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WATCHING THE MOVIES: John Wick, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I revisit a spectacular action movie, and the Marvel Rewatch continues.

We are nearing the end of the early year moviegoing dry spell, thank goodness. In the meantime, I’ve got two more movies ready for a review!

JOHN WICK

With the new trailer for John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum out last week, I thought I’d rewatch the two prior films in the series, one after the other.

At first glance this is another, close-to-formula modern revenge-action movie. The usual formula is this: a lone wolf with a particular set of skills destroys a set of obstacles placed in front of him by people who want him dead or, in the alternative, who hurt him in some way. The entertainment comes from how efficiently this masterful loner destroys these awful, awful people. The Bourne Identity set the trend about a decade or so ago, but things really kicked into high gear with Liam Neeson’s Taken, which I referenced above.

Here’s the difference in John Wick, though. John knows the world he’s wading back into, and he desperately does not want to go back. But a few very dumb people just had to disturb his calm by stealing his car and killing his dog, the pet his wife gave him when she died. Every action he takes is accompanied by gritted teeth, the precision of every extremely precise gunshot the outworking of his foremost inner thought: You should have left me alone.

That’s why John’s snarl of “yeah, I’m thinking I’m back” to slimy villain Viggo means so much. Wick has been lit on fire, and he’s going to burn your house down.

Keanu Reeves’ performance as the titular assassin is in my opinion the best of his entire career. Finally, a role where his natural, restrained emotions can play well and don’t just feel uncomfortably awkward (The Matrix) or funnily awkward (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). He’s simple, exacting, dangerous, but deeply feeling. The scene where Vigo tells his moronic son – the catalyst for Wick’s return – exactly who John Wick is allows our minds to run wild:

VIGGO: He once was an associate of ours. They call him “Baba Yaga.”

IOSEF: The Boogeyman?

VIGGO: Well, John wasn’t exactly the Boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the f______ Boogeyman.

IOSEF: …Oh.

Exposition usually drags down a story, but this bit is absolutely necessary. We need to know how John and Viggo are connected, and Viggo’s awed recitation of John’s feats plays like a Greek poet singing the praises of an epic hero. In this case, though, Achilles is coming for Homer.

In fact, throughout this movie (and more prominently in its sequel) there’s repeated references to Greek myth. The entire revenge-spree storyline had its true start as a trope in the Iliad: Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles destroys Hector and his entire city. John is a Greek hero to the teeth, complete with tragic backstory. Heck, the desk manager at the Continental Hotel is named Charon after the ferryman to the underworld.

Speaking of which, the universe John and his fellow criminal associates/enemies inhabit is absolutely fascinating, and this movie only reveals what it needs to, leaving a good deal behind the curtain – enough to intrigue without being oppressive. Assassins are apparently so commonplace in this world that we need an entire hotel smack dab in the middle of New York just to cater to their needs. There’s regular gunplay in public with little law-enforcement eye-batting. And the universe has clear rules: don’t kill anyone at the hotel; everything costs a gold coin; you earn gold coins by doing your job; some people’s gold coins are worth more than others.

The rest of the cast is pitch perfect. Ian McShane’s small but consequential role as the Continental’s owner Winston shines as particularly adept. He’s the Zeus of this Greek epic, an ancient all-powerful mastermind meting out justice as the rules demand. The action scenes themselves are incredible, fueled by the handy direction of stunt experts Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. 

This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s darn near close. The music sometimes feels out of place (dial back the Marilyn Manson please), and the pacing occasionally jitters. Still, it’s a modern classic. If you haven’t, see it.

RATING: 9/10


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

“I’m with you ’til the end of the line.”

Captain America doesn’t give up.

When his world feels unfamiliar and twisty, he shoots straight. When the evil he buried rears its head again, he fights back. And when the friend he thought dead returns as an enemy, he will not stop trying to bring him back to the light, even if it means he dies.

Captain America does not give up.

(I cannot talk about this movie without spoiling things, so this serves as your massive bold-texted SPOILER WARNING!!!!!)

I know Black Panther was just nominated for Best Picture. That’s a great honor, and everyone who worked on it should be proud. But in my opinion, Captain America: The Winter Soldier should have been nominated first. I kid you not. This movie is that excellent, that timely, that meticulous, and that well-made.

This film reached theaters as the Obama administration was just ramping up drone strikes, in a time when much of the nation was wondering “hey, why are our troops still over in the Middle East?” SHIELD’s Project Insight echoes America’s drone initiative: armored flying monoliths with satellite-guided cannons to destroy anyone threatening. But where Nick Fury sees the ultimate expression of SHIELD’s mission to protect the world, Captain America knows better. “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”

That statement carries weighty nuance: Insight is borne out of Fury’s fear of another attack like New York, and places the globe’s population beneath the heel of a near-unaccountable bureaucratic overlord whose fire could rain from above without warning or due process.And events prove that even Cap’s worst worries are nowhere near the truth. Nick Fury is blindsided (despite his later desperate protestations) by the cancerous corruption at the heart of SHIELD. Hydra is back, and more sinister than ever.

Even before that, Cap’s world is crumbling. He’s an old-school moral objectivist in a grey world of spies and suspicion with a single guiding star of right and wrong, and he struggles to see its light. We can tell on his first mission that he’s out of sorts. He’s very good at the physical work of beating up the bad guys, but it looks and feels mechanical, unmotivated. He’s following orders, but he’s not sure if they’re the right ones, and that bothers him. To top it off, he doesn’t know how to deal with modern living, and his love Peggy is tragically alive but afflicted by Alzheimer’s.

Then the twist hits once Cap (accompanied by an excellent ScarJo as Black Widow) discovers a room full of computers, somehow containing the brain of Zola, the Hydra henchman of Cap’s old nemesis Red Skull. The post-Avengers, pre-Age of Ultron Marvel movies have a single theme – this world is more complicated than you thought – and Hydra’s reveal is its nadir. It recontextualizes the entirety of the earth-bound portion of this universe.

But Cap just keeps going, even when it turns out the man who killed Nick Fury (for all he knew) and matched his physical skills perfectly was his friend Bucky, a man who he thought dead. When Cap recognizes this, and has a chance to meet him in battle again, he fulfills his mission but doesn’t leave a man behind, putting his life at risk to help Bucky remember his past.

The acting’s wonderful. Samuel L. Jackson especially turns in his best performance as Nick Fury in these movies, a planner clinging to control after the trauma of the alien invasion in Avengers. He always has a backup plan, but when he makes one last play to save SHIELD even after Hydra returns, Cap puts the kibosh on it. SHIELD was never meant to save the world. It had grown so gigantic that an enemy could now easily get past its defenses and use it as a cudgel against life and freedom. SHIELD failed, and needed to die.

The Russo Brothers, turning in their first Marvel directorial effort here, show off their balanced style with aplomb. They really know how to direct actors and shoot tension-filled scenes. The out-of-nowhere car chase near the film’s beginning and the fight on the highway bridge with the Winter Soldier come to mind.

You don’t need to like Marvel movies to like this film. It’s the first superhero movie in this series I’d recommend as a film itself.

RATING: 10/10

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