Film critic Calum Cooper examines some of the past week’s releases, including the latest instalment of the John Wick franchise, the live-action version of Aladdin, and the sequel to The Secret Life of Pets.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – ★★★★☆
2014’s John Wick is one of the staple action films of this past decade. With such a fascinating lead living within an intriguing world of crime in the foreground, all it needed was its simple story and rivetingly authentic action scenes to wow us. It was a welcome return to form for Keanu Reeves, and the second, while not as good, had more than enough of the same flair to maintain a sense of fun.
Now we come to our third entry, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Picking up less than an hour after its predecessor finished, Wick is on the run from his old employers at The Continental Hotel. He killed a fellow agent within the hotel walls, and now there is a gargantuan price on his head. With no backup and being hunted by agents across the globe, Wick must use his ingenuity and his dwindling connections to survive and find his way back into the organisation.
John Wick 3 is about as action heavy as you would expect for a plotline that’s essentially one man against a planet. It’s violent, stylised, and over the top. Totally and utterly bonkers to occasionally baffling degrees. So naturally I loved it.
The plot for the film is quite bare-boned, but for a franchise that prides itself on its choreography and visual style, that ceases to matter much. No one goes into these films hoping for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy intricacies. They go in wanting to see Keanu Reeves kill people in increasingly preposterous ways, and it unapologetically delivers. Such ways include death by horse kick, death by motorbike helmet, and even death by book.
It’s violent, stylised, and over the top. Totally and utterly bonkers to occasionally baffling degrees. So naturally I loved it.
This is what I like to call mindful mindlessness. The enjoyment does come primarily from the action, but the film remains fresh and engaging due to the vast range of sets and choreography, and the creativity of said properties, on display. If one action scene doesn’t work for you, there’s another right round the corner involving a new setting, often new people to fight against Wick, and, as Reeves described in an interview with Simon Mayo, new “weapons of opportunity”, hence death by book earlier. The editing and camera movements are as swift and brutal as the stunts being performed, utilising sweeps and pans and even selective shaky cam to showcase the weight of each stunt, and ominous stills to highlight the pain or finality of what is being dished out.
So much credit also has to go to Keanu Reeves. He not only continues to tap into the ruthlessness of Wick and his tragic past in new ways, but his commitment to authenticity when it comes to the physical demands of his role deserves nothing but respect. He makes each punch or stunt or gun load seem effortless, clearly having the time of his life while still being committed to delivering the best experience for the viewing audience.
And while the plot might not be anything that extraordinarily out there, it does the service that’s required of it. It gets John Wick to the places he needs to be so that we can revel in the various thunderstorms of blades, fists and bullets. It remains mysterious enough and features a few twists so that we’re not just waiting for the action scenes to roll on, while also introducing us to some cool new characters like Halle Berry’s ex-assassin, Sofia, and Asia Kate Dillon’s sinister High Table member. It’s giving us more of what we love, but adding in just a few new additions to keep us coming back both to this film, and the inevitable follow up(s). As such, it’s hard not to lose yourself in the insanity of its carnage.
The violence may sometimes be too much for some viewers. As much as I enjoyed watching Halle Berry set her dogs on henchmen in the film’s best sequence, there are moments that are difficult not to squirm at. However, it is nonetheless the purest and best crafted form of popcorn entertainment you can ask for. It’s films like this that remind me of what action is capable of when placed in the right hands. Given the increasingly ridiculous stakes of each John Wick film, I can only assume John Wick 4 is going to be John Wick versus the universe. But, with the visceral style all of these films offer, I have no problems with that.
Aladdin (2019) – ★★★☆☆
Guy Ritchie’s live-action take on Disney’s Aladdin is better than it has any right to be. Exciting, alluring, and well-helmed, it feels like another iteration rather than a replacement. It’s hardly a diamond in the rough, but it shines in its own way.
1992’s Aladdin has gone on to be one of my favourite Disney animations. This film follows more or less the same structure, with a few modern updates. Set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Agrabah, petty thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and is smitten. Hoping to impress her, he agrees to a mission from the greedy Royal Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), in which he recovers a mysterious lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Inside the lamp is a genie (Will Smith) who will grant Aladdin three wishes, wishes that he can use to impress the strong-willed princess, assuming that Jafar’s nefarious schemes don’t come to light first.
As I walked home from the screening I started asking myself, “why do I like this film?” I was pretty harsh on this year’s Dumbo, and I hated the live-action Beauty and the Beast. I think what it comes down to is that those films sought to fix problems that didn’t exist within their animated counterparts, operating under the condescending delusion that only children can enjoy animation. This film, on the other hand, has nothing but warmth for its source material. It remains loyal to the animated film’s charms, while offering its own modern takes. Some work and some don’t, but the love for the original story is very much present.
Much of the magic is recaptured through the actors, almost all of whom are great. Massoud and Scott have impeccable chemistry together. They each have boundless charisma that radiates off the screen and encourages investment towards their roles. Although some minor changes, like more of a backstory for Aladdin, wasn’t entirely needed, others, like Jasmine’s new found aspiration to achieve power for herself rather than marry into it, is very welcome for today’s climate. Her new song, “Speechless” while not as lyrically strong as “Whole New World” or “Friend like Me” (which are thankfully left untouched unlike with Beauty and the Beast’s songs), gives Jasmine suitable dimensions for the film she is currently in, with Scott stealing every scene she is in.
