Sunday, 26 May 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

John Wick 3: Chapter 3 - Parabellum 

Chad Stahelski, 2019, English-Russian-Japanese-Italian

Well you know what you came for with ‘John Wick’ so it’s a little redundant to chip at flaws when it’s big dumb excess and entertainment. The IQ is low – someone will explain the title, don’t worry – but that doesn’t stop it from trying to open up the Wick-world. Franchises are everything these days. Quietly, ‘John Wick’ seems have snuck in and taken some of the glory from ‘The Raid’ (chalk that up to being non-English, but the people that matter seem to know: after ‘The Raid’, I saw fight scenes everywhere realised they had to up the ante, not least in the ‘Daredevil’ NetFlix series).
It starts with the murderous properties of library books, sets a fight in a museum of antique weapons and then delivers a little horse-fu (as Keanu has called it). So, for me, this first act is the strongest sequence of action scenes, funny and outrageous in its excess and excellently executed. This is where director Chad Stahleski’s experience as a stuntman and his history with Keanu Reeves (they go back to ‘The Matrix’) is a major asset: you never feel that the editing is doing all the hard work and every now and again there’s a camera angle that really lands the punchline (eye-piercing, anyone? But the whole antique weapon’s fight contains knowing angles).

It seems to be that different people have different preferences: some think the opening act is weakest, some the middle and some the end. It’s true that when the guns come out, there is less visible invention because the film is not required to be so imaginative in its arsenal. However, Halle Berry and her attack dogs have proven a high point for many (ref. social media).
But then some seem to think ‘John Wick 2’ is better/inferior, so it seems a series more open to flexible audience’s preferences than most. It’s all fights, so maybe repetition fatigue sets in at different points for different people.

But to back-track: this takes off where the previous film finishes with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run with a humungous bounty on his head. This time, it’s not vengeance motivating him but simply going to one person and cameo to the next to get to the head honcho of the High Table, which controls this league of assassins. What this really does is take Wick from one fight to the next. It gets a little ‘Black Swan’ at one point and then cod-mystical (in the desert?), but it’s in obvious high debt to ‘The Villainess’, especially with that bike-and-horse fight. So, it’s derivative and undemanding and daft, yes, but it has a nice sheen and colour-scheme – filmed with a clear commercial gloss by Dan Laustsen – and the fights are exceptionally choreographed, filmed coherently without the edits getting in the way. And this is where it truly delivers. 

And it helps that Reeves is more hangdog in demeanour (sad puppy, maybe?) undermining the potential machismo. It follows a trick from ‘The Raid’ in that he is a protagonist reacting in a Why-are-you-all-making-me-be-such-a-bad-ass? way, which allows him to be both persecuted and to show how lethal he is. A film about his being an assassin would have been very different. Still, he still applies so many headshots to make sure potential threats are dead – no one-shot kills all here – that the “15” rating seems ridiculous. Reeves has little dialogue and a couple of one-liners and he’s probably no one’s idea of an exemplary actor (but stories of how nice he is are as legendary as Wick’s kill list) but when he has to show his skill as a physical actor, he doesn’t disappoint in the action scenes. Fighting on a horse is pretty impressive. And when his dourness can’t quite keep things sparking, there’s Halle Berry and ‘The Raid’ guys and Mark Dacascos (an assassin barely able to repress his hero-worship) to keep the momentum up. But it should be noted that this is not a youth-dominated word: the cast is notably mature and happily showing the youngsters how immature ultra-violence is done.

It’s a movie-movie world where seemingly everyone knows Wick by sight and no innocents really get hurt; hell, you can kill henchmen in a busy train station and no one will notice (and the film really isn’t the kind to posit this as social commentary). It’s an assassin’s world and we just live in it. They spread the full class spectrum too, from the glitz of The Continental hotel – a safe-ground for assassins until Wick decided otherwise at the end of ‘Wick 2’ – and the street homeless, weaponised by The Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne… whose performance is perfectly in keeping with shenanigans, but is probably less embarrassing here than in ‘Wick 2’). In this Hard Man Fantasy, the whole world is against you but, thankfully, your skills and cool can overcome. And it helps that characters have no qualms about referring to Wick as “legendary” or “mythic”: they know their place.

If ‘The Raid’s detractors bemoaned its lack of narrative, its level-up games structure (“Yes, and?” responded director Gareth Evans), its skeletal structure seemed to me to be stripped of artifice, by way of Walter Hill or early John Carpenter. ‘John Wick 3’ by comparison has that pretention to cinematic narrative and world-and-franchise-building that games now have, that can often get in the way of gameplay. But Stahleski gets the balance right here. One can’t blame him for thinking that “Hey, we’re on number three here: shouldn’t we fill in a little background?” But it never gets in the way of the jaw-dropping body-count. 

Maybe this is the best entry for me because I came in knowing
what this would be and just focused on the mayhem. (And, again: such a body-count for a 15 rating.) I was perhaps lukewarm on the previous instalments, but the set-pieces of this third chapter did their work once it did the death-by-library-book. It’s undemanding, but there’s no denying I enjoyed the skill of the action. 

