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Film Review: 42

August 29, 2020 Leave a comment

42 (2013; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Late on the night of August 28th, 2020, the movie-loving world learned to its immense shock, chagrin, and sadness that Chadwick Boseman had passed away at age 43 from colon cancer after a practically entirely private four-year battle with the disease. One of the most prominent and acclaimed African-American actors of his generation, the charismatic and poised Boseman made a tremendous impact on screen in a very short amount of time, racking up a nigh-on unbeatable set of roles memorably playing renowned black cultural icons both real and fictional in the scant space of half a decade: James Brown in Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, King T’Challa in Black Panther, and, in his breakthrough performance, the immortal Jackie Robinson in 42.

Boseman carried himself with a grace, composure, and conviction onscreen and (seemingly) in real life, making him a superb choice to play Robinson, who in a very different and outwardly less tolerant time from our age of politically conscious and outspoken sports stars elevated the now-dismissive bumper-sticker slogan “shut up and play” to saintly proto-Civil Rights heights. Robinson, a talented multi-sport athlete out of California who had served in the military in World War II and then plied his sporting trade in the black-only Negro Leagues, became the first African-American player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the colour barrier in America’s favourite pastime despite considerable prejudiced pushback. Integration of the league followed this first significant, symbolic victory for black rights in segregated post-war America, a warning shot for the Civil Rights era to come. Jackie Robinson was a human being with flaws like all of us, of course, but along with a select few elite Americans (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr.) became a rarified icon, a mythic embodiment of idealized national character all the more powerful for his brave defiance of one fundamental aspect of that national character (namely racial hierarchy) that persists in an apparent death-struggle to this day, to the shame of the country and its people.

Not that Jack Roosevelt Robinson would have claimed such a lofty mantle when he was a Dodger, or that white (or even black) American baseball fans of the late 1940s would have tolerated him doing so. Jackie Robinson just wanted to play ball, to show what he could do and show that he belonged with the game’s best, whatever the colour of his skin. The racial political dimension of doing so can’t have been lost on him, but focus was fixed on the athletic achievement rather than any hint of social revolution. Likewise, the trailblazing Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played in 42 with pleasingly engaged broadness by Harrison Ford) was at pains to emphasize that he signed Robinson in order to win games and attract attention and money to his team, which as evidenced by their proletarian image and nickname “Dem Bums” had tended to be a poorer third-wheel to New York City’s other ballclubs, the dominant Yankees and the Giants (who, like the Dodgers, would move to California a decade after Robinson’s major league debut).

Although Rickey offers a private explanation of his choice to Robinson in the film (he claims lingering guilt over not doing enough to help a black college teammate who was driven from the sport by abuse and exclusion), capitalist motives dominate his public stances. Robinson and Rickey alike, at least as depicted in 42, hew to pragmatic utilitarianism rather than to moral elevation in their pursuit of a clearly apprehended but strategically disavowed incidental justice. Capitalist America is ever ruled by displays of value rather than by the higher principles it claims to hold to (hence slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistent racial hierarchy, which benefitted owners and elites with the capital they generated, financial and symbolic), and Robinson displayed the value of black ballplayers beyond doubt. Social change followed that revaluation, hardly as an afterthought but arguably as a corollary.

Boseman anchors 42‘s ensemble cast (including Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel, André Holland as his sportswriter friend and sometimes chauffeur Wendell Smith, and a sadly underutilized Christopher Meloni as the womanizing, no-nonsense Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who is suspended at the start of Robinson’s rookie season due to a scandalous affair offending Catholic ticketholders) with a quiet strength typical of a man who could not respond to the racist provocations hurled his way by prejudiced whites lest he undermine the entire effort. Ford’s Rickey points out the Christ-like, patient, turn-the-other-cheek calm of this required equilibrium, and Boseman registers and communicates the unfair cost and simmering injustice of his plight. If the historical Jackie Robinson could not let out the resentment and hurt surely inside him at his treatment lest he labelled as angry, tempestuous, weak, and therefore inferior to the white men around him, then Boseman’s 2013 portrayal of him cannot let these unequal social aggressions of white supremacy pass without acknowledgement.

