There are a lot of reasons to get excited for a movie. It can be because you like the director, or the actors, or the plot — whatever. When the first trailer for the new Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick dropped, I got excited for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s about Keanu avenging the senseless death of his cute little puppydog: a cute little puppydog which — he informs us in the trailer in a snarly monotone — was a last gift from his dying wife. I don’t know why, but I find something hilarious about that. Maybe it’s because it gave me the sense that the film would have a kind of tongue-in-cheek honesty, an unwillingness to bullshit the audience with the same old kidnapped kid, murdered wife, shot-and-left-for-dead cliches that usually get thrown in our faces like a dead salmon in these revenge epic shindigs.

There’s something about John Wick‘s setup that seemed to say to me, “Look, we all know the motive is basically immaterial, let’s just not beat around the bush and have the bad guys kill a puppy.” And I respect that, in my own very weird way, and it piqued my interest. Then I learned that the film is co-directed by Keanu’s stunt double from Point Break, who has since gone on to a storied career as a stunt coordinator, and I knew this was something I had to see. But imagine my surprise when, after setting my expectations fairly low, John Wick turned out to be one of the better, possibly even the best, non-genre action flicks I’ve seen all year.

John Wick posterKeanu headlines as the titular John Wick, a hitman so skilled and feared that he could probably kill God with a wetnap and a stern glance. Before the start of the film, Wick left the life of a killer behind to settle down with his wife, a barely-in-the-movie angelic figure who dies of unspecified-itis, leaving Wick only with her cute little puppydog, and his impossibly loud muscle car to console him. But then the son of Wick’s former employer, a Russian mob boss, steals John’s car and kills the dog, oblivious to the unholy shitstorm he’s bringing down on himself. In answer to this, John goes on a vengeance tear like you wouldn’t believe, gunning his way through the underworld to get his bloody revenge.

Besides the previously mentioned cleverness (to me, anyway) of having the revenge motivator for the film be a puppydog, John Wick doesn’t have what you’d call a really original or groundbreaking script. Besides crafting a fairly interesting criminal underground, complete with its own currency and customs, what we’re getting is a dyed-in-the-wool revenge thriller. If there’s anything really wrong with it, it’s that it feels like it’s dawdling at times, like it’s wandering a little bit. Similarly, the direction during non-action scenes has a lot of flair, with lots of funky lighting and style to spare, but still isn’t anything to really write home about. The movie isn’t innovating in those regards, but then it isn’t trying to. That’s because, at the end of the day, this isn’t a writer’s film or even a director’s film. It’s a choreographer’s film.

For someone who’s been routinely frustrated by modern action scene photography and editing, which almost always obscures the action behind shakey cameras and tons of editing, John Wick is a breath of fresh air. You can actually tell what’s going on in the film’s plethora of gunfights, as the camera remains steady, filming the action from just the right distance, and the editing keeps the action moving but never confusing. And what we’re seeing is usually pretty damn awesome. John Wick is a gunfight movie, but rather than the run-and-gun, shoot ’em up style of the _1JW6069.NEFExpendables movies or something similar, with heroes and villains pouring lead into the air like bullet-filled snowblowers, most of the time in John Wick, things are strictly semi-auto. Wick’s fighting style feels precise and measured, based on skill rather than the ability to hold down a trigger until everything you don’t like stops moving. It feels like someone watched Equilibrium and liked the whole “martial arts as applied to gunplay” idea enough to actually do it right. So what we’ve got is a film with fun, interesting, well-choreographed and coherently filmed gunfights and action scenes. Which, if you ask me, is something I thought Hollywood just didn’t do anymore, and I’ve never been so glad to be wrong.

Of course, that isn’t to say that John Wick is a total snooze when the bullets aren’t flying and nameless goons aren’t being violently thrust off the mortal coil. Even if the script and direction are a tad unremarkable, that doesn’t preclude them from having occasional flashes of cleverness and charm. And if nothing else, the endless stream of cameos by actors I like kept my interest going. Everyone seems to pop up at one point or another, Clark Peters, Lance Reddick, Ian Mcshane, Willem Dafoe… Hell, even the guy who played Sully in Commando pops up, in a cameo I wouldn’t have spotted in a million fucking years had a friend not pointed it out.

John Wick is an action movie for people who think action movies have lost their way, one that was clearly made by people who have as much of a beef with the way action movies are made these days as I do. With a slightly better script, it would have been a sure contender for one of my favorite movies of the year. But even with it’s admittedly minor and easy-to-overlook faults, John Wick is a hell of a lot of fun, and perhaps an indication that maybe action movies are getting over some of the awful tendencies they’ve embraced for the past decade or so.

Actors taking a turn in the directing chair is something I’ve always found interesting, because while it can often yield unexpected results, it can also wind up as a train wreck of vanity and indulgence, and who doesn’t love one of those, am I right? But when the actor-turned director in question is Keanu Goddamn Reeves of all people, the man whose onscreen persona could easily be imitated by a three-toed sloth with a javelin lodged in its brain, you can bet your internal hemorrhages I’ll be watching it.

As opposed to a stirring documentary about what it’s like to live one’s entire life on cold medication, Reeve’s directorial debut is Man of Tai Chi, a martial arts film and star vehicle for stuntman and actor-come-lately Tiger Chen, who Reeves met back on the set of the Matrix trilogy and struck up a friendship with.

Man-of-Tai-Chi-2013-Movie-Poster-4As much as the film is essentially a demo-reel for Chen, there’s also a fair bit of lip-service to kung-fu movies of earlier eras, right down to things like how Tiger Chen just goes by his own name in the movie, something you’d see in early Jackie Chan films or other star vehicles attempting to make the name recognizable.

Chen plays a student of Tai-Chi, a martial art mostly only used for exhibition and exercise, who wants to bring more attention to his style and prove that it can be used for combat, much to the dismay of his master. An opportunity comes when Chen is contacted by Reeves’ Mark Donaka, your typical super-rich guy running an underground fighting tournament seemingly for shits and giggles, who hires Chen to participate in full-contact bouts for big wads of cash. But as the bouts go on, Tiger turns his back on the pacifist teachings of his master and becomes seduced by money and bloodlust and loses sight of the philosophies of the very art he practices.

Even beyond the fighting tournament premise, Man of Tai Chi is clearly meant at least partially as a tribute to the martial arts flicks of yesteryear. At one point there’s a dramatic zoom-in on the combatants’ faces in a shot straight out of a Shaw Brothers movie, the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping is brought in to choreograph the fight scenes, and the film indulges in a few things most contemporary-set martial arts flicks seem to be shying away from these days, like wirework and mystical techniques that allow you to liquify your opponent’s internal organs by thrusting your palm in their direction like you’re very vigorously turning back a bad sandwich at a deli.

For the most part, this works, and makes the film feel like something unique in the current climate of modern martial arts flicks, which are increasingly turning towards the kind of hard action and “realistic” fight scenes of something like The Raid. And while this would have worked beautifully, and set my kung-fu movie fan pants alight in flame, if the fight scenes had been shot in a more classical style, Reeves chooses to go a more modern route and often films things a little too shaky and a little too close, often making Wo-Ping’s choreography difficult to follow.

One fight scene is even lit in a blaze of flashing strobe lights for a bit. A move somewhere along the lines of setting a perfectly good dance scene to the sound the Hypnotoad makes.

The first few fight sequences are actually pretty good, but as the film progresses the camera seems to become shakier and less controlled, like the cinematographer was doing tequila shots the whole time through.

And speaking of The Raid, star Iko Uwais makes a surprise appearance towards the end as a final contestant, but fans looking for a brutal Tai-Chi vs. Silat fight scene will be disappointed.

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The other major problem that occasionally rears its head to spoil the fun like reality intruding on a Calvin and Hobbes comic is that the film is edited terribly. There’s one scene early on where the inevitable spunky female policewoman who’s trying to blow the lid open on Reeves’ shenanigans is having a conversation with her boss, and it’s like Reeves filmed the thing from every conceivable angle and can’t decide which one he likes the best, and flits between angles like an excited child running back and forth down the toy aisle.

Scenes that should be restive and sedate are often given this manic energy by the rapid-fire editing. Thankfully this is only really a problem in a few scenes, however.

The soundtrack is also inconsistent and distracting, going back and forth between synth-y techno beats and orchestral numbers with a full choir, which again evokes the image of Reeves desperately trying to try as much stuff as he can and shooting the kneecaps of any sense of cohesion the film may have in the process.

As for Reeves’ actual performance, he does exactly what you’d expect: speak in a husky monotone, letting slip almost no emotion or character and coming across as less of a character and more of a personality-devoid cypher, which in layman’s terms means he’s boring as shit. He almost seems to try and combat this by shouting an incoherent bellow straight at the screen after a fight scene for no discernible reason, but it comes off as more comedic and out of place, and seems destined to become an animated gif.

Tiger Chen, for his part, does pretty well for his first outing as an actor, though it isn’t the most complex part ever. But he holds the screen well and shows a decent range of emotions. His fighting skills are definitely impressive and unique to watch, so we may well see more of him. It’s just a shame that as the film goes on the fights seem to become less and less impressive.

As debuts go, for both Reeves as a director and Tiger Chen as an action hero to North American audiences, Man of Tai Chi is inauspicious. Reeves manages to pull off enough winks and nods that fans of kung-fu classics will appreciate that it should offset problems like the editing and his own typically cardboard-y performance, and Tiger Chen shows enough promise as a headliner to make me want to see him in something else, possible with a more seasoned director at the helm.