‘Game of Thrones’: ‘Eastwatch’ Does The Work Of Three Episodes (Review)

Eastwatch

“Eastwatch” felt like the second season premiere of this all-too-short penultimate season of Game of Thrones. There were so many moving pieces and ground covered to set up the final two episodes that the whiplash left me hazy on the details. “Wait, so after Dany’s big victory, they want to sue for peace? And they think Cersei will ever be reasonable about their desire to stave off armageddon?” After delivering one of their best episodes yet in “The Spoils of War,” this fifth episode felt like staring in to the abyss of the unknown end.

I can’t say stuff didn’t happen. In fact, so much stuff happened, I had a hard time keeping it all straight; I didn’t even notice Cersei clasping her stomach to announce her pregnancy to Jaime, instead awed by Lena Headey’s psycho expression directly after. Jorah finally returns to Dany’s side and bolts in the span of a few scenes (and two costume changes). Even better, on the basis of questionable logic, everyone decides to call an armistice, even the violence-loving Cersei.

Jaime & Bronn miraculously not only survive last week’s loot train battle, but emerge from the water safely away from Dany, which can’t be said for their Tarly allies, Randyll and Dickon. The Dragon Queen roasts them alive via Drogon, over Tyrion’s objections, when the father and son refuse to bend the knee.

Jaime is smart enough to realize the inevitable: they will lose and he doesn’t let her keep the delusion that Tyrion murdered not just their father but their son as well, informing her of Olenna’s deathbed confession in episode 3. The Lannisters weren’t the only one’s learning truths this week. Arya’s paranoia is a well-developed shield but Littlefinger is smart enough to use this against her, tricking her into reading a letter Sansa wrote back in season 1 under Cersei’s duress to plea for her father’s life (spoiler: it didn’t work). Even when the Starks are a tree wizard, a magic assassin, and a skilled politician, Littlefinger plays them like fiddles.

Bran instructs Wolkan to send ravens to Jon and Oldtown about the Night King and the army of the dead approaching Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, where Tormund and the Wildlings has taken up residence. Unsurprisingly, Jon is unable to enjoy the news of Bran’s and Arya’s survival because of this, immediately declaring his intention to leave. Tyrion, usually the sensible one, thinks proof of the army of the dead will force a truce in the war over the Iron Throne. If only Tyrion lived in America 2017, then he’d realize no amount of evidence will shake foundation beliefs. Befitting his righteous hot-headednes, Jon immediately volunteers to lead the mission to retrieve a wight (“zombie”) as said proof. How they intend to do this and live is anyone’s guess. Surely, they’ll bring an army.

Nope. Jorah jumps at the chance to do Dany’s bidding. Davos has the sense to bow out ( something he lampshades in the episode) but Gendry leaps at the chance to star on Game of Thrones again to meet his destiny. Happily, a bunch of other named characters have already arrived at Eastwatch with the same purpose – Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and the Hound await in a cell. Beric himself take the opportunity to hang a lampshade on the “greater purpose” driving them. I half expected him to start talking about mysterious godlike showrunners pushing the narrative to a breakneck collision pace. The rapid-fire recriminations to sell the teeth-clenched teamwork almost made it seem like the group was a diverse one but ultimately, the show has adopted the unifying (and conveniently binary) theme of life fighting against death, the latter taking the form of anthropomorphic ice demons and zombies. Samwell even refers to the Night King as evil incarnate at one point.

Jon leads his Magnificent Seven out of Eastwatch on his latest dumb plan. At least when Dany went into combat, it was on dragonback with a Dothraki horde leading the charge. Do they think this will be a stealthy mission? That somehow they won’t alert the telepathic overlord of corpse-reanimating ice magic? Rewatching the scene where this idiotic plan is drawn up is mind-boggling because everyone acts as if this is the already agreed-upon course of action. Even granting that this is something realistic, the fact that we don’t see such a consensus arrive highlights the recurring weakness of this particular episode – the pace is so relentless and is so plot heavy that very little breathes naturally. It comes across arranged and “writerly” for lack of a better word.

