October 29th, 2014

JOHN WICK (2014) *** ½

2014 has been a great year for ass-kickery. Last month, we had Liam Neeson taking out the trash in A Walk Among the Tombstones. A few weeks ago, Denzel Washington used power tools to take down the Russian Mob in The Equalizer. Now it’s Keanu Reeves’ turn to dismantle the criminal underworld brick by brick in the exhilarating John Wick.

Keanu plays the titular character, a mythic hitman who got out of the game to settle down and get married. When his wife died, he basically had nothing to live for, except for his sweet Mustang and cute beagle (a parting present from his wife). One day at a gas station, a smartass Russian wannabe gangster offers to buy John’s Mustang and he politely declines. That night, he and his friends break into Wick’s home, beat him senseless, steal his car, and kill his dog.

I guess I don’t have to tell you what happens next. John puts on his best suit, dusts off his old guns, and goes after the pipsqueak. Naturally, the kid’s old man (Michael Nyqvist, from the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies) is a top Russian mobster, who protects his son and sends out his best men to kill John Wick. Fat chance.

John Wick is a love letter to the bygone days of Point Blank where the hero wore suits, said very little, and gunned down the scum of the Earth in style. It’s also violent as hell too and contains more scenes of people getting shot int the head than a George Romero zombie movie. The directors (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch) film the action in a precise, efficient manner, and most of the gunfights and Kung Fu battles are done in elegantly-filmed long takes. Major action sequences take place in Wick’s home, a Russian nightclub, and in an assassins-only hotel.

Reeves gives an excellent bad ass performance. It’s easily one of his best. He’s especially good in the early, quieter scenes where we see the grief-stricken John coming to terms with his wife’s death and slowly allowing the dog into his heart. Then, BAM! Everything is taken away from him. You don’t take a man’s car, and you certainly don’t kill his dog. Once that happens, Reeves excels at being a single-minded killing machine, and he lives up to the character’s legendary bloodthirsty status. (One character says, “He isn’t the boogeyman. He’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman!”)

Another cool aspect is that all the assassins and kingpins live by their own code and set of ethics. Guys like John Leguizamo, David Patrick Kelly, Ian McShane, and Willem Dafoe perfectly inhabit their roles with minimum effort, and they all give stellar performances. Nyqvist also gets some hilarious lines and makes for a suitably slimy villain.

Honestly, the movie goes on about 20 minutes longer than necessary. The last act feels kind of rushed, and Wick’s final one-on-one face-off with the bad guy is more than a foregone conclusion. Still, just for the stylistic touches, the excellent action choreography, and the memorable performances, John Wick is a winner.

F FOR FAKE (1977) ** ½

The legendary Orson Welles takes us on a tour of fakes and frauds in this uneven, but interesting documentary. Welles chronicles the controversy surrounding the famous art forger Elmyr de Hory who made a living selling fake art to museums. He also interviews Elmyr’s biographer, Clifford Irving, who goes on to perpetuate a hoax of his own by writing a false biography of Howard Hughes.

F for Fake is equal parts exhilaration and frustration. There are flashes of Welles firing on all cylinders here. The best moments come from Welles taking center stage from his subjects and admitting to the audience that he too is a fake and a phony because he perpetrated the infamous War of the Worlds hoax on radio. De Hory and Irving are moderately interesting, but Welles must’ve known that they alone couldn’t sustain an entire picture devoted to them. Luckily, Welles is ever-present and just hearing him pontificating endlessly is amusing in its own right.

Welles’ gregarious and infectious presence keeps you watching, even when the film starts spinning its wheels. The big problem is that it's over-edited to the point of distraction. Welles inter-splices several interviews in with his own musings, and the result is severely chaotic. The final segment of Welles recreating a potential hoax involving Pablo Picasso is also a bit of a letdown. That being said, there’s still enough good moments here to make any die-hard Welles fan want to take a look.

AKA: Fakes. AKA: Truths and Lies.