Movie Reviews: Birds of Passage, The Hustle and John Wick: Parabellum

John Wick: Parabellum

We catch a fleeting glimpse of Buster Keaton in the opening stages of John Wick: Parabellum (16s), as the assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) jogs through Times Square with a $14m bounty on his head and every professional killer in New York on his trail. Wick is ‘excommunicado’, having transgressed against the most sacred tenets of the assassins’ creed, and can expect no help from any quarter.

Determined to make things right, Wick must fight his way up to the High Table and beyond, killing everyone who stands in his way. Former stuntman Chad Stahelski struck box office gold when he directed John Wick (2014), and he has changed very little in his approach for the third movie in the trilogy.

Wick may be more battered and bruised at this point, but he remains a one-man army proficient in virtually any weapon you might care to mention, and equally lethal — and sometimes ridiculously inventive — when no weapon comes to hand. Unfortunately, Wick only seems to have one gear; and while Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and other deadpan masters of silent movie comedy are hailed as inspirations for John Wick, those actors could segue from farce and slapstick into tragedy at the drop of a bowler hat.

Reeves makes for a plausible action star and his woebegone schtick renders him a likeable lead, but the interminable sequence of brutal killings is as relentless as it is pummelling. The action sequences are brilliantly choreographed and executed, and there are some brief moments of respite — Anjelica Huston hamming it up as a Belarussian mafia matriarch, Ian McShane slithering about as the personification of oleaginous evil, a deliciously incongruous blast of Vivaldi — but the longer it all goes on, the more mind-numbingly banal it becomes.

Birds of Passage

Opening in Colombia in the late 1960s, Birds of Passage (15A) begins with an elaborate ritual to celebrate the coming out of Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a young woman of the Wayuu tribe who is now old enough to marry. Rapayet (José Acosta) has fallen in love with Zaida but can’t afford the dowry; in desperation he turns to his cousin Moises (Jhon Narváez), hoping to play the middle-man and connect Moises with the Peace Corps Americans trying to buy marijuana.

Soon Rapayet and Moises are making unimaginable amounts of money, and the Wayuu culture and way of life will never be the same again. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Birds of Passage is a semi-mythic origins tale of how the Colombian cartels were born.

The lesson that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is not a new one, but Gallego and Guerra give it a fresh spin by exploring the cultural, social, and economic impact of an illegal vast fortune on a previously remote and self-contained community.

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes make for a strong pairing in the central roles, although Carmiña Martínez steals every scene she’s in as the tribal matriarch whose iron will is eventually bent and broken under the weight of her people’s greed. By filling out most of the cast with amateurs from the locality, Gallego and Guerra make a calculated gamble, but it’s one that pays off handsomely.

The performances are certainly rudimentary in places, but that very quality of rooted primitivism means that the violence and bloodshed have meaningful consequences — these are real people who die, who are cared for and must be mourned, and then avenged. 

The Hustle

A remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), which was itself a remake of Bedtime Story (1964), The Hustle (15A) opens on the French Riviera with the crass grifter Penny (Rebel Wilson) blackmailing the refined Josephine (Anne Hathaway) after Josephine runs a simple sting on Penny.

When the pair of con artists stumble across the naïve young US billionaire Thomas (Alex Sharp), they make a bet: whoever can bilk Thomas out of half a million dollars gets to keep the Riviera as her lucrative playground.

Chris Addison’s comedy suffers a little from the law of diminishing returns, although it’s hard to resist its central premise, that women make for better con artists because no man believes any woman is smarter than he is.

Hathaway and Wilson are individually likeable, even if they don’t generate much chemistry as a leading pair, the former’s increasingly preposterous outfits of migraine-inducing colour clashes almost worth the price of admission alone.

The movie’s biggest issue is its off-the-cuff comic timing — Rebel Wilson’s brassy schtick is nowhere as endearing as it was three movies ago, and too many jokes are thrown away too quickly or delivered with the subtlety of a rusty blunderbuss. Coarse, rushed, and unfocused, The Hustle delivers as many giggles as you might expect when you shoehorn women into roles originally written for men.

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