It stings all the more because it was precisely the lack of this weakness that made the earlier, more book-orientated seasons better. While not perfect, this narrative style imported from the books allowed the show to have the same sense of worldly vastness. Now, the contraction of the world in the form of countless character deaths and increased pacing has resulted in a world that is very small, with issues addressed as the plot requires, rather than driving the plot itself. Martin’s own obsession with the depth and sprawl of his universe is what drove the delays on the fourth and fifth novels in the series, which noticeably slow down to allow tensions to rebuild and characters to fan out to the furthest reaches of their arcs. The show is quite good still and is even able to mask several of these weaknesses in well-meaning narrative logic, but no doubt does it deprive the show of the same sense of scale, even though the show is delivering on its huge budget via its best battles and effects yet.

Gendry’s reappearance (oh, yeah, did I mention Davos took Tyrion to King’s Landing this week? Working-class hero Davos did a stand-up number.) is a good example of the writer’s poking fun at these weaknesses. He leaps at Davos’ recruitment and is completely unremorseful regarding killing now. He also acts super proud and knowledgeable about his birth father and very upfront with Jon, a fellow bastard but one who is also royalty now.

Emotional investment is just chips you can cash in. For what they’re worth, the reunions and meetings have been exciting but they also carry an expectancy that the sheer fact that they’re happening is enough to drive the encounter. Sadly, they lack the thoughtful measure with which they were first put together.

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‘Game of Thrones’: A Feast for Fans in Season 7 Midpoint Episode ‘The Spoils of War’ (Review)

Spoils

“The Spoils of War” refers to the ongoing conflict in Westeros but also to what fans got in the shortest episode Game of Thrones has yet aired. But runtimes are deceptive and the episode feels plenty full, with two heavy-hitting sequences anchoring it: the Stark family reunion at Winterfell as Arya finally makes it home and the battle between the Lannister army and Dany’s khalasar, backed by the best dragon action the show has ever done.

While Jaime, Bronn and the Tarlys organize the supply train of gold and resources from Highgarden to King’s Landing, Cersei solidifies her alliance with the Iron Bank, on the condition of the Crown’s loan repayment (with Tyrell gold, natch), and with the intent to hire the Golden Company out of Essos to reinforce her army. Good thing too, given what happens to her Lannister/Reach forces this episode.

Littlefinger gets his usual creep on, this time talking with Bran about the Valyrian steel dagger* used in his attempted assassination way back in season 1. Meera tearfully departs from a distant Bran. Arya arrives at Winterfell and the full Stark reunion is in effect. First, Sansa and then Bran, then all of them together in the castle courtyard. The second-best scene (because what could top the third act?) in this episode is when Brienne and Arya get their fight on, both impressing each other and dueling to a standstill.

*This was Littlefinger’s dagger, lost to King Robert in a bet over a tourney bout. It was Joffrey who would give it to the assassin to “put the boy out of his misery,” in his young, sociopathic misunderstanding of Robert’s own words. Littlefinger later lied to Ned and Catelyn about who won the dagger, saying it was Tyrion instead of Robert, and leading directly to his abduction by Catelyn and the ensuing War of the Five Kings. He was not wrong to say the dagger, as much as Bran’s crippling accident, started it all. 

Jon shows Daenerys the dragonglass alongside some ancient cave paintings depicting the alliance of the First Men and the Children of the Forest against the first coming of the White Walkers during the Long Night. She commits to his cause – if he commits to hers and bends the knee.

Outside, Tyrion and Varys inform her of the events of “The Queen’s Justice.” Desperate for advice after the failure of Tyrion’s plans and itching to solve her problems the way she usually does – with fire, preferably from a dragon – she turns to Jon Snow. He rightfully points out a ruler burning their subjects is exactly what got Westeros in its current, miserable position. Instead, how about redirecting that pyromania toward to a better target?

We don’t get to see that conversation, as we cut to Jon and Davos discussing Dany’s, um, “heart” before approaching Missandei and quizzing her re: her loyalty. They’re both impressed by the willing devotion the Dragon Queen receives, although that’s hardly news to us who’ve watched her grow over the last seven years.

It isn’t long after that lowly Theon shows up with his Ironborn compatriots (their fleet reduced to one measly ship by Euron’s), looking to beseech Daenerys’ help in rescuing Yara. But Dany’s got shit to do, namely leading Drogon and her Dothraki khalasar in an attack on Jaime’s army. It is bar-none the best battle scene the show has done up until now, fulfilling a series-long promise to have Dany lead the Dothraki in an invasion of Westeros and finally unleashing full-scale dragon carnage. And it is glorious.

Despite the battle quickly becoming a curb stomp for Dany’s team, Bronn manages to wound Drogon using Qyburn’s ballista, grounding the dragon. Jaime foolishly chooses to try and take Dany out while tending to Drogon. He is only saved from a dragonfire roasting by Bronn knocking him off his horse into a lake, where his ornate Lannister armor drags him down into the watery depths. There, the episode ends.

But we all know he’s coming back, and in that likely case, he is now a prisoner of Dany and her khalasar. The writers specifically made clear that the Tyrell gold made it to King’s Landing, which means Cersei’s alliance with the Iron Bank should remain sound, ensuring her reinforcements to make up for the loss of a large portion of her family’s army in this episode.

This is a Top 5 Game of Thrones episode for me, no doubt. The only ones I think compare to the emotional punch and epic spectacle of “The Spoils of War” are “Blackwater,” “The Rains of Castamere,” “Hardhome,” and “The Winds of Winter.” The magic of season 7 is in how earned it is and how relentless. It is just pay-off after pay-off now. That can be exhausting for some who prefer when the show’s breathes. But with the cast ever-shrinking, these final hours of season 7 and the six left in season 8 will have more and more room for the characters we’ve invested most heavily.

It also makes me excited. I cannot wait to find out how the show intends to top this year, as it inevitably has to, during its final season. I think this episode proves we can all be assured the final battle will be well worth the wait.

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‘Game of Thrones’: Speeding Through The Good Stuff In ‘The Queen’s Justice’ (Review)

Stormborn

In an earlier season, the build-up to the meeting of “ice and fire” as the red priestess Melisandre describes the meeting of Daenerys Targaryen, exiled Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and Jon Snow, the bastard King in the North. But I wonder if, in the eagerness to unspool the endgame, “The Queen’s Justice” is shorting itself a little.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the lean pacing and muscular scenes that cut right to the chase. Jon is in the North and then he’s at Dragonstone. We not only see the assault on Casterly Rock, but it is intercut with Jaime’s surprise sack of Highgarden (clearly, Bronn took the fortress single-handedly), events that definitely could have filled an episode each earlier in the show’s run. Couple things with this: wasn’t is a big fucking deal in season 2 when Theon sacked Winterfell? Just because Casterly Rock’s infamous gold mines are dry (which we’ve known since season 4) doesn’t mean it’s nothing to give up your home base, especially one with a untarnished history that no doubt props up Lannister dominance? Forgetting that, why didn’t Olenna Tyrell (RIP) tell Tyrion about the Lannister bankruptcy last episode, thus avoiding taking a now-worthless target?

Jon and Dany both spend much of their meeting talking past each other, displaying some extraordinarily bad communication skills. Both also inexplicably make shitty arguments dependent on fallacious logic that falls apart for both. Dany insists on the oaths Jon’s Stark ancestors swore, even though they crumbled long ago during the Mad King’s reign and more recently during the War of the Five Kings. Jon meanwhile, insists Dany ally with him against the Night King and his army of the dead because he’s not a lunatic or dishonest.

The scene might have been improved by some setup, as little as a couple scenes to see how these characters perceive each other prior to their meeting. At the very least, a conversation with their advisers, Tyrion and Davos respectively, might set up the various things that needed discussed at the meeting, instead of “Let’s wing it!” (especially egregious in Jon’s case, where he’s arguing for a supernatural threat most, dragons aside, are inclined to dismiss). Instead, both parties come off as bumbling newbies who haven’t had six seasons of character development. The ice and fire meeting had the rush of immediate gratification but not much emotional investment in the feelings of the two characters who most resemble traditional, boring fantasy heroes.

