Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

Director: Kiah Roache-Turner (2014)
Starring: Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradey, Leon Burchill
Find it: IMDB

There's few make genre movies quite as interesting as those of the Aussies. Their weird filmmaking prowess is such that there's a whole documentary dedicated to the exploits of Ozploitation (the itself-rather-fantastic Not Quite Hollywood). The Aussies have been relatively quiet in recent years, but they're back on the map with the critically and fanboy acclaimed zombie effort Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.

I'll make no secret of the fact that I'm sick and tired of zombies; especially so in no-budget cinema. I'll make an occasional exception for The Walking Dead, but only during its more interesting half-seasons and finales (Alexandria, basically). Otherwise, I could quite happily see the subgenre die off for a while before its next inevitable resurrection or (good) [REC] sequel. Wrmwood, however, is one of the better ones. I haven't had this much fun with a zombie film since the equally crazy Dead Snow 2. 

A lot of that isn't even down to the zombies; that'll be thanks to its frantic Sam Raimi/Edgar Wright esque direction, gory ultraviolence and Mad Max approach to zombie killing. Even better, its human villain is an actual mad scientist, and we don't get nearly enough of those in modern horror cinema. With his his syringes full of green gunk (how very Herbert West), zany dance routines and laconic bastardry, he makes what could have been a series of dull torture scenes seem colourful and exciting. Fair play to poor Bianca Bradey, who has to give most of her own performance through her eyes alone - tied to a wall with a strap over her mouth for most of the running time, I'd forgotten what her voice sounds like by the film's halfway mark. She does a great job though, managing to convey strength and badassery in spite of the fact that she spends more time tied up in this film than most bondage models do during a day's work (full disclosure: most bondage films are only about ten minutes long).

Hers is a more interesting story than the actual road trip element of Road of the Dead, which is pretty slow and meandering at times. Her onscreen brother makes a good working class action hero, but lacks character beyond the death of his family and some pretty entertaining rage fits. It's a little long, a little slow and a little lacking in momentum, but Wyrmwood is one of the better zombie films of recent years. With a sequel on the way, let's hope that next time we get a story worthy of the actors and the world their characters inhabit. Because what we have here, ultimately, is a road which doesn't really go anywhere. Sub pun: it's not great, but you know what they say about roads and good intentions.

Black Eagle

Director: Erik Karson (1988)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sho Kosugi
Find it: IMDB

That one time the KGB and Jean-Claude Van Damme had the snot beaten out of them by a massive nerd. With its beautiful Maltese location, cold war plot and selection of sinister bad guys, Black Eagle is one of the more obvious James Bond rip-offs ever made. Sho Kosugi, however, is no Sean Connery. Instead, Ken Tani (Kosugi) is more of a Roger Moore type secret agent; that is to say, an enormous geek. Thankfully, he's just as competent in a fight as he is in, say, a library, or pretending to be a bumbling scientist in order to throw the KGB off his scent.

The Jaws-like henchman to Kosugi's Bond, Van Damme is the film's muscle, casually murdering a captured CIA agent (via Bruce Lee style neck snap) before stopping to impress the crew with his haf-naked doing of the splits while throwing knives at a small target. It's a smallish, early role from Van Damme, but an entertaining one nonetheless.

Appreciating that Black Eagle is more Bond thriller than your traditional punchy, kick-fu Jean-Claude Van Damme action film should help viewers appreciate it more. There's not any actual proper action until over the halfway mark, with Tani spending most of his time scuba diving (minus the gear, being so hard and all) or taking his achingly dull children to the beach. That makes it only a matter of time before the kids are kidnapped and it becomes... personal.

Black Eagle is a little slow, a little underwhelming and a lot badly acted - particularly by Kosugi and Van Damme - but it does look good, and is unusual enough that one won't resent spending time with it. At the very least, it's better than the worst James Bond movies.

John Wick

Director: Chad Stahelski (2014)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe
Find it: IMDB

Essentially Sad Keanu: The Movie. In John Wick, Keanu Reeves plays a slasher movie villain to a ruthless gang of Eastern European mobsters. The catalyst? Silly Alfie Allen, stealing John Wick's car and murdering John Wick's dog. That sort of behaviour would already be enough to justify a bodycount of Taken proportions, but silly Alfie was daft enough to have done it mere weeks after the death of John Wick's wife. Oops.

Yet another addition to the increasingly popular grumpy-old-white-man-with-a-gun-and-a-grudge subgenre so monopolised by Liam Neeson of late, John Wick, on paper, shouldn't be anything special. Its story is entirely basic, its villains generic Russian bad guys. And yet directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch inject the proceedings with such a certain je nai se qua that it transcends its story (man shoots grimy assholes in the face, gets beat up, repeat) to become something really quite special. A lot of that is thanks to the casting of Reeves as John Wick, his deadpan, purposefully vacant style of acting a natural fit for a man who has lost everything except for his guns.

Cannily, instead of a refrigerated girlfriend, John Wick has John Wick avenging his dog.

There's a vibrancy and rhythm to the action sequences that make John Wick's vengeance trip unfold almost like a dance routine; particularly during the mid-movie nightclub scenes, where John Wick is blasting people in the face almost in sync to the music. It's violent, angry and perfectly vicious. Were this a Liam Neeson or (old) Steven Seagal movie, I'd be bemoaning the lack of realism to John Wick taking down swathes of men all (mostly) on his tod, but here it works, thanks to Keanu's laid-back performance and the film's treatment of his character. John Wick is a far cry from 'realistic', but it is refreshing to see an action film in which characters have to pause to reload all the time, while it does a good job of establishing John Wick's vulnerability yet also letting him consistently and believably kick ass.

John Wick and Keanu are supported by a sea of recogniseable and likeable faces, most notably Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane (playing the same character Ian McShane plays all the time now, but still good) and Lance Reddick. Adrianne Palicki, Michael Nyqvist and, yeah, Alfie Allen are nicely hateable as the villains - particularly Nyqvist, reluctantly and resignedly taking on John Wick thanks to his dipshit son's dipshit actions. Allen is fine here, in the same way as he's good on Game of Thrones - getting beaten up and tortured enough that his being Alfie Allen is sort of okay. The schadenfreude school of acting (see also: Danny Dyer) where we enjoy their performances only to see them get the piss beaten out of them at every opportunity. And as Alfie starts out the film murdering a fucking puppy, that piss-beating can't come soon enough.

I blubbered like fuck.

John Wick is one of the best action films of recent years, not surfing on irony or PG-13 bloodlessness, but instead letting its gunplay do all the talking. Perhaps that's for the best, because whenever anyone does speak, roughly 60% of what they say consists of the name 'John Wick'. John Wick, like this review, is the sort of film in which everyone says the lead character's name all the time. Apart from Ian McShane, who gets to call him 'Jonathan' (surely it should be Jon Wick, then). The non-shooty scenes get slightly tedious and I'd have preferred more character development for the dog (although I was crying after about fifteen minutes, so maybe that's for the best) but I'll have John Wick over Tak5n anytime, thank you very much. Let's just hope they don't go and ruin it with a sequel.