In an invented scene following the relentless racial abuse aimed at Robinson by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), Boseman’s Robinson smashes a bat and howls and sobs in rage in the dugout tunnel after going out on his second at-bat beneath the torrent of Chapman’s slurs, only to be calmed by an empathetic Rickey. His teammate Ralph Branca (who acted as consultant for the film and no doubt as a result receives a sympathetic depiction as Robinson’s open-minded ally by Hamish Linklater) says the breakdown didn’t happen, but as compellingly acted by Boseman and central to Robinson’s myth as his stoic endurance and reserve is, the catharsis of allowing his frustration to show is to a large extent a necessary dramatic choice, demonstrating the psychological wear of persistent racism (distanced by time and located safely in the past, of course, as Hollywood liberalism prefers it).

42‘s writer/director is Brian Helgeland, who made A Knight’s Tale and wrote L.A. Confidential, and he crafts a sturdy if formalistically unchallenging sports-hero biopic along fairly predictable but bluntly effective formulaic lines. He builds to a climactic Big Game in which Robinson overcomes minor antagonists (including Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, played by Linc Hand and blanketed in anti-German slurs by Branca during a bench-clearing brawl after he beans Robinson in the head) and helps his team win the pennant, to the cheers of the masses and the swelling score of composer Mark Isham. Helgeland’s framing of the nature of the racism that aligns itself against Robinson’s unprecedented position is likewise bluntly effective. Robinson’s on-field defeats of the Phillies and Pirates are understood likewise as defeats of the racist prejudice of Chapman and Ostermueller and former teammate Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). Vignettes of segregation at a gas station, a hotel, and in a Florida town during spring training are unsubtle reminders of the Jim Crow order that Robinson was challenging.

42‘s treatment of 1940s American racial politics does not tend to challenge, but Helgeland and Boseman manage to carve out one sequence of mild insight. The Dodgers are in Cincinnati, just across the border from Kentucky, home state of the Dodgers’ future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Reese, a generally beloved All-Star, has received a threatening letter ahead of the road trip (Rickey assuages his concerns about it by showing him the three folders’ worth of even worse letters addressed to Robinson), and sure enough, the crowd’s racist vitriol towards Robinson is particularly vicious as the team takes the field. Helgeland focuses in on a young boy in the stands with his father, talking effusively like a Reese superfan and then, clearly modelling the behaviour of his prime male authority figure as well as the communal mood around him, unleashes the n-word when Robinson takes his position. It’s an ugly moment, but Reese’s response to it is more heartening while also being sharply nuanced: he strides over to Robinson and puts his arm around his black teammate’s shoulders while telling Jackie that he wants to show his family in the stands what kind of man he is. His fanboy in the crowd brightens at this moment, the positive modelling of his idol overcoming the negative modelling of his father and tipping him towards a tentative tolerance.

But Boseman’s mostly-quiet performance in this scene explores different implications. There’s a keen awareness in Boseman’s expression that Reese’s actions (what we’d now generously call allyship) are as much about Reese’s own feelings and public appearance as they are about supporting Robinson. Pee Wee needs this as much as Jackie does, if not more; he as much as says so. Black’s Reese trots off with a casual note of further support, offering to get the whole team to wear Robinson’s #42 uniform “so they can’t tell us apart”. Boseman’s Robinson lets a wry smile escape his lips. If only it was so simple to shift the weight of his burden. Is Robinson glad to have Reese in his corner? Sure, and the scene clearly signals that we’re supposed to feel glad about it too. But Boseman turns the serene composure and strong-silent-type nature of his Robinson into a stealthy critique of the performative allyship of liberal whites, of their need to make aiding in the quest for black justice about their own edifying redemption first and foremost. It’s far from ungenerous of him, but it shows that he’s no man’s prop either.

