'Vice' A Glitchy Replicant of Past Theme Park, Robot Turmoil

Directed by: Brian A. Miller; Runtime: 96 minutes
Grade: D

With advancements in technology and the perseverance of immersive entertainment (videogames, live-action role-playing), Michael Crichton's idea for Westworld -- realistic environments populated with lifelike robots designed for rules-free chaos for those with the financial means -- seems closer to feasible in our not-so-distant future than depicted in the '70s sci-fi classic. Despite nagging concerns over financial viability or legal restrictions, that need for a break from the mundane constrictions of everyday life has materialized in similar, evolving higher-concept films over the years, from the covert thrill-seeking experience of The Game to the lawless bedlam of The Purge. Vice, the latest from B-movie director Brian A. Miller, takes a more direct approach to updating the idea, creating a metropolitan paradise full of realistic humanoid robots who can be solicited, assaulted, and killed without negative repercussions. Any interest generated by Vice's potential fades inside cumbersome plotting and drab performances, however, with nothing new to say and only cursory interest in both the citizens maneuvering through the resort and the puppet master making it a reality.

It's odd to see Bruce Willis in a role quite as nondescript as Julian Michaels, the stoic creator and overseer behind the Vice resort: a place where "artificials" replicate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of actual people while human patrons have their way with them without any tangible rules. His presence adds little to the authoritative events that transpire underneath his character's watch, sparked by one of the artificial intelligences, Kelly (Ambyr Childers), a bartender programmed with aspirations to leave the city for dramatic effect, who starts to have mental flashes and dreams about events that never happened to her. Turns out, they're fragments of memories from the previous interactions she's had with Vice's guests that have been erased by engineers, purged with every reset of her predestined character arc. Eventually, she earns the attention of a local police detective, Roy Todeski (Thomas Jane), who's been hell-bent on shutting down Vice for some time, sparking a connection of events hinged on Kelly's self-awareness ... and Julian's diligence in keeping his creations in line and open for business.

In place of ramshackle saloons and medieval dining halls emphasizing the whimsy of the scenario, Vice duplicates the near-future setting of a contemporary, mid-tier waterfront city one might find anywhere throughout North America, studded with high-class bars, dance clubs, banks to rob and brothels to frequent. It's relatively mundane, but that's part of the point: wealthy patrons do the things in an everyday environment they're not able to do in their everyday environment, disregarding laws and morality to work out their deepest, darkest kinks. Director Miller manages to disguise the film's micro-budget by emphasizing moody lighting and lingering on frequent Dutch angles that capture the resort's livelier activities, including a few gunfights, foot chases ... and, uh, other lascivious pursuits. This mild visual style can't cover up the script's Swiss-cheese retooling of a familiar concept, though, where moments focused on Bruce Willis vacantly laboring over computer screens and Thomas Jane's awkwardly roguish sleuthing eat up the time sorely needed to flesh out its more intriguing particulars.

That's because Vice ends up being more concerned with Kelly's burgeoning self-awareness than with the resort itself, reducing the logistics to how the place operates -- legality, sustainability, technology -- to hastily-addressed and tedious background noise with little purpose beyond adding immediacy to her awakening. Instead of a malfunctioning gunslinger gone rogue due to faulty programming, this story focuses on an unremarkable, tormented robo-citizen of Vice discovering her reason for being, skewing more towards rote science-fiction and moral thought-exercise as it dissects her memory wipes and Julian's machinations in maintaining control. With the right personality, this flip in focus could've worked; however, Kelly ends up being exceptionally one-dimensional, partially by design but also because of Ambyr Childers' static performance. Her characterization gets perked up a bit by a mysterious stranger, Bryan Greenberg's Evan, with intimate knowledge of her origin and programming, but there's no getting around the fundamental issues of this aloof android being in the spotlight while surrounded by a loosely-realized clone of a setting.

Little of that really matters once Vice boots up its core purpose: a formulaic cat-and-mouse chase between a synthetic creation and the might of her stony creator's forces, sporadically interrupted by the antics of a superfluous detective. Consequently, the second half of Miller's film leaks into an unconvincing jumble of frivolous logic and flat expressiveness, driven by inept militaristic forces and fickle technology behind the artificials' memories and tracking devices. Those problems all converge at a particular moment where Kelly's given the opportunity to embrace her synthetic capabilities or reject it in quasi-rebellion of her machine self, one that would've resonated stronger had she been a more tangible (and consistent) persona. Whatever comments about fantasy and reality that the film might convey, about clutching onto the truths of one's existence, they're squandered in the messiness of the plot to the end, futily ping-ponging between references to popular sci-fi bits in hopes of overwriting the malfunctions in its system.

Reeves Ignites Gritty, Self-Aware Vengeance in 'John Wick'

Directed by: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: A-

47 Ronin ended up being a disappointment for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest was the botched return to action for Keanu Reeves, whose ho-hum performance as a thwarted samurai gets lost in a mess of computer-generated waywardness and script meddling. His brand of earnest stoicism has frequently worked to his advantage in other roles at various points in his career, yet he's struggled to find the right niche for his talent over the past ten or so years. Then, Man of Tai Chi emerged on the scene trumpeting his enthusiasm for the B-movie and martial-arts spectrum, including a performance from himself as a mysterious and intimidating underground player with fighting skills. Turns out, Reeves didn't need the scope and grandeur of another Hollywood-budget franchise (another Matrix, if you will) to mount his cinematic riposte, but the smaller-scale, hard-hitting energy of tailored combat and no-nonsense gunfire. That's where John Wick enters the picture.

After viewing the initial trailer for the directing debut of stunt designers/coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, there's an immediate hook that already makes one grin at the film's premise, where a trained killer sets out for revenge against the home invaders who killed his dog. Now, clearly, there's more to it than that: that skilled assassin once belonged to an organized crime ring and removed himself from it after falling in love with his wife (Bridgette Moynahan), to which the dog served as a way of soothing the pain after her death. Therefore, the dog's demise -- which was caused by the son, Iosef (Alfie Allen), of one of the organization's key players, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) -- signifies more than just a small spark of revenge in John's eyes, but a call back to the world he abandoned for something personal. Yet, the playful idea that an ex-assassin's tearing through the underworld based on vengeance for his dog's murder carries through the rest of the story, even playfully referenced throughout ... though it's far from a joking matter.

The script from B-movie action writer Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber; The Package) concentrates on telling an empathetic story of John Wick's "retirement" at first, succeeding more than expected from the premise. It makes you really feel for Wick's anguish and the unwanted solace that his new companion offered before a very carefully-shot death scene, legitimately fueling his resolve to enter back into the world through an unpretentiously heartbreaking backstory. Once he's drawn back in, Kolstead's humor and world-building take over, crafting an eccentric network of espionage that's different from the typical stiff cloak-and-dagger assassin material, developing a stylish outlook on currency, safe spots, and guidelines. See, everybody knows John Wick, and not in a fearful kind of way: entering old haunts, especially the regulated Continental hotel, and reaching out to old contacts works almost like a fond reunion than a bunch of people brushing elbows with the boogeyman, enriching John Wick's character through their sympathy and esteem while proving that he wasn't exactly a heartless machine in his previous life, despite his lethal reputation.

That reputation is justified, though, observed in Wick's first combat situation after being out of the game for a while. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make it abundantly clear that they aren't interested in flashy clouds of missed bullets and elaborate martial-arts choreography filled with blocked punches and kicks, instead emphasizing precise brutality through their quasi-realistic grasp on violence. The resulting action in John Wick is sharp and bloody, a fusion of strategic grappling in the vein of judo and jiu-jitsu with gunplay that purposefully interweaves with Wick's maneuvers, with Keanu Reeves conducting the bulk of the physical work himself. The accomplishments of the action don't begin and end with the violence, either: Stahelski and Leitch also display an impeccable eye for the geography of highly-stylized locations, paired with judicious-yet-colorful cinematography that maintains a lucid viewpoint on the ramifications of what's going on. A fierce blue-tinted scene in an elaborate nightclub, powered by a pair of sublime electronic musical tracks and clear admiration for the work of John Woo, alone cements the film's shrewdness as a pure action film.

The calculated disposition of an assassin with a broken heart turns out to be an excellent vessel for Keanu Reeves' range, playing to his strengths with a character who exhibits restrained emotionality and picks and chooses his words very carefully. Wick's stoicism doesn't drag the film's personality down, though: his, uh, colleagues elevate the tempo with well-drawn and capricious characteristics, from Adrianne Palicki's formidable poise as Ms. Perkins to Willem Dafoe's enigmatic camaraderie as Marcus. Nothing's really cut and dry among them, not even with Wick's nemesis and ex-employer, Viggo, whom The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist filters a healthy amount of idiosyncrasy through his recital of Russian limericks and his prevalent, almost sympathetic fear of the ex-assassin. Their enigmatic motives and crossings over the lines of honor end up shaping the atmosphere more than the anti-hero's own actions, as Wick's path towards the undeniably unlikable Iosef transforms into an elaborate string of responses to how the criminal underworld corrects any faults in its ecosystem.

Style certainly triumphs over substance in John Wick, sure, and it's not completely devoid of action-movie cliches; a handful of questionable missed bullets and dubious Bond villain-esque stalls in executing plans keep the plot alive longer than it should, which stand out more given the dogged pragmatism Chad Stahelski and David Leitch telegraph everywhere else. The meticulousness and general panache crafted from start to finish far exceed those misgivings, however, where the straightforward poeticism behind Wick's story -- smartly encapsulated in an affecting framing device -- reaches a full-throttle and cathartic conclusion for his tormented disposition. Whether this marks a new renaissance in Keanu Reeves' career remains to be seen, but it goes to show that his modest demeanor and enthusiasm for the genre can still thrive with the right kind of role throttling him forward, amounting to one of the sharpest and winsome action films to emerge over the past couple of years.

