The original John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves as a retired assassin roused to revenge in a very bloody campaign, was a deliciously entertaining old school action film with impressive action choreography and physical stunts and one stunning set piece after another. (John Wick is reviewed on Stream On Demand here.)
John Wick Chapter 2 (2017) may or may not have been planned from the outset but it seems inevitable, and not just because the first was film was the stealth action hit of 2014. There’s a whole mythology of a criminal subculture, an elaborate fantasy underworld of hitmen and gangsters just begging to be explored, laid out in that first film. Once John Wick reenters the world he had escaped all those years ago there’s no way he can just drop back out. This is not that kind of fantasy.
Liam Neeson is back in action in the gritty crime thriller Run All Night (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), his third and most satisfying collaboration with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop). Neeson once again has a very specific skill set—his nickname isn’t Jimmy the Gravedigger for nothing—but he’s been pickling it in booze for years to drown the guilt of his mob assassinations for Irish crime boss Ed Harris. Then Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), a former boxer turned limo driver, lands in serious trouble when his job takes him to the wrong place at the wrong time where he witnesses a gangland murder. Jimmy sobers up quickly and takes on his former boss and best friend—not to mention the bad cops in his pocket—to do protect his boy.
In the world of high-concept crime thrillers, this is surprisingly down to earth. There’s no superheroics or spectacular Die Hard-style stunts here. It’s all handguns and car chases and blood and broken glass on the urban mean streets at night. Collet-Serra grounds it in actual relationships—a son who has no respect for a drop-out father, a mobster who respects his alcoholic best friend more than his reckless son, who would rather play gangsta than understand the balance of power and diplomacy in the criminal underworld, and two fathers who will do anything for their sons despite the past. It’s reminiscent of seventies crime picture, with corrupt cops and criminal codes and a new generation of thug that has no respect for the old ways. If it never becomes anything more than a great paperback crime yarn built on coincidence, bad luck, and blood ties, it does the genre proud. Vincent D’Onofrio brings a weary gravitas to an old-school police detective whose sense of justice outweighs his desire to put Jimmy down and Common is enigmatic as a hired gun with his own specific skill set.
On Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Xbox, and CinemaNow.
Selma (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), directed by Ava Duvernay (who also rewrote Paul Webb’s screenplay without credit), takes on the 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King through Alabama as a benchmark moment in the fight for voting rights and, more generally, civil rights for black citizens in the American south. It’s the kind of film that can get lost in hagiography and simplification. Duvernay sidesteps both with a nuanced, complicated portrait of King (played here by British actor David Oyelowo, star of Duvernay’s previous film Middle of Nowhere) as a man aware of his power as an orator and as a leader, as well as a savvy campaigner with a keen understanding of the workings of the corporate media and local and national politics and powers. Selma was carefully chosen for this event because of, not despite, the potential for violence, one of the ironies revealed in the film: to get the news media to pay attention to injustice, King and his partners in protest had to give them conflict.
That comes at a cost and much of Selma is about the cost and the stakes of movement. Oyelowo plays King with grace and dignity, but he’s always aware of what people are putting on the line, including his wife (Carmen Ejogo), who is harassed by the FBI with evidence of King’s adultery. One of the film’s great triumphs is the maturity and seriousness with which it confronts the way this couple tries to work through it.
There are conflicts within in the movement and with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was the greatest ally the movement ever had in the White House but was also a politician worried about how to spend his political capital for the greatest good. The film has been criticized for its portrayal of Johnson’s resistance to King’s insistence on moving ahead quickly with voting rights, a conflict partly engineered in the film for dramatic purpose, but I think the critics protest too much. Those scenes illustrate how even supporters of the cause cannot fully understand the reality of living under such repressive laws or the urgency for change. This isn’t a film about Johnson or even, at heart, about King. It is about a culture, a movement, a moment in history, a great injustice that should never be forgotten, and the lives affected by that injustice. Duvernay’s greatest accomplishment is in humanizing history and reminding us of why it matters.
The superb supporting cast of committed performers includes Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, producer Oprah Winfrey, Common, Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, and Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover. Note that none of King’s speeches are included here. For reasons beyond my understanding, the King family would not allow Duvernay to use King’s speeches, but the film still manages to give us a sense of the power and passion of his words.
Selma received two Oscar nominations: for Best Picture and Best Original Song “Glory” by Common and John Legend, which it won. Many Oscar watchers thought that controversy over the LBJ portrait resulted so few nominations.
On Blu-ray, DVD, and cable and digital VOD. The Blu-ray edition features the supplements: commentary by filmmaker Ava Duvernay and star David Oyelowo, the featurettes “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma,” deleted and extended scenes, and the music video for the Oscar-winning song, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.
Paramount Home Media Distribution is sending DVD copies of the film to every high school in the U.S., both public and private, for their libraries, and they are making companion study guides available for teachers free of charge. Educators can request a copy of the guide at http://bazaned.com.
Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (eOne) turns the building of the transcontinental railway into the forge that created the new America in the aftermath of the Civil War. This is not a romantic vision of brotherhood, however, but a dark drama of the savage past made for cable TV. That means mud, blood, graft, vengeance, and a hotbed of racial conflict surrounding the construction of the railroad.
The title, which doesn’t mince words in selling the show’s sensibility, is also the name of the tent village that follows the railroad construction, a migrating town that serves as base camp, bunker, and the industry of followers, from bars to brothels to a tent church determined to save souls from the hell around them.
Anson Mount stars as Confederate veteran Cullen Bohannan, who follows the trail of the Union renegades who murdered his wife and family to the railroad camp and ends up as the crew foreman, a job he takes only as cover for his mission. Common is Elam, a former slave who hasn’t found much opportunity in the wake of emancipation and the hangover of post-slavery racism. A murder wraps their destinies together, first as wary conspirators, then as allies. We’re not talking blood brothers here, but in a mercenary world where life is cheap and justice owned by the railroad boss (Colm Meaney), they find they can trust one another, and that saves both of their lives more than once.
Dominique McElligott co-stars as a widowed surveyor who choose stay on with the rough but exciting project rather than return to the constraints of society, and a whole world of characters revolved around the story: the preacher with a past (Tom Noonan, who is brilliant), the Christian Indian (Eddie Spears), the brutal Norwegian camp enforcer (Christopher Heyerdahl), a pair of young Irish entrepreneurs, and a tough hooker who carries the brand of her past as a captive of the Indians for all to see.
American Movie Classics commissioned the show to build on their growing slate of acclaimed originals (“Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”) and it’s an impressive physical production, hewn out of the Alberta wilderness locations and shot in shades of earth and steel and gunpowder. It hasn’t yet found a way to turn the interesting mix of personal conflict, racial tension, survivalist mentality, and the volatility of a tent city populated by violent, brutal, angry men, into a story as compelling as their best shows, but it’s promising enough to bring me back for the second season.
10 episodes on three discs on both Blu-ray and DVD. Both include the original featurette “Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels” and the short video piece “Crashing a Train: From Concept to Camera,” but these cobbled-together pieces are less polished than the 30-minutes of promotional featurettes made for AMC.
Also includes short video character profiles, five-minute “Inside the Episode” featurettes for each episode of the show, and 24 minutes of additional behind-the-scenes footage.