Chadwick Boseman’s serene strength as a performer was a classic Hollywood feature given more modern contour and shape by such notes of wry knowingness, and it characterized his later movie-star turns, especially as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Little wonder that in the last new film he appeared in prior to his death, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman was cast as a strong, wise-beyond-his-years idealization of just and brave black masculinity, literally framed in a key scene by crepuscular rays like a holy ghost, a superhero. An iconic subject like Jackie Robinson would overwhelm many very fine actors, but it fit Chadwick Boseman like an old baseball glove. What a devastating loss to cinematic art.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: John Wick 2 & John Wick 3

August 20, 2020 Leave a comment

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017; Directed by Chad Stahelski)

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019; Directed by Chad Stahelski)

I have to admit that I underestimated John Wick when I wrote about it three years ago. The 2014 Keanu Reeves-fronted stylishly brutal and subversively emotionally cathartic action movie (directed by his stunt double from The Matrix, Chad Stahelski, along with uncredited partner, producer, and ex-stuntman David Leitch) got labelled a well-crafted potboiler with a twisted sense of empathy and, well, on I moved. I did speculate that there seemed to be considerable room for the John Wick universe to grow in sequels in terms of its crime-underrealm world-building, so perhaps I can claim a small victory of prescience for clocking, if only in passing and without the forethought of the strange evocative power to come, how these movies became both the past decade’s impeccable and bar-raising trilogy of action flicks and it’s most grandly mythic pop-art morality plays as well.

John Wick: Chapter 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (which we will henceforth refer to as John Wick 2 and John Wick 3 or Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 for brevity’s sake) dive deep into the mythology established in the first film and make it the water these latter two stories float in. We learn in John Wick 2 that Wick’s world is one peopled by secret contract assassins and ruled by a mysterious crimeboss cabal known as the High Table. There are a strict and binding set of rules laid down and enforced by the High Table that all who serve this council of the powerful are subject to, which includes not only hitmen like John Wick but managers of the sanctuary Continental Hotels like New York’s Winston (Ian McShane) and Rome’s Julius (Franco Nero), who provide refuge and equipment for the cost of gold coins, the currency of this underworld earned by killing (John Wick has earned a lot) that are just one of several elements of these movies that evoke video game tropes.

Another vital currency are the Markers, blood-oath tokens whose debts to the holders cannot be disregarded by the givers except on pain of death (there’s lots of death and pain in play here, literal certainly but also more figurative). John, it turns out, owes the ambitious and coldly conniving Camorra gangster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, an Italian Michael Shannon by way of genre character actor Marton Csokas) for helping him to get out of the assassin game, which if you recall from the first film he did to be with his now-deceased wife Helen and quite emphatically got back into to avenge the killing by callous Slavic mob punks of a puppy she posthumously gifted him. Santino holds a Marker for this debt that he was content to allow to gather dust if John stayed retired but is calling upon John to pay back now that he is un-retired. Very early in its sequel, the cathartic revenge violence of the initial John Wick movie spins off into unglimpsed and difficult moral consequences, and not for the last time in the trilogy. Some franchises made separately can play loose with narrative consistency, but the John Wick movies pin every consequential choice to the board like an exacting and pitiless butterfly collector, a moral specimen to be recalled and reckoned with (having a consistent director in Stahelski and a consistent writer in Derek Kolstad through all three movies probably helps with this).

Santino informs John that to fulfill the oath of the Marker, the returned “Boogeyman” must kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can take her place on the High Table. John refuses, insisting that he’s still out of the game, and Santino firebombs Wick’s house and burns it to the ground in response (fortunately, John’s new dog, an unnamed bully breed who is a very good boy, escapes with his owner, and evades harm throughout the rest of the two sequels, you’ll be glad to hear). Thus chastened and reluctantly accepting his task, John travels to Italy to do the deed (though it doesn’t shake out how you might expect), which sets Gianna’s goons after him (most prominently prior acquaintance Cassian, played by Common) as well as earning a contract on his life from Santino, no doubt to disguise his own culpability in his sister’s death. But there is no evading consequences for anyone in Wickworld, and after John kills his way through legions of foes, he comes for Santino and rashly finishes the job on the hallowed safe ground of the Continental.