Flabby Korean Revenger 'No Tears For the Dead' Sheds Many

Directed by: Lee Jeong-beom; Runtime: 116 minutes
Grade: C+

The Man From Nowhere announced the arrival of South Korean director Lee Jeong-beom in a very big way, telling the straightforward yet affective story of a mysteriously lethal man who thwarts a trafficking ring for the sake of his friendship with a young child. Its simplicity and clear emotional streak made for an inspired vehicle for brutal vengeance-fueled violence, complimented by sober photography and razor-sharp editing that transform it into quite an action-thriller. Like other follow-ups, Lee Jeong-beom attempts to achieve similar things with No Tears for the Dead that its predecessor did right, while also expanding on and improving areas that drew some criticism. Unfortunately, a weaker film emerges in the director's third entry that stumbles in devising a more complex plot and elaborate action, despite still delivering a handful of finely-crafted action sequences and an involving moral conflict in the mind of a rugged anti-hero.

No Tears for the Dead settles into a downhearted tone right away, revealing how a trained assassin, Gon -- played by Tae Guk Gi and The Promise star Jang Dong-gun -- accidentally kills a young girl who gets in the line of fire at one of his hits. Wracked with guilt, Gon spirals into a drunken stupor, swearing off the business while the other repercussions of his targets fall into place. In response some time later, his boss sends him on a new mission: to kill the young girl's mother, Mogyeong (Kim Min-hee), a risk management specialist at an investment firm in South Korea who has no knowledge of her criminal husband's wrongdoings. She, too, has surrendered to her grief following the young girl's death, drinking and drugging herself into a complacent state so she might continue her business dealings and care for her senile mother. Once in Korea, Gon's posed with deciding whether to pull the trigger and tie up the remaining loose ends, or to show empathy for the mother of the girl he murdered and risk being killed by his organizational brothers, spearheaded by Chaoz (Brian Tee).

The organized-crime scheme that Lee Jeong-beom orchestrates in No Tears for the Dead ends up being one of those erratic suspenseful plots that both has a lot going on and isn't really about much of anything, involving investments and conspiracies that tie to Mogyeong and her husband in abstract, off-screen ways. It exists to inflate greedy crime bosses and put marks on heads for deviance from the plan, which is all that's really needed to care about when confronted with the culpability of the little girl's death. That looming melancholy element becomes the only story thrust that matters among the clutter, fueling Gon's moral conflict as he returns to his country of origin and copes with the idea of killing the girl's mother. Sure, the emotional streak hits some predictably heavy-handed notes, yet it revolves around an engaging psychological element that adds a touch of richness to the film, carrying over into Gon's own experiences as an abandoned boy in the States while partially relating to Mogyeong's maternal grief.

No Tears for the Dead gets a little preoccupied with those perfunctory moving parts, enduring prolonged gaps without the brand of action that hallmarked Lee Jeong-beom's thrilling initial foray in the genre. After sparking some excitement with a hard-hitting opening involving silenced bullets in a closed-off portion of a nightclub, the film seems content in giving the focal grief and gangster posturing plenty of time to settle in uninterrupted by bloodshed, which would've been fine had the plot been engaging enough to exist without the anticipation of violence to come. Despite suitable performances from most of the cast, ranging from Jang Dong-gun's bloodshot despair to rising star Brian Tee's charismatic rivalry as an almost-brother to Gon, the plot's only strong enough to get one invested in the antihero's motivation to potentially buck his orders and protect the defenseless. Gon's indecisiveness in whether he'll execute Mogyeong builds mild suspense towards a foreseeable outcome, but not enough to linger for an hour before getting to the good stuff.

Once the action does eventually kick into gear, No Tears for the Dead becomes suitably thrilling and briskly-paced as each set-piece aptly escalates the stakes, packing serious firepower as Gon takes on a cluster of other trained, armed-to-the-teeth assassins through the streets of Seoul. True to form, Lee Jeong-beom exerts an undeniable grasp on orchestrating gritty action, telegraphing vigorous gunfire, crushed cars, and spilling blood through shrewdly-composed photography from I Saw The Devil's cinematographer Lee Mo-gae. Admittedly, though, he also relies on a broader flurries of missed bullets and unlikely physical rebounds from seemingly invincible foes than that of The Man From Nowhere, eschewing the opportunity to exert a stronger grasp on realism for the sake of spectacle. That might matter less as the momentum pushes Gon closer to absolution for his wrongs through volatile situations, justified with raw gravitas in a cleverly fitting finale that affirms the director's action chops, but those burdensome machinations and one-dimensional characters lead No Tears for the Dead to miss its mark.