Monday Morning Critic – John Wick And Why Keanu Reeves Is The Rodney Dangerfield of Action Movies

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The big to do this week is that Keanu Reeves is back into movie theatres with a big action film. His last effort, 47 Ronin, was a spectacular failure (despite being a pretty good film) because no one really needed a near $200 million film about samurai that focused on a white guy and happened to be in English. Thus his return to theaters with a stripped down action film, John Wick, gives us another chance to view Reeves in an action film. And for all the actors who’ve tried to be action heroes, and the few of those who’ve succeeded more than once, the one who can genuinely claim the title of the “Rodney Dangerfield of Action Movies” is Reeves.

It’s odd to think of Reeves as an action star when he’s kind of just a ubiquitous actor. His early career showed dramatic and comedy chops, with Bill & Ted vaulting him into the spotlight and My Own Private Idaho garnering strong dramatic reviews, but Reeves career has been one where he succeeded most being the guy that saves the day. And while he’s not the best of actors, as I’ve always called him the “Rich Man’s Paul Walker,” I’ve always thought he doesn’t get the sort of respect he should in the genre. Why?

Because Reeves has two of the most important films in the genre over the last 20 years. That’s two more than Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham have to their credit COMBINED in the same time frame.

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The one thing about Reeves is that his cinematic resume is fairly awful. He’s never been a great actor, and never has picked a ton of good projects, but the very peak of what he’s done has been absolutely brilliant in every genre. It’s just, like a lot of actors, he has had a combination of bad roles and roles that are bad for him. Some films he’s been the wrong guy … and some films he probably shouldn’t have taken in retrospect. Reeves has always been someone that you really have to be selective when it comes to viewing his projects; he has a voluminous resume but most of it is passable at best.

Really if you wanted to have a Keanu-thon it’d come down to less than 10 films from the total scope of his 70 plus roles. One could argue that if you really had to do it that one could pare that list down to maybe five or less if you’re being really stringent. Reeves has a lot of awful, from being in Hard Ball and Dracula among others, but the one thing Reeves has done that very few in the action genre have done is submit two of the biggest game changers in movie history.

Speed established him overnight as an action star, changing the course of his career, but the one thing we tend to forget is that the film was also the one that established how the modern blockbuster is marketed. Michael Bay has perfected the art of the summer blockbuster that Tony Scott established with Top Gun but the film that really established the formula was Speed. Instantly quotable, very rewatchable and featuring Dennis Hopper in a gloriously evil role as the antagonist, it is the stopgap between Top Gun and Armageddon in the blockbuster action genre. Reeves was a huge part of why that film succeeded, as well, but the key to it is that without this film there is no template for the modern marketing machine in Hollywood. We wonder why all films kind of look and sound alike, as well as have similar trailers … but watch the Speed trailer again.

It looks insanely similar to every film from this summer blockbuster season in tempo and tone. It had a simple premise, of bus that can’t go over 50 MPH with only a single cop (Reeves) able to stop it, and was so well crafted that an entire line of films came out that mimicked in style and tone. The mid to late 1990s featured action films that took the look, style and simplicity of Speed and transferred it to different scenarios. You could argue that films like The Rock, Con Air and Broken Arrow (among a volume of films) took Speed and refashioned it. It was the film that people watched and thought they could duplicate in style, pace, tone and tempo.

The other big film that Reeves has been a part of that changed action cinema was The Matrix … which he nearly didn’t get in the first place. Will Smith initially was attached as Neo, leaving the project to do Wild Wild West instead (probably because he couldn’t figure a way to turn the Wachowski film into a shameless vehicle to peddle his music or his children) and Reeves stepped into the role that would eventually give him enough money to never have to take a paycheck role again. Reeves banked north of $100 million, rumored, for the sequels, and it gave us one of the coolest villains of that era: Agent Smith.

The Matrix was a true game changer in action, as it opened up the genre to potentially not just be silly little action films. You could have substance and ponder big, existential questions about the nature of existence while shooting stuff up. The Matrix allowed for a film like Inception to get made. It pushed the limits of the genre and 15 years later is still insanely rewatchable. The film also works in no small part because of Reeves. Neo is his signature role and the one thing the Wachowskis were able to do over the course of the trilogy is bring out the best of Reeves in a character. Even Will Smith said that after watching the film he would’ve been wrong for the part. If there was any signature action part he ever could’ve had, this was it.

After the sequels his career has been an interesting one; passion projects and indie films. He returns to the spotlight with John Wick, which’ll probably be solid but not brilliant, but here’s the thing. We don’t hold him in the same regard as others with substantially weaker resumes in the action genre because of his general awfulness in both acting and film quality. Yet Vin Diesel seems to get more respect, he of such high brow fare as The Pacifier. It’s interesting, to say the least.

Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq

Travis got it mainly right with Fury, which I didn’t enjoy as much as he did. I’d have gone 2.5 stars, not 3, but it was close enough I can see why.

Mike Noyes writes on the cinematic career of Grace Kelly.

And now on MMC …. We rock out!

If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

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This week’s DVD – In a World…

You can’t see every film you want to in a year and sometimes it takes a late night, and a Netflix suggestion, to find a fairly intriguing film. Lake Bell’s directorial debut, In a World… looked very good but it never got close enough to me to make the car ride worth it. Thus I waited for it to pop on up to easier methods to watch, as gas prices have made it to the point that my love of indie film has been dampened. Now I just pester Travis for them on DVD, or hope they do well enough to expand closer to home.

Thus this week’s film is one that would’ve been on my Top 10 of the year … if I had seen it in the proper year.

Simple premise. Carol (Bell) is an aspiring vocal actor who lives in the shadow of her father (Fred Melamed), who’s one of the big voices in the game. He steps aside for a role to reintroduce the phrase “In a World” for a Hunger Games ripoff to his heir apparent (Ken Marino) … but complications arise. When Carol gets a shot at recording a temp track for the trailer, and winds up in serious contention for the role, a battle between the three will determine who gets to resurrect the iconic phrase from movie trailers past.

The trailer was excellent and the film was better, a very rare thing in this day and age, as Bell has an exceptional gift for comic timing both in front of and behind the camera. Considering she assembled a fairly stellar cast on that basis it’s not all that surprising, of course. But it’s not like she just gave them an improve session, either. With comedies there’s always a good sense of what’s improvisational, and what is rehearsed, and this feels heavy on the rehearsed side. Bell shows to be a strong enough director to let the situation be funny and not force things; this is a slow film with not a ton of things going on.

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Bell knows that the situation is just quirky enough to pull laughs off but doesn’t set the punch line up from miles away. This isn’t a film designed to throw as many jokes out there and see what hits. It’s designed to milk comedy from the situation and there’s just enough on the dramatic side to make it work. Bell is a great comedic actor and has a terrific sense of what works for a film, story-wise, from that perspective.

It’s the sort of film that leaves you hoping Bell gets behind the camera again sooner than later; she has talent in that regard and her follow up to this will be something I’m very much interested in.

Strongly recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

John Wick – They killed his dog. He’s going to mess them up for it.

See it – I can see worse things than killing bad guys cuz they killed your dog.

Ouija – The stupid board game from the ’80s is back … and killing people.

Skip it – Yawn.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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