So John Wick ends Chapter 2 and enters Chapter 3 with a $7 million price on his head and an “excommunicado” order, both placed by erstwhile ally and father figure Winston, barring him from any aid or succour from the vast criminal underworld’s network of agents and safehouses. He finds some regretful and even somewhat hostile comrades in the Bowery King (a glint-in-his-eye Laurence Fishburne, Reeves’ Matrix co-star, who delightfully drops a joke about spending Wick’s contract prize money at Applebee’s and appears at the end of Chapter 3 lit by low firelight and sitting on a golden throne while sipping Fanta through a straw), the pigeon-training boss of a network of homeless ninja street agents introduced in John Wick 2, and then in Sofia (Halle Berry), a Casablanca resident and attack-dog trainer with whom Wick holds a Marker for aiding her in concealing her daughter for protection. Venturing into the desert to meet the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) who is the only figure with authority above the High Table, John Wick must sacrifice again for a chance to live and remember his beloved wife, but when his contract from the Elder against the disobedient Winston is thrown aside due to old loyalties, he must face down the might of a High Table assault squad as well as sword-wielding contract-killing martial-artist (and John Wick’s biggest fan) Zero (Mark Dacascos, who we have collectively failed and who should have been a massive action star instead of – or perhaps in addition to – the friggin’ Iron Chef Chairman).

That a fairly bare synopsis of this sort makes the John Wicks sound like pretty conventional action flick fare should not undersell on how consistently the action and the visuals and the mythos are elevated and top themselves as the movies go on. What I’ve been calling Wickworld is a rich and highly allusive frame setting, an act of dense comic-book-style world-building in the milieu of the usually simple and bloody-minded action genre. Movies with Mikey’s illuminating video essay on the first John Wick movie (he’s done videos on the other two movies as well) pointed out all of the parallels to Greek mythology in the film, thinking about how many characters are likened to Mount Olympus gods and mythological characters either symbolically (Winston as Zeus, Adrianne Palicki’s huntress assassin as Artemis, etc.) or quite literally (Lance Reddick’s Continental Hotel concierge is named Charon, like the ferryman of the underworld, and of course John’s wife Helen is the catalyst for his cataclysmic war as the Iliad‘s Helen was the catalyst for the Trojan War).

But Wickworld is also built from the visual motifs and mythological bones of Greek tragedy, Roman Catholicism, Islamic mystical art, Arthurian legend, architecture from classical Rome to Art Deco America, Gilded Age displays of luxe, Roma lore, Slavic folktales, and above all from the modern mythology of American cultural hegemony that is cinematic history: there are allusions and homages and references and sly repurposings all across these movies from deep in the filmic canon, from film noir to silent comedy (Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is projected on the side of a building prior to the car and motorcycle chase that begins John Wick 2) to James Bond to surrealistic art films (there’s a reference to the infamous eyeball-cutting shock moment in the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí film Un Chien Andalou, if you can believe that) to Asian martial arts films from Hong Kong to Japan to Korea to Indonesia (Reeves battles two cast members of cult Indonesian actioner The Raid late in Chapter 3). But the John Wick movies are hardly visual retreads; there is a strongly-established visual look to all three films of nightime noir cut through with high-contrast neon colour, founded by cinematographer Jonathan Sela in the first film and continued by the masterful Danish DoP Dan Laustsen (who shot Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water for Guillermo Del Toro as well as the wild French genre mashup Brotherhood of the Wolf, which starred Dacascos). Mikey Neumann gets into this more, as does video essayist Patrick H. Willems in his video on how the John Wick movies turn New York into an unpredictable and mysterious mythic setting.

