Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Patriots Day

Patriots Day (2016)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons

Director: Peter Berg

Available on: Amazon Prime

Rating: 4/5

The 2013 Boston marathon bombing forms the backdrop of Patriots Day, the third collaboration between the Lone Survivor-Deepwater Horizon duo of Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg. The director's latest big-budget, ground-level take on real-world events, Berg's preference for building the action around ordinary people forms the core of this sprawling, forensic thriller.

Few movie stars can pull off as convincing a baffled-everyman-facing-mighty-challenges act as Wahlberg and it serves him well, his plucky cop caught up in a savage act of terrorism and its immediate fallout. Portraying homicide detective Tommy Saunders – hobbled by a barely explained knee injury and in the dog house for an unspecified infraction – Wahlberg channels the admirable spirit of his native city, displaying with brio its grit and willingness to weather even the most towering of challenges. 

Berg's schtick is well established at this stage of his career and the obligatory mix of shaky, intimate camera work, blue-collar dialogue and meditative post-rock melodies is in place almost from the beginning. This overlays the careful construction of the disparate circumstances leading to the detonation of two homemade bombs at the finish line of Boston's biggest annual community gathering.

With Saunders and his wife, Carol (an underused Michelle Monaghan), at its centre, Patriots Day's jigsaw comes together: the terrorist Tsarnaev siblings (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), sucking in radicalism amongst their domestic clutter; Jimmy Yang's jolly entrepreneur pursuing the tangible benefits of the American dream; veteran copper Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons, turning in a elegantly understated performance) observing terror from the safety of his sleepy suburb; and Jake Picking's MIT policeman courting the girl he's sworn to watch over.

Each strand – and there are more beyond – feels real, an honest depiction of non-fictional characters, each with hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is to Berg's credit, then, that when the fires come, and carnage descends, we experience their pain and despair. Interestingly, the director does not linger on the actual bombings. From a technical standpoint, they are stunningly violent, yet, with a nod to the obvious reality that many wounds will remain raw, the explosions avoid coming off as cheap spectacle.

In their immediate wake, Berg conveys the slick efficiency of American law enforcement. Alongside civic leaders, the FBI is instantly in control, headed up by Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), a rottweiler of an investigator as quick to fasten onto the minutiae of a crime scene as he is to address the toilet shortage in his makeshift HQ. With Wahlberg's shaken eyewitness serving as an expert on the lie of the land, the investigators pursue their quarry. 

A relentless pace, even in these procedural moments, holds the attention. As the Tsarnaevs are identified, traced and located, the narrative paints their own experiences over those days, stitched together from the testimonies that eventually brought the younger brother, Dzhokhar, to his current residence on death row. There is no shying away from the savagery of those actions and the concluding gun fight on the streets of small-town America is terrifying in its intensity. That said, the obvious bond between the pair undoubtedly draws sympathy. 

Some of the film's more considered trappings succeed, some do not. The intermittent image of a state trooper standing watch over the unclaimed body of murdered child is beautifully understated, while, at the other end of the scale, Yang's sweary condemnation of the Tsarnaevs after they hijack his car is little more than a shot of gauche Americana.

As a chronicle of an attack that signalled to America the very real threat of domestic radicalisation, Patriots Day is stylish and worthy. It shouldn't be missed. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Rating: 4/5

When co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch released John Wick, their debut feature, in 2014 fleeting initial impressions might not have been particularly hopeful. As expensive and hyperactive as it looked, revenge tales starring sullen loners do not scream originality. 

What a pleasant surprise, then, that John Wick  was so outstanding, a neon-drenched action fable both knowing and surprisingly fresh. With Keanu Reeves on form as the eponymous avenging angel – the kind of apex predator none of us should ever aspire to provoke – the picture thrilled critics and raked in enough at the box office to justify a sequel. 

That follow-up has now arrived in the form of John Wick: Chapter 2 (a spare title at odds with the mayhem that garlands much of the 122-minute running time). Stahelski, now alone at the helm, has fine tuned his original work and conjured a vision that feels like a heightened, refined version of its progenitor. The film is far from perfect, lacking John Wick's rage and scorching momentum, but the world is expanded, feeling significantly more dangerous.

It picks up where the first instalment left off. Having taken revenge on his former Russian mob employers for stealing his car and killing his dog, former-not-so-former hitman Wick infiltrates the bad guys' HQ and reclaims the purloined motor. As the fearful kingpin (a cameoing Peter Stormare) assures his underling, stories of Wick's capabilities have been watered down. 

Later, having re-settled into his peaceful domestic life for a matter of hours, Wick – the villains' boogeyman – is visited by Riccardo Scamarcio's elegant Italian crime lord, Santino D’Antonio, the man who facilitated Wick's withdrawal from the underworld but now holds a promise to kill on instruction over his head. Wick, predictably, refuses, so D'Antonio torches his debtor's homestead. Realising he has no choice, Wick must hunt down D'Antonio's sister, a newly crowned member of the gangsters' 'high table'. That mission is complicated, however, when D'Antonio sends his mute, outrageously beautiful enforcer, Ares (Ruby Rose), to tie up the Keanu-shaped loose end. 

And so begins an inversion of Wick's previous tale. No longer the hunter but the prey, he is pursued through a bevvy of atmospheric locations by myriad assassins, all keen to cash in on the bounty. From the Roman catacombs to the New York subway, Wick must desperately fight off each new adversary. A series of hectic scenes depict him at his best. Punching, stabbing, shooting; he occasionally accomplishes all three in a single movement. 

His methods range from comic (he and Common's icy killer, Cassian, trade secretive silenced gunshots across a crowd concourse) to unbelievably brutal (never underestimate pencils again). He even seeks the aid of Matrix alum Laurence Fishburne – a rumpled beggar king – in the quest to cut off the head of a snake that stalks him. Boxed in by a house of mirrors, one late sequence involving automatic weapons and beards in sharp suits is beautiful as it is ruthless.

Like Reeves's other great thriller, Speed, Chapter 2's pace rarely slows. When it does, the proceedings are invariably girded by exposition that helps to build a sense of Wick's increasing desperation. Once the tightly observed rules of his subculture are breached, nobody, not even Ian McShane's urbane arbiter can stave off the consequences. A third volume is all but promised. Expect more gunfire.