Dany’s best moment in a while came with her badass monologue to Jon Snow, laying out the obstacles she overcame to claim her birthright. It’s the first moment that carries the weight of her character this season. The first three episodes of season 7 were very much a humbling the Dragon Queen, her expense feeding the show’s need to make Cersei’s regime a threat to the other monarchs in Westeros. Two weeks ago, Cersei lacked resources and faced threats on every front. Now, with Dany’s Westerosi allies wiped out, Cersei can not only wage war (thanks to Jaime and her begrudging engagement to the politically-incorrect populist pirate Euron Greyjoy aka Pilou Asbaek), but pay back the Iron Bank (represented by Tycho Nestoris, played by Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss), kill her enemies (goodbye, House Tyrell & Martell, your stories are over) and flaunt her twincest. Got to make it competitive somehow.

While Jon does the fantasy stuff, meeting dragons and beautiful queens, Sansa is working to store food for winter. The minutiae of leadership and politics remains a core source of conflict and drama for the series and notably, not even the latest Littlefinger meaningful monologue gobbledygook feels out of place in this moment. It’s followed by the emotional return of Bran Stark to Winterfell, with Meera Reed in tow.

It’s set up to the viewer thinks its Arya, perhaps to heighten the surprise at the now stoned-philosophy major Bran is as he struggles with his timey-wimey role he remains only partially trained for. Bran’s lost any remaining social skills in the time since undead Uncle Benjen dropped him and Meera off at the Wall in last year’s finale and seems unable to even perceive emotion or time on a human level.

Elsewhere in this packed episode, Theon got fished from the sea for a single scene, once again an outcast among his Ironborn compatriots. His mission must be to rescue his sister, last seen being marched through King’s Landing on a leash by their gleeful uncle Euron. Hopefully, redemption once again reaches Theon, but after so many failures, it can be hard to see a good death for the perpetual loser. At the Citadel in Oldtown, Jorah is deemed cured of his greyscale by Archmaester Ebrose, thanks to Sam’s secret efforts, the secretive nature of which goes exactly nowhere with Ebrose. The Archmaester is nonetheless impressed enough to allow Sam to remain a maester-in-training at the Citadel.

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‘Game of Thrones’: Narrative Branches Are Chopped Off In ‘Stormborn’ (Review)

Stormborn

There were several more war councils and strategy meetings in”Stormborn,” the second episode of Game of Thrones‘ abbreviated and penultimate seventh season. But unlike the premiere, which acted as an extended prologue, there was a significant amount of forward momentum to the plotting and a big action scene to signal war in Westeros (again).

The later seasons of HBO’s fantasy hit can be described as the “great narrowing.” Beginning with season 5, the show’s narrative contraction began in earnest, cutting content and combining characters at a much greater frequency. One thing that accelerated that process was the failed introduction of Dorne, the characters of which were shunted aside save for two scenes in premiere and finale of season 6 and summarily dealt with tonight in service of the war between Cersei, Dany, and Jon.

The first battle of the renewed war is fired by the psychotic Euron Greyjoy against the collective fleets of the Dornish, under the command of Ellaria Sand and her three daughters the Sand Snake, and his rebellious niece and nephew, Yara and Theon. Euron of the books is a dark messiah, a Lovecraftian abomination in human skin, methodical and psychotic at the same time.

Euron of the show is the Joker, minus the methodology, and much more driven by his impulses than his calculating (and magic-obsessed) counterpart in the novel. His brutal murders of Obara and Nymeria Sand was both a way for the showrunners to finally wrap up Dorne’s role in the series and a way to ingratiate Euron further into the story, given that his character’s arc has been altered quite a bit. Pilou Asbaek fills the unrepentant and unsympathetic evil role vacated by Iwan Rheon’s Ramsay with gleeful bloodlust.

Par the course for show’s charting their ending, the references to the early seasons, particularly the first, were plenty in this episode. Amidst the collisions, continuances, and conclusions, the name Robert Baratheon was thrown around for the first time, both by Varys while pledging his loyalty to Dany and by Cersei while plotting dragon death with her Hand Qyburn.

