Coincidence is one thing. Yet what are we to make of the fact that, this past weekend, Hollywood released two sequels to movies released within 15 days of each other in 2017, both of which were about men almost slavishly devoted to their dogs? Last Sunday was Mother's Day, but was this most recent Sunday some kind of canine-centric holiday I was unaware of?
In any case, we now have John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the action-thriller continuation to John Wick: Chapter 2, and A Dog's Journey, a follow-up to the reincarnated-pup weepie A Dog's Purpose. One of them, through sheer OMG bravado, will likely make you laugh. The other, even if you instinctively know better, might just make you cry. And both, quite possibly, will make you wince – the former at screen violence you can't believe was pulled off without actual injury, and the latter at screen shamelessness you can't believe didn't inspire a new branch of PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Audiences.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM
When last we saw Keanu Reeves' John Wick – the indestructible, sleekly dressed assassin pulled out of retirement (in 2014's series starter) after gangsters killed his puppy – he'd just made the tremendous mistake of offing an enemy in the universally acknowledged bad-guy safe house of Manhattan's Continental Hotel. A $14 million bounty was placed on his head, lowlifes of all stripes were placed on alert, and Wick was on the run. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum consequently finds Wick running and running and running – first through NYC streets, then to Casablanca, then to the Sahara, then back to New York – and when he's not running, he's punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing, gouging, slicing, and, in one memorable instance, self-mutilating. Barring its franchise-mandated world-building and guest appearances by acting heavyweights who are clearly having a ball, scenes of pummeling violence are about all you'll get in director Chad Strahelski's 130-minute outing. Given how diabolically well-staged, relentless, and funny they are, particularly in the first hour, they're also just about all that this second sequel and its audience require.
For my money, no film sequence this year has been quite as baroquely electrifying as Parabellum's action showcase boasting Wick, a group of assailants, and all manner of hurled knives and hatchets and shattering glass, with Strahelski's wizardly choreography and Evan Schiff's peerless editing creating one seemingly impossible-to-top effect after another. By the time Wick was felling a man with a fourth blade, then a fifth, then a sixth, half of the patrons at my screening were roaring with laughter and applauding in equal measure. But this über-bloody coup de grâce is nearly matched by Wick's leather-bound annihilation of a Richard Kiel-sized foe in the New York Public Library, and his eventual face-off with Mark Dacascos' swift, sardonically amusing assassin, and the go-for-the-groin ferocity of Halle Berry's trained Belgian Malinois, their owner as fiercely protective of her pups as Wick is of his. (In another movie, this would be enough to make Halle's and Keanu's characters fall in love, but thankfully, this is not that movie.) In terms of pure adrenaline, Parabellum probably delivers more sustained doses than any release since 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, and after overdoing the dramatic pauses in Chapter 2, Reeves is back to being perfect here, cutting an effortlessly watchable and magnetic figure who earns deserved laughs on half of the roughly 30 lines he's required to utter.
All this spine-cracking, throat-slitting fun, however, does come with a major caveat, which arrives in the form of a new character called the Adjudicator. On paper, this latest John Wick nemesis isn't entirely misbegotten: A malevolently business-minded HR rep to the global criminal enterprise the High Table, she shows up, and keeps showing up, to demand blood payment for past grievances. But as played by Asia Kate Dillon with no charisma, no vocal command, and not even a hint of genuine threat, you don't watch the Adjudicator wondering what insidious horrors may lie ahead; you wonder exactly whose cousin this snippy, boring series addition must be, as nepotism is the only conceivable way she could have landed the job. Strahelski lights Dillon and her Heaven-reaching neck with style, but he can't seem to do anything about her dismally ineffective portrayal that's all the more distracting when she's acting opposite Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, and Anjelica Huston, who appear to be doing everything in their power not to actively laugh at her. (This may hold true for some audience members, too, as I noticed a larger-than-usual number of patrons leaving their seats for restroom/concession breaks during Adjudicator scenes.)
To take some heat off the miscast Dillon, Parabellum has other not-insignificant flaws. Wick's trek through the Sahara strains the credibility in what is an already credibility-straining franchise. Several potentially juicy detours – principally those involving Huston's fabulously imposing Russian ballet mistress – are left less fully explored than their set-ups suggest they'll be (though maybe we'll return to them in the inevitable Chapter 4). And despite Reeves eliciting a cheer when, toward the climax, he requests “guns ... lots of guns,” the unveiled weaponry actually leads to the dullest action scenes in the movie, and that's with Lance Reddick's reliably elegant concierge Charon finally getting a taste of the action. For the most part, though, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a nasty, disreputably entertaining kick, and I was really quite moved to find that the bloodshed that earned the loudest aghast reaction at my screening came when a ballerina removed one of her slippers and tore off a breaking toenail. So much for movie violence making viewers immune to empathy.