Friday, 17 May 2019

My second appearance on the You Total Cult podcast

I am on the final episode of the You Total Cult podcast where we get together to watch one those so-bad-it's-good films, 'The Children of Ravensback', or just 'The Children', if you prefer. 

In the 1990s, when films were still banned, I used to go to a film fair where you could get all those illicit VHS copies. I bought a rough fourth or fifth generation tape of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' from there, for example. Anyway, I bought 'The Children' mistaking it for 'Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things' and was most disappointed when I watched it. But then, I showed it to my friend James in outrage and he fell about laughing. So I showed it to others and then we had about two or three parties where a gang of us got together to watch it and laugh. 

I hadn't seen it for decades, but it was released last year by Troma and so it was time to revisit. It is a film where the effects highlights are fingernails turning black and the funniest child dismemberment ever.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019


Tekkon kinkurîto 

Taiyō Matsumoto, 1994

In Taiyō Matsumoto’s Manga, two boys named Kuro and Shiro – “Black” and “White” - live in Treasure Town, under the delusion that they “rule” it as a delinquent duo called “The Cats”. However, the Yakuza have designs on converting this part of town into a theme park where money can be made. Whilst White’s babbling seems to be getting worse, Black takes on the Yakuza who unleash superhuman assassins and causes all kinds of trouble.

Of course, Black and White are Yin and Yang: White says numerous times that he has the screws that Black doesn’t have and vice versa. White is seemingly mentally challenged, digesting the world as a toddler who has just discovered he can count and make up songs even though he is about ten. Typically, this subjectivity is equated with innocence in a crazy world, but as these brothers are rendered through symbolism and archetypes, this is less reductive than it might have been. Their friend, the old man on the street, says that he doubts White would have survived if it wasn’t for Black. For Black’s part, he is old beyond his years, bloodthirsty and fearless to the point of foolishness. There is the typical philosophising that runs through Manga, but ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ stops short of the mawkishness that often mars Manga narratives and drags it into tedium; or rather it doesn’t dwell on its sentimentality so much that it gets in way of the action (indeed, each chapter is called a “skirmish”). 

‘Tekkonkonkreet’ is a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for concrete. Its superficial look is all-smiling and hectic, but this is misleading: the tone is despairing and downbeat and Kuro/Black really isn’t a smiley kid, being the dark half of the duo: violent, dour, psychotic: his smile is closer to the psychosis of Snake, the ever-grinning bad guy. Matsumoto’s artwork is often giddy, full of the upper regions and taking a bird’s eye view of the city of Takaramachi – “Treasure Town” – since The Cats seem to be able to defy gravity somewhat and constantly perch and live on rooftops. It’s often overcrowded, angular and slightly off-kilter from realism. Several characters – not least the central boys themselves – come with a streak of the surreal and superpowers, offset by the sad-sack slouch of many adults.

The mash-up of slightly Chosen One kids adventure and surreal Yakuza yarn give this an originality that the story would lack if these elements were independent of each other. Black and White are immediately arresting characters and the relatively straightforward telling means it’s direct and compelling right from the start whilst the art is packed full of dynamism. A. E. Sparrow writes:

"Indeed, it's the blending of traditional Japanese manga, European art-stylings and an indie-comic sensibility that push this book into a realm all its own."

It’s fierce and sentimental in equal measure, but it reaches a balance of surrealism and Manga nihilism that always fascinates. And the collection of the serial, ‘Tekkonkinkreet: Black & White’ is gorgeous.


Michael Arias, 2006, Japan

Michael Arias’ film adaptation of ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ does the source full justice. The animation is often breath-taking, keeping the vertiginous perspective of Matsumoto’s original art. For example, the introductory longshot through the city alone is stunning. And likewise, although the design of the faces is cartoonish, the detail of the backgrounds is so chock-full that it surely would mostly prove impossible to take it all in. It often emulates elaborate crane-shots or follows the characters through the streets in a chase sequence, mimicking beats from the action genre and giving the film a more cinematic quality, opening up and getting intimate with the city. 

One of the reasons it succeeds is that it doesn’t mess with the story so much. There’s no need. However, it starts with The Cat’s the conflict with Dusk and Dawn which strikes as a wise choice, starting with a conflict that plays a future part in the plot instead of a random skirmish, but otherwise it hardly deviates. 

It’s an essential companion piece to Matsumoto’s graphic novel. The tone is downbeat but there’s joyful delirium in the art and Arias’ adaptation maintains that. ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ is familiar in its tropes but filtered through an oddness that makes it quite unique and hanging around the upper echelons of its peers. 

Sunday, 5 May 2019


Darks Corners' excellent essay on the horror films of FW Murnau.

Talk Talk live in Montreaux, 1986.

Rob Doyle on Philip K Dick's "Valis"

The art of 

Piotr Jabłoński

Lunar Engine live

A collection of live recordings and a demo from Lunar Engine from years ago. Free download.