And later, Arya had a nice moment with Hot Pie (still baking away at the Riverlands inn aka the nexus of the universe) and discovered her brother was King in the North (nada on Sansa though, natch). She also runs into her fully-grown direwolf Nymeria, driven away early in season 1 to spare her from Cersei’s wrath. The wolf has its own pack now and tragically refuses Arya’s pleas to return to Winterfell with her. Will Arya take Nymeria’s decision to heart and return to her quest to kill Cersei? Or does it reinforce her desire to see her family again, even if she knows she’s not meant for life in a noble family?

The biggest setups were for next week’s meeting between the show’s two overtly prophecized protagonists – Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Those two are as close as the show gets to “Chosen Ones,” which is a high fantasy novelty the show eschewed for years in favor of politics and realism. Melisandre has spent her time on the show looking for the right Chosen One and bounced from Stannis to Jon (whose resurrection is not getting nearly the attention it deserves) and now to Dany, with her teleportation from the North to Dragonstone. One of the most compelling arguments for the overall arc of the series is that is shows how a medieval world reacts when the “magic comes back” in the form of dragons, zombies, and ice demons. It is the violent transformation of a recognizable world into a high fantasy landscape.

Before Euron’s surprise attack, Dany and her allies put into motion a plan to defeat Cersei, with their Westerosi armies laying siege to King’s Landing and the Dothraki and Unsullied capturing the Lannister home base of Casterly Rock. Tyrion also advises her to invite Jon Snow to Dragonstone for an alliance. Dany agrees but counters that the King in the North will have to bend the knee. Dany’s request, coupled with Sam’s letter about the dragonglass on Dragonstone (who woulda thunk), makes me feel he has no other choice but to accept, to the disagreement of his allies, including Sansa, who is so politically savvy she has publicly undermined her brother the last two weeks. Personally, I blame the writing rather the character, as Sophie Turner is consistently great at communicating Sansa’s understandable frustration. Of course, Jon confirms that Sansa will rule the North while he is away, eliminating the distance between them before he jets off with Davos South, as his father and brother before him.

People who didn’t have a great time this week were Littlefinger, who apparently equates creepy pining for a young girl with bonding with the King in the North (who is also her brother). Nonetheless, he is right when he points out Jon wouldn’t have won the Battle of the Bastards without his Knights of the Vale. Meanwhile, in Oldtown, Sam has discovered that dragonglass is not only the only weapon that works against White Walkers, but the only cure for greyscale, citing Stannis’ daughter Shireen who survived because her father lived on Dragonstone. What a versatile mineral. Unfortunately, the treatment is quite painful and involves Sam cutting away Jorah’s inflected flesh, which extends over most of his torso at this point. Is it gross? Yes, so of course the show spares no detail (although I hardly blame the show or Iain Glen for wanting to get use out of the long makeup process). It’s also a nice moment for another callback to Jorah’s father Jeor, who mentored Sam and led the Night’s Watch until his death in season 3. Sam honors that relationship by trying to save Jeor’s son, whom Jim Broadbent’s Archmaester has diagnosed as terminal.

As cool as the final sea battle was and seeing the pieces move across the board, my favorite scene was the extended moment between Grey Worm and Missandei, two underrated supporting players who have consistently added depth to the show since joining at the beginning of season 3. Jacob Anderson made me tear up with his admission that he was a fearless killing machine – until he fell in love with Missandei. And despite the fact he was gelded as a child during his hellish training, Missandei sweetly asks to see his whole body, comforting his misplaced sense of shame and inexperience with affection. Game of Thrones was criticized recently for its lack of positive sex scenes, so it felt both prescient and timely that the writers took the time for these characters, given the limited time remaining.

What did you think of ‘Stormborn?’ Better or worse than the premiere?

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The Board Is Set and the Pieces Are Moving In ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 7 Premiere ‘Dragonstone’ (Review)

Dragonstone

Box office is down at theaters this summer amidst tired franchise offerings. But on Sundays, at the same 9 p.m. hour, TV is proving how it has caught up to cinema. On one hand, there’s Twin Peaks, an auteur’s acid trip courtesy of David Lynch, and at 10 episodes into his 18-hour Showtime revival of his classic 1990-91 ABC series, I’m confident saying it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on a screen – any screen – in the last year. Of course, the other show that has changed television is the one you’re here to read about: Game of Thrones.