But these are action movies, after all, and for all of the dense allusiveness of the world’s mythology, the John Wick movies never venture far from their core appeal: the gorgeous visceral magnificence of Keanu Reeves (who has spent the end of his 40s and his early 50s making these films) shooting lots of people in the head. Willems has another video grading every John Wick trilogy action sequence, and as a document of the remarkable feats of action filmmaking accomplishment on display here, it can’t be beat. Nor can John Wick‘s action scenes; there simply isn’t anything like them in any other movies. Eschewing both the balletic wire work of Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who choreographed the fights in The Matrix) and the bone-crunching shaky-cam immediacy of the Bourne movies, John Wick‘s fights are constructed of sustained medium-wide shots, minimizing fast cuts and showing the totality of the movement, violence, and surrounding urban landscapes. They are brutally pragmatic but possessed with a beauty in their bluntness and intimacy, qualities reflected in the functional efficiency of Reeves’ choreographical profile as Wick (we can quibble all day about Keanu’s thespianic abilities, but in terms of physical movement, he’s an artist). They are often shot in visually striking settings, like the red-lit Circle Club in John Wick 1 or the hall of mirrors art exhibit that ends Chapter 2 or the opaque reflecting glass room (dotted with samurai artifacts in breakaway-glass display cases) at the climax of Chapter 3.

The best of them combine masterful choreography and stunt work and camera use with wild, guffaw-inducing creative invention derived from their settings, especially in the bar-raising third film. John and Sofia and her armoured attack dogs laying rousing waste to thugs in a Moroccan bazaar is one good example, while John killing a 7-foot-4-inch assassin (played by pro basketballer Boban Marjanovic) in the New York Public Library using only a book might be even better, but the absolute pinnacle has to be the extended running battle after the contract on Wick’s life kicks in at the start of the film, during which he fights off a gang of putative killers using the extensive bladed arsenal of an antique weapons museum before retreating to a stable to off more foes by having horses kick them in the head and then riding off on horseback and eliminating two chasing motorcyclists from the animal’s back (this is to say nothing of the later scene featuring swordfighting on motorcycles; seriously, the third movie is off the damned chain).

Matched with the depth of the mythological backdrop and the density of action invention is the intensity of the moral hazards that drive John Wick‘s stories, the way in which choices have consequences in a way that they rarely do in the video-game-esque logic of the action genre. Those consequences are increasingly serious and dire. The cathartic revenge fantasy of the first film (itself escalated by the fatalistic prideful loyalty of Wick’s mobster foes) is immediately complicated by the ultimatum of Santino’s Marker at the start of the second film; the emotional satisfaction of Wick’s puppy-avenging crusade is already blunted by Reeves’ very purposeful grim flattened affect in response to it, but becomes a step into the quicksand of this unforgiving underworld. The arc of John Wick’s fate in these three films bends away from justice and towards tragedy; with every adrenaline-pumping badass kill, he is further from the redemptive peace he sought with Helen.

Neumann’s Chapter 3 video is eloquent and perceptive about this thematic element: in his fateful audience with the Elder, John is asked what he wants to live for, and he doesn’t have a ready answer. Again, Reeves’ natural verbal reticence (reflective of a personal guardedness in his private life as well) maximizes this moment as Wick initially says nothing before retreating to the safe harbour of remembrance of Helen. But the effectively unsubtle thematic symbolism of these movies undercuts this assertion immediately: the Elder asks Wick to sacrifice a finger to be allowed to continue, and he chops off his ring finger and must give the wedding band to the Elder as collateral. Movies with Mikey notes this tragic dimension of John Wick’s moral identity by the third film, that transmuting his painful grief into vengeful wrath and dogged, diminished endurance has turned him back into the Angel of Death (Reeves returns to New York City in an all-black suit for the last act of Chapter 3; again, symbolism not subtle) that he vowed to cease being for his love of Helen. He has betrayed that love in the name of preserving it. We thrill at John Wick’s masterfully crafted feats of cathartic violence, but when ruminated upon, the catharsis curdles into existential dread. This is not an ascent but a fall. A man’s soul, clawed back at great cost, is being lost before our eyes. Greek tragedy indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews