Today, in Baltimore, two new movies open that each celebrate a different kind of anti-hero. Like their protagonists, the films are flawed, but not fatally, and certainly not without a certain appeal. And they each star actors who have achieved iconic status in their own inimitable ways. Since the inception of his career, Bill Murray – first on “Saturday Night Live” and then in films like Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Rushmore (and all other subsequent Wes Anderson works), Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, to name but some – has carefully cultivated the persona of the lovably sardonic and sinful grouch, tinged with increasing cynicism and melancholia as he has aged, and in St. Vincent that character is on full display. As always, it’s a delight to watch Murray perform, even if we’ve seen him do this many times before. Keanu Reeves, though younger by 14 years, has an equally defined (if very different) star persona, thanks to films like Speed and The Matrix (and its sequels), though in many ways his body of work is more diverse than Murray’s: compare Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to My Own Private Idaho to The Gift to Thumbsucker to Henry’s Crime and you’ll be impressed (I hope) by his range. Still, it’s the indestructible action-hero image that sticks (box-office success trumps all), and in John Wick he delivers a pitch-perfect performance as a near-omnipotent hitman that pays homage to his past roles while bringing a humor and emotional depth to the part that we haven’t always seen from him (think last year’s dismal 47 Ronin).
St. Vincent (Theodore Melfi, 2014)
Longtime Brooklyn resident Vincent is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking misanthrope, almost penniless and with racing debts that may soon come due. Soon after we first meet him, we see him in bed with Daka, a pregnant (not by Vincent) Russian prostitute. Yeah, he’s that guy. Still, there’s something surprisingly touching about his interactions with Daka, which hints at character dimensions as yet to be revealed. And as played by a delightfully sharp Naomi Watts (who was equally as good with a Russian accent – though far more serious – in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises), Daka may also be more than she seems.
Soon, Vincent has new neighbors: Maggie, a struggling single mother – played by a wonderfully restrained Melissa McCarthy (Tammy) – and her young son Oliver (terrific newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Though Maggie and Oliver do not meet cute with Vincent – the opposite, in fact – soon Maggie’s brutal work schedule forces her to rely on Vincent as a babysitter. Yes, it’s a terribly misguided decision, but without it we would not have this often funny – if also frequently predictable – movie.
It’s easy to see why Murray would have signed on for the role, even though this is writer/director Theodore Melfi’s first feature film. It’s a juicy part, and allows him to strut his stuff with great panache. Of course, that’s both the appeal and the weakness of the movie: though hilarious at times, it also falls occasional victim to the showboating of its star. It’s a good thing McCarthy has dialed it down, or we’d be in real trouble. Still, for my money, the performances of Lieberher and Watts, and the manic loopiness of Murray, make it all somehow worthwhile, despite the pedestrian nature of the story. We know, more or less, how it will all end, but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying much of the journey.
John Wick (David Leitch/Chad Stahelski, 2014)
Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, the mention of whose name causes the other characters in the movie to utter a shuddered, “Oh,” filled with the dread of mayhem to come. What’s particularly interesting about their reaction is that when we first meet Wick – after an opening that shows us what is presumably the end of the movie, with Wick collapsing, bleeding, on the street – he is a grieving widower, quiet and still. He may drive a mean-looking 1969 Mustang at high speeds, but the way he interacts with the beagle puppy that arrives on his doorstep as a posthumous gift from his just-deceased wife reveals a gentle giant, rather than a killer. He is all sweetness, and the only hint at his true nature comes from that opening (and the movie’s poster). In the tradition of great Westerns like Shane and Unforgiven, though, he is a man who has fled a violent past that is about to catch up with him. Unfortunately, the clarion call to action comes at the expense of that adorable pup, though the violence is (there, at least) treated with discretion. Once that nasty business is over, the movie then leaves any semblance of harsh real-world consequences behind as it takes off into high cartoonish action-genre mode, with Wick hunting down the men who have wronged him.
John Wick is essentially two films: a) a very smart, perfectly realized alternate-reality universe where hitmen have their own secret society, and woe betide anyone who goes against the rules of the group; and b) a typical high-body-count action shoot-’em-up which may have some interestingly choreographed scenes, but with nothing we haven’t seen before. I prefer the first movie, and wish there more of it. The great Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) delivers a terrifically over-the-top performance, as the lead baddie, that is magnificently served by that first premise, but wasted in the second. Reeves is equally perfect – though far more restrained – as the titular character, playing him mostly straight but with hints of humor below the surface that emerge at just the right moments. It’s too bad that he is too often required to merely run around with a gun.
Still, there are delights aplenty, in spite (or, depending on your preference, because) of the plethora of nasty spurting headshots. Willem Dafoe (so recently nasty in The Fault in Our Stars), Ian McShane (with some of his trademark “Deadwood” menace), and Baltmore-native Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels on “The Wire“) are all along for the ride and add to the air of professional competence with which the film is made. It’s good, dumb fun. I just wish it were as smart as its better half.