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.
In Contagion (Warner), Steven Soderbergh uses his camera lens as a kind of microscope to study the effects of a fictional pandemic. It’s as much social anthropology as medical thriller, with familiar faces playing out the roles of victims, medical professionals and bystanders, and Soderbergh holding it all at arm’s length, clinical and removed as he observes with a mix of technical detail and swift efficiency. He covers a lot of objective information and subjective experience in 106 minutes.
While Soderbergh favors clinical detachment to human engagement, he has the good sense to offer Matt Damon as our everyman point-of-view, a husband and father who loses his wife and one of his children in the first bloom of the contagion and becomes what would in other circumstances appear zealously overprotective of his surviving daughter.
The rest of the fine cast — notably Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, even Jude Law’s maverick blogger (with questionable motives) — are more defined by their purposefulness and focus. Damon is as close as we get to the human equation and that gives the film a queasy atmosphere so removed from the melodrama and spectacle of the traditional disaster movie. We don’t feel like we “know” these characters and as a result we are more focused on the big picture — the isolation of the virus, the search for a cure / vaccine, the survival of society — than the survival of individuals.