Movies reviews: John Wick and Maniac Cop (plus open thread)

I’ve been taking a needed break from crime fiction as of late–it’s about 90% of the fiction I’ve read since I revived this site a few years back, and I simply had to broaden my horizons a bit for awhile. It’s still my favorite, so don’t you worry–crime fiction coverage will resume.

I have been watching more movies lately, so I’ll cover some that may be of interest. So, read on, dear reader, if you are still reading the site at all after its spottiness lately, and jump into the open thread if you like.

John Wick (2014)

I didn’t see John Wick at the theater but it recently came out on video and streaming so I caught it last night.

John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the title character, an assassin who retired into the straight life after falling in love with a woman and one last very bloody job to extricate himself. A few years later, his now-wife falls ill and dies, leaving him devastated and aimless, going through a very-disciplined daily routine of meaningless rituals such as getting up at exactly 6:00 AM, going to bed at exactly 11:00 PM, and spending a great deal of time practicing high-performance driving in his beloved ’69 Mustang.

A surprise visit from a deliverywoman brings an adorable puppy accompanied by a note from his late wife, who had arranged this so that he would have something to love after she was gone.

A day or two later, while gassing up his Mustang, Wick has a chance encounter with some thuggish Russian fellows, one of whom wants to buy Wick’s car. Wick tells him that it’s not for sale. That night, the thugs come over to Wick’s house, catch him by surprise and beat him, kill his puppy, and steal his car.

You can imagine where it goes from there.

While I had heard good things about John Wick, I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the massive amount of gunplay visible in the trailer. I was pleasantly surprised to find not just a good revenge film, but a near-great one, possibly even nudging up into “great” territory.

Derek Kolstad’s excellent screenplay is likely underappreciated, so I’ll start with that. In a film without much dialog, Kolstad makes every line count. I imagine him taking his first draft and paring it down over and over again to reduce it to the absolute minimum necessary to advance the plot or get the desired reaction from the audience. It is also quite witty.

An aspect of Kolstad’s screenplay that I loved was the universe he created, a criminal underground with its own hotels, nightclubs, lingo, and even currency. It’s a universe worth exploring further, even beyond possible John Wick sequels or prequels.

Keanu Reeves does a great job as a man of few words and lots of action. He is either an impressive martial artist or made very convincingly to look like one (I believe the former). The supporting cast is also strong, portraying an often-quirky bunch of criminals (there are almost no straights in this movie) for Wick to engage with.

There is no shaky cam so you can actually tell what’s going on in the film’s many action scenes. The direction, by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch is visually impressive and well paced.

Good stuff, and highly recommended.

Maniac Cop (1988)

My formative years were in the days of the ’80s home-video boom, a wild time where all sorts of crazy stuff was coming out and I used to pick up anything with halfway-decent box art off the shelf of my small-town video store if it was in the horror or science fiction section. It was a fit of nostalgia for that era that prompted me to re-watch Maniac Cop the other night.

The film’s title is truth in advertising. A man dressed as a police officer is roaming New York City, slaughtering innocents and putting the citizens in a panic about their own police force. While detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) chases leads, officer Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is framed for the crime. Their quest for answers and for the real murderer will unearth some dark secrets.

Equal parts mystery, thriller, and slasher film, Maniac Cop isn’t a lost classic, but it’s better than the title might lead you to believe. It’s script is by Larry Cohen, the always-interesting low-budget auteur behind Black CaesarIt’s Alive!, and The Stuff, more recently known as the screenwriter for thrillers Phone Booth and Cellular. Cohen’s script for Maniac Cop is a bit lazy in spots, but it’s efficient and keeps the thrills coming.

One of Maniac Cop‘s appeals, that helps to elevate it above other most other slasher material, is its cast of exploitation veterans. In addition to Atkins and Campbell, it also features familiar faces Robert Z’Dar and Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree.

That cast, a pretty good mystery, and occasionally inspired direction by William Lustig featuring some nice stuntwork at the end, make Maniac Cop an above-average slasher flick and a solid time-waster if you’ve got eighty minutes to kill.

PS: While nominally a crime film, I probably would not have written about Maniac Cop on the site if not for the presence of Sheree North, best known to Parker fans as Buck’s wife in a very memorable scene in the film adaptation of The Outfit. I got a good laugh when someone in the film described her character, when younger, as “Not much to look at.” Oh, really?