While TV has certainly told epic stories before, the scale and expense of Game of Thrones dwarfs them all. Last night’s penultimate premiere featured some shots I imagine would cost an entire episode’s budget on another show. But it is precisely its fantastical grandeur that makes it safe to say it is at the forefront of a new form, the TV blockbuster. The scope, coupled with the down-to-earth and realistic characters, make it both broad and deep. “Dragonstone,” the premiere episode of the show’s penultimate (and shortened) season, acted as a pivot toward the grandiose endgame that George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books upon which the show is based, hasn’t even told yet.

As Gandalf would say, “The board is set. The pieces are moving.” This premiere moves quite like its seasonal siblings, with the focus primarily on foreshadowing and flag-planting, to the point that the last line (Dany saying “Shall we begin?”) acts as an in-joke. The episodes is named as such because the titular location becomes a nexus point of many of the characters due to its Targaryen origins and preponderance of dragonglass, the only material capable of killing White Walkers.

Thanks to cast pruning and the narrowing of the series’ later books, three sides have emerged: Jon Snow and the North, Cersei Lannister and what’s left of the Seven Kingdoms, and Daenerys Targaryen and her allies in the south. Each leader has a retinue of familiar family and advisers, setting the stage for the final conflict over the Iron Throne and, if there’s anybody left over to rule, the Great War against the Night King.

Cersei eliminated all her enemies in a fiery blaze last season, leaving her childless and her twin-lover Jaime in fear of her. What’s a Mad Queen to do with power and no scruples? Find more enemies to kill of course. That’s not a problem, because as Jaime points out, the North has declared their independence (again) under Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen is sailing to Dragonstone with her dragons and an armada, and the southern kingdoms have joined her in rebellion. Cersei is left to ally with the only other player on the board, the equally-mad king of the Iron Islands, Euron Greyjoy.

The Greyjoy subplot shows both the strengths and weaknesses of narrative consolidation. In some cases, it is a very necessary and even welcome shortcut to avoid belaboring the story. In others though, the show takes shortcuts that the books refuse to, to the former’s detriment. In this case, book Euron is set up as a fierce opponent all his own, with his proposed alliance with Cersei seemingly an invention of the show’s, although we can’t be certain given that Martin has yet to finish the last two books in his series. It seems more of a way to give Cersei a fighting chance against overwhelming odds and, to be fair, Euron’s desire for a queen does come from the books themselves. That said, PoorQuentyn has way better ideas for what Martin’s going to do, namely “The Eldritch Apocalypse” and with textual evidence to back it up. It’s the nature of the beast but I am disappointed that we’re losing what’s (hopefully) to come in Martin’s novels.

By contrast, the Hound subplot was quite strong thanks to its call-back to a seemingly random event from his endless treks around the Riverlands with Arya in season 4. Traveling with the Brotherhood Without Banners, they find shelter at the same farm whose residents the Hound mugged and left for dead. Sure enough, they died. The Hound’s decision to bury their bodies contrasts well with his previous decision to rob and abandon them.

As with Arya, the young Starks have grown up and now are taking charge just as winter arrives. Bran and Meera are greeted at the Wall by good ole Dolorous Edd, bringing them one step closer to Winterfell. Jon sends the Wildlings to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to man the Wall in preparation for the White Walkers. But the Hound sees in the flames that the Night King and his undead army are already headed to that castle, intending to bypass the Wall altogether.

One of the best parts of Martin’s series (and something he is proud of) is the abundance of well-written female characters. In some ways, the show has played up that element (Sansa watching Ramsay Bolton’s gruesome death was pure fan service but audiences’ desperately wanted it, so it worked perfectly). The show continues on that theme in the cold open, where we’re back at the Twins and Walder Frey is giving a speech to his many male progeny. I’ll admit, I wondered exactly what we were watching for a good 10 seconds before it clicked that this was Arya perpetrating a reverse Red Wedding, an event foreshadowed but as-yet fulfilled in the books. The revenge of women isn’t just about their station. Rather, their overarching struggle to break free of bondage represents what the Martin and the story have always been concerned with: “cripples, bastards, and broken things.” Making use of all the ways society’s classifies people is used expertly by Martin to create relatable underdogs who we root for. On the other hand, Arya’s scene with Ed Sheeran and His Merry Band Of Friendly Lannister-ites felt like a pale imitation of Martin’s writing, though I did appreciate that Arya was able to have one decent, non-violent encounter with someone. And with Lannister soldiers no less, which I guess was the writers’ clumsy point.