A DOG'S JOURNEY
At one point in the opening minutes of A Dog's Journey, Dennis Quaid's Ethan, the owner of our heroic pooch Bailey, is washing dishes with his wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger, a fine replacement for the wonderful, recently deceased Peggy Lipton). A song that they both love comes on the radio, and, asking her to dance, Ethan tenderly dries Hannah's hands on his flannel shirt before they do – a moment that's about 20 times sweeter, funnier, more touching, more spontaneous, and, yes, more human than anything found in A Dog's Purpose. I hoped that this would augment good things for the rest of director Gail Mancuso's movie, and indeed, the film is significantly less nauseating than its predecessor, boasting an excellent, heartfelt performance by lead Kathryn Prescott and a thrillingly monstrous turn by GLOW's Betty Gilpin as a neglectful, alcoholic mom. Yet this two-film series adapted from author W. Bruce Cameron's novels continues to confound and irritate me.
How can Bailey effectively communicate with humans but have zero communication ability with other dogs? Why are the numerous owners of Bailey, in all his many forms, always so insistent on the dog accompanying them every-damned-where they go? Why must all of the dramatic obstacles, among them this film's creepy boyfriend and two cancer diagnoses, be so baldly telegraphed? Why isn't the voice-over commentary by Bailey portrayer Josh Gad ever given a rest for more than 30 seconds? And why does this series presumably made for dog lovers punish them by making them watch a dog die on-screen every 15 minutes or so? (I have a dear friend of more than 30 years who adores dogs more than anyone I've ever met. She'd never dream of seeing these movies.)
In other words, it's more of the same in A Dog's Journey, albeit with overall-better acting, which is at least something. After Bailey dies – again! – and he begins caring for Prescott's CJ via a number of four-legged bodies and two distinct genders, Mancuso's film becomes torn between the usual sentimental malarkey and scenes of legitimate emotion, the latter of which are largely pulled off because of Prescott's natural ebullience, directness, and warmth. (In looks and talent, she's very reminiscent of Olivia Cooke – and, like her fellow Brit, can pull off a flawless American accent.) Yet those scenes aren't quite effective enough to get you through the gross, manufactured uplift with dignity intact, given that Mark Isham's maudlin score is forever working your last nerve and the film's quartet of screenwriters (Cameron among them) are goosing tears with lines such as “What's this lump on your belly?”
I'm not completely insensitive; I did get teary on a few occasions. But beyond the contributions of Prescott, Helgenberger, Gilpin, the endearing Henry Lau as CJ's lifelong pal, and the dogs' inarguable cuteness, I was really left with only two other takeaways from A Dog's Journey. (1) Why, after its presence in Captain Marvel and Teen Spirit, was I forced to hear No Doubt's “I'm Just a Girl” on a soundtrack for the third time in three months? And (2) How is Quaid, when playing the octogenarian version of Ethan, somehow more terrifying than he is as the redneck psychopath of The Intruder? For the next John Wick, Keanu should abandon the guns and knives as deadly weapons and simply stock up on Dennis Quaid grins.
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR
There are certainly worse movies to crib from than Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, and as homages/steals go, The Sun Is Also a Star is a pretty-good one. As in Linklater's 1995 masterpiece in miniature, director Ry Russo-Young's romantic drama centers on an accidental encounter that turns into true love, with the Jamaican-American Natasha (Yara Shahidi) agreeing to spend a day wandering the streets of New York with the Korean-American Daniel (Charles Melton), the latter of whom, to the former's grudging delight, is convinced that they're romantically meant to be. Based on a YA novel by Nicola Yoon, who also wrote the book that became 2017's unexpectedly terrific Everything, Everything, The Sun Is Also a Star dabbles a bit in politics, with Natasha and her family facing impending deportation, and a bit in familial and cultural expectations, with Daniel's parents demanding their son become a doctor instead of the poet he so wishes to be. (Given the annual take-home pay for most poets, it's hard not to side with Danny's folks on that one.) But mostly, the movie is about the cinematic joys of watching two great-looking, talented young people spar and flirt and swoon, which Shahidi and Melton do with beguiling ease.
In line with her leads' more Sagan-centric conversations and their head-over-heels tumbling, Russo-Young frequently returns to a simple yet mind-blowing image I don't recall seeing in a film before, with the familiar sight of the Manhattan skyline slowly rotating until it's nearly horizontal – a pointed reminder that, as humans, we're all both figuratively and literally upside-down. Autumn Durald's sun-kissed cinematography, with its occasionally richly colored tableaux, is far more evocative than it was in the recent Teen Spirit, mostly because the photography here isn't required to be the whole show. Yet despite these winning touches and a handful of topnotch supporting turns (the best coming from Jake Choi as Daniel's racist brother and John Leguizamo as a kindly attorney), Star's stars are what make the movie. Yahidi, from TV's Black-ish and Grown-ish, is radiantly expressive with no “ish” qualifiers needed, fully believable as a troubled kid agreeing to let something, anything, take her mind off her family's troubles, even if just for a few minutes. And Melton, from TV's Riverdale, is a nerd-charmer supreme, his attempts at Clooney-level confidence all the more adorable for his moments of boyish goofiness, cackling at hearing Natasha's voice on the phone and refusing to disembark a revolving door when a job interview beckons. The “Five Years Later” sequence at the end is a mistake that badly damages the powerful, unanticipated realness of what came before. (Russo-Young and screenwriter Tracy Oliver could have just waited nine years and delivered their version of Linklater's Before Sunset.) Shahidi and Melton, though, make for a truly endearing couple in The Sun Is Also a Star, which emerges as utterly endearing in its own right. It may not be Everything, Everything, but it's most certainly Something.