Will Smith’s genie meanwhile is about as good as he could’ve been seeing as so much of the original was adjusted for Robin Williams’ rapid improv. He brings enough of his own charisma to make the genie his own, rather than attempt to replicate Williams’ unique style. There’s plenty of cartoonish antics exaggerated by size and scale, many of which fit within Smith’s comedic style. It’s clear that Smith is having fun, and it rubs off on the audience.
Although some plot points are added or changed up, the core of the story remains the same, offering them to a new audience in a film that feels like a modern interpretation rather than a pointless fix-up.
It’s a beautiful film to look at too. The effects aren’t always convincing, but the sets are vibrantly colourful and revel in the grandiose of the world it inhabits, as do the equally vivacious costumes. It dazzles in its spectacle, and then exhilarates in its erratic, fast-paced plot thanks to Ritchie’s lively direction. All the while the songs, sung with great power and authenticity, remain as addictive and lyrically rich as ever before.
Most importantly, I thought the film celebrated the legacy of its animated predecessor. It has some moments of direct reference when the genie casts it spells, but narratively it remains loyal. The original’s themes of how true wealth is wealth of character rather than of fortune are more than predominant here. Although some plot points are added or changed up, the core of the story remains the same, offering them to a new audience in a film that feels like a modern interpretation rather than a pointless fix-up. In other words, it respects what came before it while still being confident enough with its own narrative and filmmaking choices.
If you go in looking for problems, then you’ll find them easily enough. The film’s sense of comedy is wobbly at best. Jafar is badly miscast as he fails to come off as menacing, despite all the right components and a decent new backstory on paper, as well as a good actor in Marwen Kenzari. And some of the new additions, like a handmaiden character and her subplot with the genie, are moments I could’ve lived without.
Nonetheless, something about the film just clicked with me. It feels weird given my disdain for the implications of these live-action films. But I can’t deny that this one worked for me. Is it as good as the original? No. Not by a mile. But the actors are terrific, the characters and themes remain true to what made them so great to begin with, and the visual style and musical euphoria are both a pleasure to witness. We can argue over the necessity of this film’s existence until the sands of time run out, but it’s entertaining and made with affection for the source material, which is a lot more than I can say for other recent offerings from the Disney live-action department.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 – ★★☆☆☆
2016 saw the release of Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets. I wasn’t a fan, and considered it nothing more than a watered down rip-off of Toy Story, only with fluffy animals. Regardless, most people were content with it, and thus we have our sequel. This new entry thankfully has more of its own narrative than simply copying a much better film. But I still don’t see it as much more than a 90 minute solution to keeping your toddler quiet. Even then, it’s more irritating than it is cute.
In the previous film, our canine hero Max (Patton Oswald replacing Louis C.K. for obvious reasons) had to get accustom to a new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Here, his owner Katie gets married and has a wee boy named Liam. Instead of recycling its predecessor’s story, the film instead sees Max getting overly protective of the new member of their pack. He’s afraid that everyone is a potential hazard to the new toddler, to the point where he rarely leaves Liam’s side. The family goes on a trip to a relative’s farm, and Max meets an older farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford), whose vows to teach Max that he’s going to have to let Liam go some day.
That’s the main plotline anyway. The first film introduced a vast assortment of characters, such as Gidget the dog, Chloe the cat, Snowball the bunny, and others I don’t even remember. The first plotline only amounts to about 30 minutes I think and desperately needs to give everyone else something to do. So the film weaves subplots for them that eventually tie back into the main plot. Gidget has to learn how to act like a cat from Chloe so she can retrieve Max’s favourite toy from the pets of a crazy cat lady, and Snowball has this bizarre plotline concerning himself as a fake superhero freeing a white tiger from an evil circus man.
READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE: Rocketman; Breakthrough
With so much going on you’d think there would be more for me to say. The film is very awkwardly paced, feeling so much longer than its meagre 86 minute running time. It’s this way because it’s constantly jumping back and forth between these three plotlines, none of which are especially enticing. The animation is colourful, but the character designs are way too generic to be memorable, meaning you can’t even use the animals are cute excuse, and the writing is way too dumbed down, with many over the top reactions or jokes being spelled out to the audience, even though they’re the most obvious jokes anyone could think of. It feels like you’re three episodes of three different cartoons cut up and stitched together.
There are some messages on being too protective, and letting your weans learn for themselves through mistakes and experience, which I can empathise with. But the film seems a lot more occupied with being a cutesy distraction than anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, especially since there’s nothing harmful in here whatsoever. But it also makes the film incredibly unremarkable, and with such weak comedy and neutral colours to keep you engaged, there really isn’t much to stop your mind wondering towards arbitrary topics that don’t relate to the film itself.
Perhaps I’m just being my usual cynical self, but I couldn’t find much enjoyment here. It’s not particularly bad per se – I’m sure young children will like it well enough and even I think it’s technically better than the first – but there isn’t much on offer with it that dozens of other animated movies do better. Frankly it should’ve been a collection of short films instead. If you like this sort of thing, that’s great, but Toy Story this still ain’t.