A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.
The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.
John Wick (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the kind of action movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore: simple, streamlined, with action scenes that rely on physical rather than computer generated elements. Keanu Reeves plays the titular character, a former assassin for the Russian mob (led by Michael Nyqvist) who is roused from retirement when a group of thugs (led by his old boss’s sadistic son) go after him while he’s mourning the death of his wife. It’s a revenge film, pure and simple, built on elements right out of pulp fiction and crime soap operas and an elaborate criminal underworld that could have been thought up in a comic book. And it is non-stop action of the old-fashioned kind. Digital effects are used to stylize the imagery and frame the set pieces, but the action scenes themselves are all about human bodies in motion, creative choreography, and impressive stunts, punctuated by bullets and explosions.
Chad Stahelski gets sole screen credit as director but it’s understood that David Leitch (credited as a producer) co-directed. Both are veteran stuntmen and stunt coordinators and they build the film with minimal dialogue, basic motivations, and elaborately designed action scenes, often in close quarters, the better to show off the fighters. Reeves is an accomplished martial artist in his own right and he looks great in action. Not to make too much of this, it’s an updated version of a 70s drive-in revenge movie with the look of a graphic novel. You go with the anger of a wronged man with killer skills and enjoy the ride. Adrian Palicki (currently playing action hero on Agents of SHIELD) is a rival assassin and Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe carve out their defining presence in small roles.
Blu-ray and DVD with six featurettes, including a look at the stunt choreography and preparation and a featurette on the second unit. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is commentary by the two directors and a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also available on VOD.
I’m not sure how I manage to keep my simultaneous fascination with /repulsion for Lars von Trier in balance, but it’s back with a vengeance in Antichrist (Criterion), another provocation that is at once beautiful and perverse, personal and cynical, and filled with his sour vision of the emotional small-mindedness (small-heartedness?) of the human animal. This one, a portrait of marriage as a morass of anger, suspicion and power after she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into a pit of suicidal depression and he (Willem Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes personal charge of her treatment in a rural escape called Eden that von Trier twists into a diseased hell: paradise rotted.
It all turns on the death of their infant child, which crawls through an open window and falls to its death while the parents are occupied in a slow-motion ballet of aggressive, feral sex. Anthony Dod Mantle is back behind the camera delivering Von Trier’s now familiar art-house look of carefully composed and stunningly sculpted establishing shots and framing sequences (like the B&W prelude of sex and death in the whisper of falling snow) while handheld photography takes us through the cover art frame and into their psychodrama.
Revisiting To Live and Die in L.A. (Fox) twenty-five after its original release turned out to be a treat and an eye-opener. While on the one hand you can hold it up as the quintessential expression of the era’s music video aesthetics and sleek, slick style, it’s also a distinctively singular, perfectly pitched action thriller from William Friedkin, a director in full command of his tools, including the high-octane style of neon surfaces, rapid editing and driving music.
William L. Petersen was poised to make the leap from respected stage actor to intense screen star when he was cast as Secret Service agent Richard Chance, a rising star working in the Treasury Department who thrives on the adrenaline of the job. When his mentor, partner and best friend is murdered while following up a lead on counterfeiter Rick Masters (a feral Willem Dafoe in his breakthrough performance), he goes rogue and drags his new partner, the smart but still green John Vukovich (John Pankow), into his increasingly reckless stunts. The film’s defining scene is the ingenious, nerve racking car chase that sends Chance and Vukovich up an off-ramp the wrong direction on the L.A. freeway, swerving and skidding around oncoming traffic. But that scene is actually the climactic punch of a much longer, brilliantly composed car chase that begins in the no man’s land under the freeway (where they have just ripped off a smuggler), carries us into traffic with a perfectly executed traveling crane that reveals the chase car closing in and sends us winding through the freight-strewn alleys of this warehouse district and into the empty L.A. basin, where suddenly a small army of cars join in and up the stakes. There’s more to the little smuggling operation that they hijacked than meets the eye and they’ve got no idea just how badly they f****d up.