Coming off two weeks where real life and two of my three jobs were determined to kill me (had number three pitched in, I’d be writing this from a hospital bed at least), I suddenly realized I had turned a corner and had the next 48 hours free. What to do? I should probably watch a movie. I haven’t watched a movie in two weeks. I have that stupid thing where I am going to, for sure, watch a certain 100 movies I’ve been putting off within the next year.
It is damned hard to find information about Force Four. It’s a scrappy little mongrel of a movie, and I wager the script was written on a cocktail napkin. The Black Force of the title is four martial artists (Owen Wat-son, Warhawk Tanzania, Malichi Lee, and Judie Soriano), who are all real-life black belts, They apparently have some sort of mercenary/troubleshooter thing going on, because they receive a phone call on the special phone in their panelled Black Force pad, hiring them to find and recover a African artifact that was stolen before the opening credits.
By way of introduction, each of the members of Force Four do their individual katas, which eats up some time. Then they Hit The Streets to dig up some information on the theft. This takes the form of an endless montage with the same ten shots of New York City repeated over and over played under improvised dialogue from our four stars, leavened with the occasional quick fight scene or the sight of Warhawk playing basketball in platform heels. The dialogue occasionally tries to sync up with what’s going on onscreen, and the one sudden instance of sync sound is jarring. But man, does it eat up time.
That one prostitute who rates sync sound, it turns out, works for Z (Sam Schwartz) the doughy mobster who runs things, see? Z sends out his thugs to get Force Four while they’re separated and Hitting The Streets. There are four quick fight scenes. Our plucky Black Force re-convenes at The Pad, and Owen has gotten one thug to talk (off-camera), so they go to the thug’s place and beat them up. No artifact or Z, though, so they drive upstate to Z’s house. This drive is pretty much accomplished in real-time.
Z is having a house party, so the movie will also stop dead for an entire song by an outfit I dubbed Tony Borlando and Dusk, but was likely Live USA, who provided the soundtrack. And you know what? That soundtrack is pretty good. I’m gonna let Dusk/Live USA skate, even if Tony is wearing a tuxedo that left me blind for a few minutes.
Force Four beat up some more thugs on the grounds, then confront Z (who is soaking his buyer for another 100 grand, the rat). Z barely gets away, and many are the screaming extras and kung fu fights around the pool. Owen plants a tracer on Z’s car (but drops it and then has to hide behind a tree for fifteen minutes while Z’s head thug tries very hard not to see him). This enables Force Four to follow Z the next day – and his buyer lives out even further than him – beat up everybody, and find out that the case has a false bottom with tons of uncut heroin.
The movie is still not much over an hour long. So we have the extended dance re-mix of all the fight scenes in the movie, followed by a five minute end credit sequence, with individual shots of each and every black belt in the movie (the poster promises 28, and I believe the poster). We finally hit 82 minutes, and it’s over.
Force Four starts with some title cards stating that the martial arts contained therein are presented as realistically as possible, with no camera tricks or gimmicks. This is pretty much true, and the fights are as realistic as you can get in a world where opponents attack you one at a time and there are no guns. Each fight is over with very quickly, and our heroes don’t have a lick of trouble until the very last battle, and even then, they are never outmatched. Kind of boring. Which is a fair assessment of Force Four. Frustrating amount of padding, no real tension.
It’s also odd to consider that the breakout star from this was Warhawk Tanzania, who would make The Devil’s Express (aka Gang Wars) the next year. (Owen Wat-son had made Velvet Smooth the year before, so I guess he was the opposite of a breakout. He actually has the best acting chops of any of the Force, though Malachi Lee has a nice, quiet charisma.)
In case you didn’t watch any movie trailers last year, Keanu Reeves is the title character, a very recent widow, whose wife’s parting gesture is the gift of a beagle puppy, delivered on the evening of her funeral, to ensure that John continues to have “something to love”. John also has a beautiful 1969 Mustang that catches the eye of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the lowlife son of a Russian mobster. When John refuses to sell, Iosef and his buddies stage a nighttime home invasion, beat up John, steal his car, and kill the puppy.
Puppykillers. We all hate them.
Iosef then proceeds to have a very bad couple of days as he finds out he tugged on Superman’s cape, he spat into the wind, he pulled the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and he just reactivated one of the most feared assassins in the history of the world. Wick met his wife, retired from The World, and the only thing that was keeping him a nice, quiet, normal nobody was the dog. And it is quite probable that not even Iosef’s daddy, kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), and his army of hoodlums, will be able to save him.
John Wick is, needless to say, a very violent movie; when all is said and done, Keanu has killed 76 people, but hey – dog owners understand. What keeps this from becoming Commando is the odd alternate world we find ourselves in this time: The world of the assassins, where everything – everything – is paid for in gold coins, there is a five-star safe house hotel in the Flatiron Building, and a phone call for “dinner reservations” gets you quick, discreet and complete body disposal and cleanup – one gold coin per corpse.
The movie really owes a lot to Donald Westlake’s Parker novels and Point Blank in particular, with its driven protagonist and fascinating glimpses into a hidden world with its own rules and codes. It’s also a hell of a rumination on revenge and the fact that dominos keep on falling once they’re nudged.
John Wick was hyped to me as being the equal of The Raid 2, and for once I bought into the hype, and as usual, regretted it. I liked the movie, and unlike a lot of people, I really like Keanu, who shows some impressive acting chops in the beginning, and whatever else you may say about the man, he is not afraid to train and train hard. But living up to Raid 2 is a tough road to follow. Now, like Raid 2, we are presented with a series of fight scenes in which I can follow every motion and action. Movies that do this automatically get another star, letter grade, or whatever bogus scoring system you’re using.
I really liked it. But I wasn’t blown away.
But it’s this methodology that shows how far the action film has come in 40 years: The black belts of Force Four did their own choreography, and Michael Fink filmed that choreography. Wick’s directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, were stunt coordinators, choreographers and then second unit directors before lobbying hard for their post here: pre-viz and plotting out how fights look to the camera are second nature to them. It has become an industry, and the sooner this aesthetic takes hold of action filmmaking, that it becomes the standard again, the better. I’m thinking that it’s this clarity of motion and intent in the action scenes that had people putting it on even footing with Raid 2, it’s really that much of a breath of fresh air in an American-made film.
And then I watch the Making-of supplements and see all these scenes before the teal and orange color ramping and I start being tempted to take away that extra star. That, at least is definitely one thing The Raid 2 has over John Wick.
I watched John Wick with Rick and Dave, and Dave made the comment – likely true – “This script was only 15 pages long. I guarantee it.” I held that he was likely right, but at least it wasn’t half a page, spread out to 82 minutes. I don’t think the point was quite made because I haven’t made them watch Force Four.