Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.


It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.


So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes


I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.


You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.


Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.


Set It Off

I’m a redditor and a very constant one. So, upon witnessing the hype for John Wick in the weeks of it coming up, despite not hearing about it until those weeks before the movie opened, I figured I’d see what r/movies was talking about and go ahead and check out what the fuss is all about.

I didn’t watch any trailer beforehand and all I knew about it was that it was being directed and written by a pair of stuntmen who had worked with star Keanu Reeves in the Matrix trilogy and that it followed a man who was one-track minded on revenge after the callous murder of his dog. It pretty much sounded like a Liam Neeson adaptation of what happened to Marcus Luttrell after his Lone Survivor incident. No, seriously, Luttrell’s dog even had the same name of Daisy (except spelled “DASY”).

I had absolutely no expectations for the film except that it might be a pretty good action film.

Well, turns out it WAS a pretty good action film, if it was nothing else.

Well, also turns out it was also SOMETHING ELSE. Not much of something else, but certainly enough to note how it expands beyond being a layman action film at least, even if it inherently borrows itself from the style of another better action film that was released this same year.

Basically the eponymous character (Reeves) has almost immediately after the film has started lost his wife to a terminal disease (Wikipedia states that the wife was played by Bridget Moynahan, but I totally never even bothered recognizing the actress she was on-screen for such a short while). Upon her eve of her death, she arranged for John to receive a puppy to help him move on from her passing and it doesn’t exactly work a miracle on him, but it keeps John level-headed. Suddenly a trio of Russian thugs – led by Iosef (Alfie Allen) – break and enter John Wick’s home with the intention of stealing his car after refusing to sell it to them. In the middle of their assault, they murder Daisy in cold blood, inciting John to begin grieving and arranging a proper burial for his poor dog while Iosef and his pals begin to congratulate themselves for their actions. They make the mistake of bringing the car to a chop shop owned by Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and the shitstorm Aurelio erupts in is the first sign that Iosef just killed the wrong man’s dog.

Immediately after John finishes grieving for Daisy, he starts prepping for a remake of Sterling Archer’s classic film Terms of Enrampagement and is going for much more than Iosef himself. Iosef turns out to be the son of local crimelord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), who John Wick used to work for. As an assassin. The kind that killed every single bit of competition Tarasov had to get to the position he is now in. And now the previously retired John is going after the entire Tarasov organization.

These are all facts that are introduced within the first ten minutes of the film setting up the hype for what Wick can do much like reddit had to set up the hype for what John Wick would have been like. Brief scenes of establishing conversation between two people like the gossip that spreads all around close friends, cross-cut with moments of slamming sledgehammers sounding off the beats and momentum of the scene where Viggo explains just what kind of hellfire is coming for him, thanks to the drummer-like editing of Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, knowing just when to speed up and when to slow it down, setting up the tempo for each scene accordingly.

And then the first gunfight scene begins.

A group of Viggo’s hitmen take a siege to Wick’s home and Wick dispatches them in a teasing little sequence using the closed spaces around Wick and the hit team to provide a snapping, exciting dance of fists, feet, bodies, and bullets in brilliant long-takes, with flashy choreography for a gun battle, aware cinematography to set up the environment, and of course, that tempo-ed editing again this time never missing the beat or what’s up with the shot.

Then the movie gets really exciting.

For one, while Wick goes on his rampage, it turns out he’s sort of one in a great big network of hitmen all around the city with their own construct of communities and rules and ethics. It’s nothing too mythic, it’s just organized, and in fact most of the details of this network are completely turned away from the audience in the most frustratingly abstract way. But it’s there and it’s cool and I really hope we don’t need a sequel that tries to expand on this because it won’t live up to how vast it is in my mind. We’ve already got enough bit part roles in the movie as it is made up of familiar faces (none of them I’ll divulge, just because I had no idea who was in the movie besides Reeves going in and if anybody wants to approach the movie that way, by all means), all probably supposed to do the same thing Reeves does of adding presence to the characters without feeling like a need to really force out some dimension to each character. They’re just co-workers, acquaintances, that Wick knows and that we know too. It’s pretty impressive to show such restraint in filling up a world that the characters live in and then still leaving it with this feeling of being such a real environment.

And then there is the piece de resistance for the action extravaganza… The nightclub setpiece where John goes floor by floor duking it out and shooting it out and going after Iosef with a one track mind from the basements to the balcony and so on. As I mentioned, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have been stuntmen. So they know exactly how to make stunts and choreography get done as stuntmen, but I did not at all expect them to be able to capture such an ambitious and fluid setpiece so fantastically. The editing punching in and out moment after moment while the annoying techno music just keeps pumping up mechanically to every shot fired, every hit John takes and dishes, and the cinematography just forcing involvement for the audience every single step that John takes into the hot blues and reds that surround these fighters (the cinematographer Jonathan Sela is quite the revelation in the whole movie – the previous sledgehammer hype up I mentioned has such a vast contrast between the cool steel grays of John’s basement and the warm browns of Viggo’s penthouse). It was so boisterously climactic that I expected the movie to be taking place entirely during this shootout.

I won’t go explicitly into the movie’s content any further, but it doesn’t. It avoids that. Which is a shame because from there on forth the movie feels like it has already shot its load and the rest of the film still has some impressive action setpieces and still feels very alive as a world, but it never lives up to its first half. We still have enough story to carry us on, though, and once a movie like John Wick has given us enough momentum to make us want to keep digging into it, it barely has to do anything more than just tell a half-decent story by Derek Kolstad and have the acting done well enough without hamming itself up – which is a mile of a good thing for Nyqvist and Reeves to do, since they are both actors I am hardly ever impressed by.

But what is my favorite thing about John Wick beyond all these other things I love it for: It is pretty much among the cleanest action movie I have seen in a long time, even more than The Raid 2 which is certainly the best action movie of the year so far. See, the world John lives in is certainly depressing and the movie does enough to express that depression in its visual language, a nihilistic fadedness that I feel is almost certainly done in post-production rather than filtering. But it’s not grungy or gritty… it’s very lavish, it’s almost looking like luxury and would trick you into feeling that if Reeves wasn’t just always so sobering, so visually lost in his role as a human being. It would be a James Bond film if Reeves didn’t give John Wick the character it has as a film (and I would never say Keanu Reeves gives a movie something if he didn’t). It’s not brutal or banging, but it’s still very very intense as an action film. It’s sleek. But it’s still affrontive.

And there’s something especially psychologically off about that sleekness. Like everything is as it should be exactly, except all the violence proves that to be wrong and Wick is still missing a wife and a puppy. But by god, is it all very affrontively elegant in the end.

I’m very very envious. I haven’t seen a film capable of holding all of these dissonant parts together since Rian Johnson’s Brick but John Wick pretty much is guilty as charged of pulling this. Leitch and Stahelski pull it off and tap into a storytelling style of visual psychology without even acknowledging it and utilize it in a genre that is usually just dismissed as bargain bin cheap thrills. Holy shit, John Wick is not even close to that way at all and I’m glad for it and I suggest anybody who likes comic books should watch it, because John Wick feels like one giant limited series from Vertigo Comics. Like 100 Bullets.

Wow, I should go to movies having absolutely no idea what they are about more often.