythology that's being slowly developed, I give it...

4.5 Luchas

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