In 2014, John Wick rampaged through theatres, wowed audiences, and left its blood-stained mark on Hollywood. The film is a throwback to the bad-ass revenge-thrillers popularised in the 70’s — but with the action impulses of grindhouse Kung Fu flicks. John Wick didn’t break box office records or redefine the genre; instead, the film blew people away (on screen and off), and became an instant cult classic. So what sets this modestly budgeted film ($20,000,000) apart from action movies that cost over five times as much to produce?
Right from the opening credits, John Wick’s striking visuals capture the viewer’s attention. The film’s directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, have an eye for composition. The duo packs their film with gorgeous shots that look like they’re ripped out of comic book pages. Stahelski and Leitch spent their career working with the likes of David Fincher and The Wachowskis, the former of whom approaches composition with the level of precision that John applies to delivering his signature headshots. It makes sense that Stahelski and Leitch picked up tricks of the trade from these pros.
Stahelski and Leitch’s stylised colour grading is the garnish on top of their visual buffet. From beginning to end, John Wick keeps mixing up its cinematic presentation. In one sequence, sunburnt oranges and yellows saturate the frame as John blows off steam pulling doughnuts in an empty parking lot. Later on, the film hits viewers with Tron-like neon pinks and deep blues that illuminate John’s bathhouse killing spree. From an aesthetic standpoint, John Wick is an escalating series of visual treats.
John Wick is reminiscent of films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. Had this film come out 40-years ago, Sam Peckinpah would have directed, and it would have starred Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood; John is the modern incarnation of Harmonica or The Man with No Name. When the film begins, John doesn’t speak a word to anyone for several minutes — that’s an eternity by today’s movie standards.
It’s clear that Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone’s films inspired John Wick. Leone’s influence shows up early on, as dialogue and exposition take a backseat to long silences and visual storytelling. The camera follows John back and forth through time, acting as a window to his world as tragedy befalls him.
John never discusses his pain; instead, the audience sees visual representations of his loneliness, such as his dead wife’s trinkets in the bathroom, a bracelet on the nightstand beside his bed, and John’s chilly reflection serving as his only (human) company while he sits alone in his kitchen. The directors trust that the audience can follow along with their storytelling style.
The way John Wick crafts a subtle mystery through worldbuilding sets it apart from other films. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed because it valued worldbuilding more than telling a standalone story. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spent so much time planting seeds for its sequels (Felicia Hardy, The Rhino, The Vulture’s suit) that its own story felt underdeveloped and insignificant.
John Wick presents just enough extra details about its crime-infested world to keep the viewer intrigued, but not distracted. These details are icing on a storytelling cake, not promises of better tales down the road. A clever screenwriter could create an entire film about the mysterious underworld hotel/assassin refuge, the body disposal cleanup crew, or the golden coin’s history, as these flourishes make John’s world feel like it existed before the film began, and the viewer is stopping in for a visit.
John Wick‘s major selling point is its action set-pieces. The film features exceptional fight sequences. The combat stands out for its intensity, brutal violence, and meticulous choreography. John drops bodies with superhuman efficiency — his kill count reaches the high 70’s — and he makes it look cool “AF.” John’s “heightened” reality is more Desperado than Jason Bourne, yet the action stands out because of how grounded it feels.
Stahelski and Leitch are stunt coordinators who spent decades working in Hollywood before directing John Wick, their first film. They earned their chops creating actions scenes in iconic films such as The Matrix, 300, and The Crow. For John Wick, they put their years of experience to use, calling in favours from their friends in the business. Those friends are the toughest and most experienced stunt people working today. The result is an action movie masterclass.
The fighting in John Wick feels authentic because a good chunk of it is. The choreography chooses function over style, meaning you won’t see guys throwing spin kicks because they look cool on camera. The fights go down in short, practical bursts, with the combatant’s intentions always to end their opponent quickly and efficiently (though sometimes combat gets messy, breaking down into playground style eye-gouging or finger biting). John Wick‘s stunt team also paid meticulous attention to detail, even ensuring that John never fired more bullets than he has in each clip – they factored reloads into the choreography!
The Leading Man
It was important that Keanu Reeves didn’t just look the part – he had to become John Wick. Reeves spent four months training for eight hours a day to master the film’s advanced fight choreography. He also worked with L.A. S.W.A.T. members and Navy Seals to perfect his gun handling technique. His intensive training even extended to behind the wheel. When the audience sees John blazing down the road, squealing his tires and gliding into Fast and the Furious caliber drifts, it’s all Reeves.
A general rule for action movies is to break the cinematic illusion as little as possible. Directors break the illusion every time they liberally apply CGI, or cut and insert a stunt double, but since Reeves was capable of performing in spots normally reserved for those stunt doubles, there was less need to swap him out of intense moments. Fewer doubles for Reeves means fewer cuts and longer takes. It also means that the camera can zoom in on Reeves during chaotic moments. His insane level of commitment to the role allowed Stahelski and Leitch to create credible-looking, awe-inspiring action sequences.
John Wick provides a fantastic blend of substance and style. The film dazzles the viewer with an array of bullets, screeching tires, and flying fists while telling its simple revenge story. The filmmakers executed their vision at every level, with knockout visuals, the straightforward narrative, and intense action sequences all drawing the viewer into the film’s world. The result is a lo-fi crime-thriller that holds up against its blockbuster competition. John Wick‘s combination of pulpy storytelling and visceral thrills earn it a place in the cult movie pantheon.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 18, 2017.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
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