Glorious Follies of Middle-Age and Youth
If nothing else, Chad Stahelski's punctuation-heavy John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum should remind us all what an engaging and genuinely likable screen presence Keanu Reeves can be in the right vehicle. This is not to say that the film has nothing else to commend it, but I would imagine that quite a few Reeves fans of a gentle disposition may have problems with the frankly astounding levels of violence in the new film.
Within the narrative itself, only a short time has passed since short-fused hitman Wick (Reeves) was dragged out of retirement, when some burglars shot his beloved puppy at the start of the first film in 2014. Now, due to a somewhat improbable chain of events, he finds himself on the run across New York City with every criminal on the planet looking to collect the $10 million price tag he has on his head. Various crooks and bounty hunters waste no time in trying to cash in, and the result is a breathless succession of brutal fights and action sequences, with Wick demonstrating his mastery of kung fu, knife fu, horse fu and library book fu to lethal effect. As mentioned, the violence would be appalling if it wasn't so deftly and inventively choreographed; the action here is as good as anything in Reeves' past work in this particular genre.
Sadly, eventually the film has to take breath and include some plot, and this is where it wobbles a bit: Wick goes off to Morocco for a bit, where he meets old friend and fellow dog-person Halle Berry (together they get to slaughter a few dozen more stuntmen), while back in NYC a representative of the criminal underworld's head office turns up to wag a finger at Wick's various associates for conniving in his crimes against the bylaws of their peculiar world. Some of this is only really here to leave the door swinging open for a future Chapter 4; all of it really confirms that, whatever its merits, the John Wick series has become an absurd fantasy in every way that actually matters, having no connection with reality and making no sense on any terms other than its own.
Still, it all leads up to a brilliantly-mounted climax, with Wick and his allies besieged in the Hitman Hilton by waves of bulletproof goons, and set-piece clashes between Reeves and Mark Dacascos, not to mention the guys who played Mad Dog and Assassin in the Raid movies (something for the kung fu movie connoisseur there). The quality of the action sequences keeps it all thoroughly watchable, as does the presence of a remarkably strong cast, all of whom have helped themselves amply from the ham platter: there's Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, and Angelica Huston, for a start, plus an unexpected appearance by Jerome Flynn. Halle Berry doesn't really get much to do, but I suppose it is nice to see her again. As for Keanu, he remains as intensely inscrutable as ever. There is a sense in which this Keanu performance is exactly the same as every other Keanu performance, and yet somehow he lifts this film to a level it simply wouldn't have with a lesser performer at the heart of it. The plot is ridiculous and possibly entirely dispensable, and I have to confess that the revelation that this film ends on a (sort of) cliffhanger made my heart sink a bit – but no matter what happens in future entries, John Wick 3 is thoroughly entertaining, provided you can take the pace.
I have equally good things to say about Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, which is an American high-school comedy (not exactly one of my favourite subgenres) quite clearly informed by recent progressive social and cultural movements (once again, not something I automatically associate with a good time). Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, the two biggest over-achievers in the twelfth grade of one California high school (various pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg cover their bedroom walls, and so on). But with graduation looming, the duo are shaken in their smug complacency by the revelation that their decision to focus wholly on school for the past four years may have been a terrible mistake – they may have got into really good colleges, but so have all their peers, who actually took the time to relax and enjoy high school.
Molly decrees that they must show all their contemporaries what a fun couple of girls they are, which involves going to the biggest party they can find and behaving as wildly as possible (the fact both of their crushes are going may also be a factor). Amy has her doubts about the wisdom of this, with graduation happening the next morning, but lets herself get dragged along anyway. Now all they have to do is find out where the actual party is, which could be a challenge given they have studiously ignored everyone else for the last few years...
Modern comedies rarely do it for me, as you may have noticed: I rarely go near them for this reason. Films with an agenda and an axe to grind also make my teeth itch, and I was a little wary of Booksmart as it does have the look of one of those 'the female experience in the modern world' projects to it. However, I am delighted to report that it is genuinely very funny (though consistently profane and frequently borderline-obscene), and that furthermore, being funny and entertaining seems to be its main priority. This is certainly a very smart film set firmly in the present day, and while it's certainly aware of all the issues which beset us today, it isn't afraid to handle them with a light touch and even poke some gentle fun at them. This allows the film to be just as knowingly absurd as John Wick 3, including a roster of over-the-top caricatures, all played to the hilt by an impressive young cast.
What is genuinely surprising is not just that the film is so fast, clever, and funny, but that it is also touching as well: the friendship between Molly and Amy is completely believable and their various moments of despair and disappointment are honestly quite moving. But on the whole this is a refreshingly light and upbeat movie, with a refreshingly upbeat and optimistic view of the world. None of the characters are presented as horrible people; everyone seems to be essentially decent, if occasionally mixed up or a bit dim-witted. Again, it manages to do this in a very understated way. This is another film that certainly won't be for everyone, but for those who can take the pace and the content, a good time is pretty much guaranteed.
Also This Week...
...3 Faces, a very odd Iranian film from director Jafar Panahi. Panahi was banned from making films by the Iranian government a few years ago but has carried on doing so anyway. If this even qualifies as a film; I suppose it must. A famous actress (Behnaz Jafari, playing herself) receives a plea for help from a girl in a remote village; together with a disgraced film director (Panahi, playing himself) she sets off to investigate. And... not very much happens as they drive around, have tea, occasionally sign autographs, listen to whimsical stories from villagers, and so on. I went to see this one with a friend of Iranian origins and asked him whether there was some subtle subtext based in Iranian culture that I was missing. He assured me that there wasn't: this is just a film without very much of a story. The closest thing to a plot twist comes when a prize stud bull with 'miraculous testicles' hurts its leg, thus blocking a road. It's sort of mildly pleasant to watch, but you do find yourself wondering what the point is. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes last year, which tells you more about the festival than this film, I think.