John Wick: Chapter 2 (Full Review)

Who would’ve thought a movie about a retired assassin seeking revenge against the men that killed his dog would end up being one of the breakout films of 2014. A premise seemingly meant for a straight to redbox Jason Statham movie ended up being a fun, stylish action film seemingly plucked right from the pages of a graphic novel. So, while I usually feel as if most good ideas don’t necessarily need a sequel, the rich universe of John Wick is more than deserving of a follow up.

john_wick_chapter_twoChapter 2 picks up moments after the conclusion of the first film. Retired assassin, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has barely finished recovering his stolen car when he is recruited against his will by a former associate (Ricardo Scamarcio) and his mute right hand woman (Ruby Rose). Drawn to a blood oath, Wick must attempt a new mission that will put him in the crosshairs of an entire world of skilled assassins.

If you loved the first film, there is nothing to dislike about this second go round. From the cinematography to the soundtrack, Chapter 2 maintains the first film’s suave since of style. The action is bigger and better, filled with more fight choreography and some intense gun battles. Accentuating the action is a far greater sense of danger and suspense than what was experienced in the first film with the lead character being challenged early and often.

If there’s a flaw with Chapter 2, it’s in the more convoluted plot. But it’s hardly a bother. Sensational new characters like rival assassin Cassian (Common) and the sewer dwelling Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) are just some of the many welcomed nuances that add even more depth and intrigue to this fascinating criminal world. Returning characters like Winston (Ian McShane), Aurelio (John Leguizamo), and Charon (Lance Reddick) make the film mold seamlessly with its predecessor so even though things are more complex than a man avenging his puppy, it never stops feeling like a continuation of the first film.

The characters and world created by writer Derek Kolstad and brought to life by Director Chad Stahelski deserve to be commended. Like the James Bond and Mission Impossible films, the world of John Wick has become a character just as fun and interesting as the lead itself. And with an invigorating and fitting ending, there’s no need for this franchise to quit anytime soon.

FINAL GRADE: A

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Barbershop: The Next Cut (Full Review)

220px-BarbershopTheNextCutposterApparently, It’s never too late to make a sequel. And in the case of Ice Cube, over a decade isn’t too late to resurrect his popular Barbershop films from the early 00’s. Picking up 10+ years later can be a tricky thing for any film franchise. Luckily, with Barbershop: The Next Cut, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson has a Director who knows all about delivering under those circumstances, in Malcolm D. Lee (Best Man Holiday).

It’s been 14 years since Barbershop 2: Back in Business, a movie that was decent, but not remotely as good as the first. Calvin (Ice Cube) is still running the barbershop he inherited from his father while he and his wife (Jazsmin Lewis) raise their teenage son (Michael Rainey Jr.) on the dangerous southside of Chicago. Like before, the film features an ensemble cast of characters, some old and some new. Eve returns as volatile barber, Terri, although she’s traded in Michael Ealy for Common as a love interest. Cedric the Entertainer also returns as Eddie, the wise-cracking older statesmen of the shop who rarely ever actually cuts hair. Other characters from the older films (Sean Patrick Thomas, Troy Garity) are little more than cameos.

There are a bunch of refreshing new faces in the mix this time around. Regina Hall stars as Angie, Calvin’s partner who runs the beauty parlor half of the shop. Along with her are feminist, Bree (Margot Bingham), and Draya (Nicki Minaj) who seems hell bent on stealing Rashad (Common) from his wife (Eve). Rounding out the comedic cast are Lamorne Morris as black nerd, Jerrod, Utkarsh Ambudkar as token foreigner, Raja, Deon Cole as Dante, the customer who never leaves, and J.B. Smoove as Barbershop bootlegger, ‘One-Stop’.

On the surface it would seem as if there are too many characters crammed into the shop this time around, but the film actually does a more than amiable job giving each character their time to shine. Whether it’s chemistry or comedic timing, this Barbershop feels as funny and charming as the original from the moment we first step in. Even Nicki Minaj, who is clearly the odd ball on the acting front, manages to slip in more than a few heavy laughs to justify her presence. The lone exception is Anthony Anderson who reprises his role as hustler, AJ, from the first film. Not only does his character provide few, if any, comedic moments, but his presence is completely irrelevant to the overall story.

Speaking of the overall story, like the original Barbershop, this film seeks to be both entertaining and thought provoking. Woven between the jokes are important questions raised about street violence, misogyny, and relationships, all of which are relevant to the black community. And while the film doesn’t actually get around to answering many of these questions, they do manage to get people thinking, and there’s merit in that, at least in a comedy.

The dramatic moments don’t always hit. One particular scene meant to be the film’s most dramatic, falls somewhat flat due to the character involved not being fleshed out enough. And sometimes, the film’s attempt to hammer home lessons comes off feeling like an after school special. But, again, the movie didn’t have to address these types of issues at all. They could’ve hit us over the head with another plot about a rival barbershop or something along those lines. But instead, Barbershop: The Next Cut takes the high road, and manages to sublimate a horde of side splitting laughs with an endearing message.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Run All Night (Full Review)

RunAllNight_TeaserPosterIt’s really good to see Liam Neeson branching out and trying some really different roles. Seeing him break his usual mold is always refreshing. Alright… obviously I’m joking. But, kudos to Mr. Neeson for at least understanding what makes the old, grizzly action hero so fun to watch.

This time, Neeson’s retired man with “a particular set of skills” is Jimmy Conlan. A former hitman for his old friend/boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Helms), Conlon is now a washed up drunk who is no longer welcome in the home of his son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman) because of his past dirty deeds. That is, until his son is witness to a murder committed by Maguire’s spoiled, reckless son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook). Killing Danny to save his own son’s life, Jimmy Conlan must shake off the rust for one night to keep his son alive as he is hunted by Maguire, a hired hitman (Common), and the police led by a detective with a grudge (Vincent D’Onofrio).

A movie called Run All Night should deliver what it promises in the title. And although it takes far too long to get into things, once the running starts, it barely slows down. Neeson’s action films have an expectation to live up to (Taken, The Grey, Non Stop) and they also have a low point (Taken 2 & 3). Here, the connection between all of the major players is established well enough to make you care and the action isn’t too over the top to make it as unbelievable as it was in last year’s Taken installment. That isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have its fair share of cartoony flaws; the biggest coming from Common’s role as Mr. Price. The character is perhaps the sloppiest “trained assassin” ever, killing cops with one shot yet failing to kill Neeson multiple times from point black range when his back is turned. He could’ve been left out of the film completely. Not to mention Common’s acting ability hasn’t improved.

Be prepared to take some mental liberties with Run All Night. The inconsistent cinematography might also get bothersome. But for what it’s worth, the movie has some intensely exhilarating moments that hearken back to films like Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive. Is it a classic? No. Is it even memorable? Probably not. But other than the first Taken, do any of Liam Neeson’s action movies fit those criteria? And yet… we can’t help but be intrigued each time.

FINAL GRADE: C+