“John Wick: Chapter 2”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS MATT: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If you’re looking for a super bloody bloodbath of bullet riddled violence, “John Wick: Chapter 2” isn’t going to disappoint. This testosterone-fueled, slightly reheated sequel to 2014’s grossly underrated revenge thriller “John Wick” is repetitive, noisy and lacks more than just the most basic of plots — but it’s still a winner as far as action films go.

Keanu Reeves is back as the title character, a legendary hit man who is once again forced out of retirement by a fellow member of an underground assassins’ guild. He’s bound by a blood oath to murder the mark but when he finishes the task, he finds himself with a price on his own head and a legion of professional killers vying to collect the bounty.

This is when we start to get assaulted with a nonstop rampage of violence and action, as Wick fights and shoots and kickboxes and stabs his way through baddie after baddie (including the welcome addition of Common as a tough and worthy adversary). Wick fights them on a train. He fights them on the streets of New York. He fights them on the rooftops of Rome. He fights them in the bathroom, at the office, in the middle of the park.

Luckily, director Chad Stahelski has a great eye for visually orchestrating action set pieces with breathtaking agility, keeping them reliably tight and interesting. What a pleasure to see confidently directed action scenes where you can actually tell what’s going on! Stahelski takes his time and lets the camera casually follow every bloodstained blow, every punch to the throat, every knife to the groin, and every pencil through the brain. It’s a beautiful slow dance of brutality.

The cinematography (by DP Dan Laustsen) is once again slick and glossy with a gorgeous opening car and motorcycle chase that features some stunning, applause-worthy stunt driving. The film is bright and polished with vivid pops of color. It looks damn amazing.

This sequel isn’t destined to be a classic, but it sure is satisfying on so many levels.

MATT SAYS:

“John Wick” was one of my favorite movies of 2014. A balls-to-the-wall revenge pic, it is easily one of the best action movies of the last 10 years, second only to both of the “Raid” movies and “Max Max: Fury Road.” “John Wick” was a breath of fresh air in American action cinema because it avoided the lazy man’s approach to modern action films, which involves fast-cutting sequences that make it difficult for the audience to tell what is happening, where.

But it wasn’t the action sequences alone that made “John Wick” a cut above; it was the story: a simple tale of revenge by John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a man of singular purpose and will killing all of the bad guys that wronged him. Sure, there were some interesting subplots (the most compelling one involving the Hotel Continental, a place catering to career criminals with its own code and sense of justice), but they didn’t get in the way of good, clean storytelling.

The problem with “John Wick: Chapter 2” is that it did get in its own way. Instead of telling a simple story involving characters with motives that are easy to understand, the sequel chose to up the plot complexity by a factor of ten. “JW2” delves deeply into the world of organized crime and its internal politics and rules. Instead of teasing interesting settings and places with a bare outline of detail, “JW2” has to explain everything. As a result, in the midst of the action we’re taught about criminal high councils and their internal politics; a shadowy underworld where homeless people are actually ruthless killers who rule the streets; a marker system where debts are owed and must be paid, with severe consequences for those who refuse to make good on them; and way too much detail about the aforementioned Hotel Continental. These details distract from the narrative and prevent the movie from reaching the level of greatness enjoyed by its predecessor.

Don’t get me wrong, however: I still liked it. True to the first film, the movie avoided fast-cutting. While some of the action sequences were a little too long and drawn out, they were still better than 98% modern Hollywood action fare. “JW2” introduced a compelling new adversary for Wick in the form of Cassian (Common), an assassin with skills and background to rival his own. And for all of the needless narrative, there were some highly inventive sequences that either showed me things I’ve never seen before (Cassian and Wick trying to kill one another in a crowded subway station), or improved upon classic ones (like a new take on a fight in a hall of mirrors). These scenes alone were well worth the price of admission, as was the opportunity to revisit some of the great characters we saw in the first film.

Did it leave me wanting more? Hell yes. But was it also a little disappointing? Also yes. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.

“Barbershop: The Next Cut”

LOUISA:   3 STARS   MATT:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If anything, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” is full of surprises. I went in expecting a fun comedy but instead got a very ambitious (and commendable) message movie about gang violence, involved parenting, respecting women and personal accountability. The serious stuff works; the gags played for laughs don’t.

There are some rough attempts at jokes early on, but the comedy just isn’t my type of funny (admittedly, some of the wisecracks and references I just didn’t “get”). There are countless riffs on pop culture, what women want, soul food and more. The down-home dialogue makes you feel like you’ve been hanging out in a local barbershop all day and the actors speak just like normal folks. The cast has a natural, believable chemistry — you want to be around these people. Ice Cube is back as barbershop proprietor Calvin; he along with Cedric the Entertainer (Eddie),  Common (Rashad), and a thoroughly entertaining Nicki Minaj (Draya) are standouts. Rounding out the likeable cast are Regina Hall, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Anthony Anderson and J.B. Smoove.

Although the comedy doesn’t land a perfect 10, the dramatic elements are across-the-board compelling (even if they do get a little too preachy at times). This movie feels like a passion project for all involved and dishes out some serious themes about gang violence in a predominantly minority South Side Chicago neighborhood. The movie does a good job at shedding a light on what it must feel like to live in a community in crisis (something that most outsiders will never understand). While I am a white suburban female, I could sympathize and empathize with the characters and their day-to-day struggles. Relevant and real present-day issues are explored with sincerity. This movie is fun but its not lighthearted; it tackles racially charged political issues head on and doesn’t shy away from inviting distressing, complex and controversial questions.

I loved the film’s eventual uplifting and admirable message of empowerment, encouraging locals to take back the neighborhood and reminding us that change begins with a small first step.

MATT SAYS:

My expectations for “Barbershop: The Next Cut” were a little off. I was expecting a straight-up comedy, and while there is plenty of humor, there is a serious message to this movie that gives it emotional weight that is well-earned.

I don’t remember much about the previous two “Barbershop” movies, but the Internet Movie Database tells me there were two of them. Like its predecessors, “The Next Cut” is about the titular shop on the south side of Chicago named for its owner, Calvin (Ice Cube). Most of the actors from the other two movies appear in this one, too, with the notable addition of Common, who plays Calvin’s best friend Rashad.

There are some genuinely funny moments, but “TNC’s” primary goal is to try to deal with some of the issues that we are currently grappling with in the country in a way that feels authentic. Calvin, Rashad, and the rest of the crew at the barbershop are longtime south side residents, but their beloved neighborhood is slipping away as brutal gang violence has become a way of life. Calvin and Rashad struggle as the fathers of teenage boys who see the flash and feel the allure of the gangsta lifestyle, and in the shop have to deal with the very real possibility of gun violence on a daily basis. The crew at the shop decides to stop waiting on the government to find a solution to fix these problems, and instead devises a plan to bring the warring sides together in a positive way. The issues the film grapples with are clearly important to Cube (who produced the movie) and the rest of the cast.

Although it’s dealing with weighty subject matter, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” does so with a light touch. There is a genuine chemistry between the characters, and there are plenty of fun and funny moments to keep the film from being emotionally draining.

All of that said, the film had a number of elements (particularly early on) that dragged it down. It gets off to a slow start, and much of the first 20 minutes or so left me feeling vaguely confused as the movie seemed to struggle with finding its tone. There were a number of jokes that fell flat because they were tonally confusing. Calvin and Eddie’s (Cedric the Entertainer) reaction to an early threat of potential violence being the most notable. Once it got going, however, it did pick up considerable momentum and built towards a satisfying finish.