Thursday, July 20, 2017

Not to Reason Why

Action movies are not about character development or about reflecting the human condition. They are about chases and crashes and fists and flashing weapons and narrow escapes and razzle dazzle. A handful of exceptional films manage to combine the physical elements with the deeper stuff, but audiences neither demand nor expect it. Action movies are escapist fare. A sketchily drawn but likable character or two and some bare excuse for all the swashes and bucklers to follow are enough. In the past week I’ve sampled three of this year’s action hits – one in the theater and two on DVD. One can’t fault the action in any of them, but the excuses are bare indeed.

Baby Driver
The fantasy lives of adolescent and young men are intimately connected with popular music. Remarkable feats of derring-do go on in their heads during the guitar and drum solos. (I wouldn’t presume to guess if or how what goes on in young women’s heads differs.) Filmmakers know this, largely from firsthand experience, which not just accounts for a lot of soundtrack choices but also the quirks of many film characters – the old Iron Eagle movies and the recent Guardians of the Galaxy flicks come to mind. It’s a simple way to connect with the audience. In Baby Driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus (ringing in the ears) due to a childhood accident and he drowns it out with music (leaning heavily to rock) pretty much constantly – always when driving.

Baby is a wheel man. He had become one in consequence of the youthful mistake of stealing Doc’s car. Doc (Kevin Spacey) turned out to be a broodingly ruthless crime boss who saw Baby’s potential; as payback, Doc set him to work as an expert getaway driver in elaborate heists. Aside from being a criminal, Baby is a pleasant enough sort who looks after his aged disabled friend Joseph (C.J. Jones). Baby meets the waitress Debora (Lily James) who is pretty and sweet and…well… that’s about it. For no discernible reason she agrees to leave town with Baby, about whom she knows nothing, for the open road. Baby is cute, I suppose, but surely he is not the first cute guy Debora ever met. So why? Because the script says so. Besides, it fits the adolescent fantasy. The secondary love story between the crooks Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonz├ílez) actually is more comprehensible if even less wise: the two simply enjoy the thrill of sharing danger and violence. The course of true love never did run smooth, however, and the plans of Baby and Debora are put in jeopardy when Baby’s last job goes terribly wrong.

Taken purely as the escapist fare that it is, the movie is fun. It is well shot and the stunt driving is excellent. Don’t expect anything more from it though.

** **

John Wick: Chapter 2
For those who thought John Wick might have been a good movie if only there had been more violence (the eponymous character kills a mere 84 people), John Wick: Chapter 2 sets out to rectify that.

The reader may recall that retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) in the first movie is upset when the son of a Russian mobster kills his dog and steals his car. So, he singlehandedly wipes out the mob. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the timeline of which follows immediately after the ending of the first movie, an Italian mobster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a marker and demands that John Wick assassinate his sister, the head of the family. When Wick refuses, Santino blows up his house with an RPG. Knowing what Wick did to the last mobster who annoyed him, why would he do such an amazingly stupid thing? Because the script calls for it.

Anyway, Wick first does the job for Santino because honor (!) requires it, but as we all know it is then bad news for Santino D'Antonio and for all of the mercenaries seeking the seven million dollars Santino puts on John Wick’s head.

I’m not unaware of the tongue-in-cheek nature of this movie, but nonetheless to my taste it was a 30-round clip too far: numbing rather than escapist. My reaction is probably idiosyncratic, though, since my companions (both sexes represented) loved it.

** **

Kong: Skull Island
This is a movie I would have loved as a kid: monsters and more monsters with no irritating romantic subplot to distract from the (did I mention them?) monsters. There is not much waiting for them either. They show up in the first half hour.

The time is 1973. Landsat images reveal the existence of an island in the eye of a permanent storm that previously had shrouded it from the outside world. A scientific team headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman) investigates. Transportation is provided by a heavily-armed helicopter squadron withdrawn from Vietnam and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). They drop bombs all over the island in order to get seismic readings, which seriously angers the protector of the island and its indigenous people. You got it: the protector is King Kong. He rises up and swats every last chopper out of the sky.

Survivors of the crashes encounter the locals and a WW2 pilot (John C. Reilly) who was stranded on the island during the war. Conveniently, he can explain about Kong’s role as protector against the really terrible monsters who live below the surface. Packard, however, is determined to kill Kong. Why? Because the script calls for it. One gathers he is angry that Vietnam ended without a victory for his side and now he at least wants to kill a big gorilla. Um… yeah.

Most of the cast is there to get eaten by monsters, but a few should be mentioned. The photographer Mason (Brie Larson) shows that, unlike in previous iterations, a beautiful blonde woman can be on hand without anybody at all being attracted to her – not even Kong. Jing Tian’s most significant scene is in the after-credits (yes, there is a not-so-secret ending) when she reveals that there are other monsters in the world. James Conrad gets to play the competent mercenary. But it’s really not about the people. They are just there to run from (or foolishly try to kill) the monsters who are the real stars.

The movie is a fun romp and the fx are superb. If you are looking for anything other than an effects-packed action film, you won’t find it in the characters. There might be a metaphor or two, however, such as the imprudence of removing a monster who is keeping in check something worse. But primarily it’s about the chills and thrills, and it delivers enough of those.

Trailer: Baby Driver (2017)


  1. Thanks for the reviews on these three. I was interested in seeing all of them. Edgar Wright always makes entertaining films, and "Baby Driver" looked like it fit the bill. I heard that the car chase sequences were very impressive and done with minimal CG, which is refreshing these days.

    I still need to check out the first "John Wick" film. It sounds like a good one. But I'll have to watch it when my wife isn't around. Puppy death is a no no around her.

    I was on the fence when it came "Kong: Skull Island". I was more interested in the other ape movie coming out in July. :)

    1. In the future world ruled by apes, I wonder if King Kong is a giant human? Anyway, all three of the movies are fun enough if the viewer avoids intellectualizing them too much – easier for some viewers than others. Of the three, Baby Driver, which had the lowest budget, was the most enjoyable for me.

  2. Yeah, it's rare for an action film to combine both action and story or characterization, but the first couple of Die Hard movies, Aliens, Speed, Predator did it among a few others. I actually prefer them that way. I'll watch King Kong Island because my inner kid compels me too. I might end up passing on John Wick 2, the first was enough for me. I might end up seeing Baby Driver.

    The recent Atomic Blonde rhymes with James Bond strikes me the same way, but who knows might be worth a watch.

    1. True, the combo can be done (The Dark Knight probably qualifies, too) but these three didn't. That doesn't make them bad movies, but they are forgettable.

      The inner kid places a lot of demands on me too.