Last and kinda least is Sam’s time in Oldtown, which was the equivalent of Arya and the Hound’s previously mentioned meandering season 4 Riverland wanderings but sped up x100. Given there are 12 episodes left after this, I appreciate we didn’t have to watch a season of Sam emptying chamber pots and doing a variety of other monotonous and/or gross tasks (though I consistently appreciate how interested the show is in bodily functions). Speaking of which, of course it’s during an autopsy that the season’s biggest addition Archmaester Marwyn, appropriately played by a Hogwarts teacher in the form of Jim Broadbent, blithely promises the Wall will always stand (uh huh). One of my favorite moments was the effective jump-scare that revealed the fate of Jorah Mormont, as his greyscale-afflicted arm jutted out of a medieval isolation chamber beneath the Citadel. Even without seeing Iain Glen, the pain and longing in his voice as he asked Sam if “the Dragon Queen” had arrived yet was powerful.

My biggest takeaway from the season 7 premiere was how normal it felt. With only 12 episodes left in the entire series and plenty of promises made in the press about the phenomenal pacing this season, the first hour was relatively rote. But I have a feeling we’ll be missing this era of normalcy as the show continues to make moves that change the game ahead of whatever light or darkness is at the end of this tunnel.

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‘The Fate of the Furious’ Review: An Aging But Efficient Machine

Fate The Fast and Furious films are much like the cars they’re about. The series is a machine that’s had parts interchanged and souped up over the years. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth installment in the most improbable saga in blockbuster cinema, shows the first signs of wear and tear. Despite bigger-than-ever scope (prevent World War III!) and stunts (a nuclear submarine chase!), Fate shows the signs of the franchise foundation cracking under its own weight.

Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is honeymooning in Cuba with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) when he’s approached by the Machiavellian hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron), revealed to be the mastermind behind the villains in the previous two movies, and blackmailed into helping her achieve nothing less than world domination. His betrayal forces Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Dom’s makeshift family (Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel) to enlist their former enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), with the help of government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new protege (Scott Eastwood), to stop him and Cipher. Vehicular antics ensue.

Eight films in, you’d be in the right to expect a little efficiency. The Fate of the Furious is yet another ridiculous blockbuster about cars and the indestructible men and women who drive them. The franchise, to its credit, has its strengths down to a science. But its reliance on its signature moves yields blind spots that rob this movie of impact. The film could never replicate the emotional resonance of Furious 7, but it drops the ball in a few key areas.

F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Italian Job) delivers another stylish entry, continuing a tradition of hiring people of color behind the camera, from John Singleton to Justin Lin to James Wan. Gray keeps the action zippy enough to sustain the 136-minute runtime, adding a James Bond flair to the globe-trotting adventure.

There’s plenty of gossip about what went on behind-the-scenes of this film, from the Rock’s firing off a cryptic Instagram decrying “Candy asses” and the news Diesel killed a post-credits tag showing stars Johnson and Statham, but not him. It’s here the loss of co-lead Paul Walker to a car accident in November 2013, halfway through filming Furious 7, is felt acutely. As Vulture explains, it’s tough to replace the brotherly bond at the center of his testosterone fest with one of mutual hatred, especially when it doesn’t even yield dividends on screen because Johnson and Diesel refuse to share the set and especially when they’re characters are supposed to not just friends, but family.

Speaking of family, I love that this is the franchise where Michelle Rodriguez is the female lead and Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris seem just happy to be along for the ride. Theron never leaves her trailer, it seems. They cast Furiosa herself but somehow didn’t put her behind the wheel. That’s not the kind of thing you save for the sequel. Russell, for all his charm, needs more to do. And Scott Eastwood is here basically as the new white guy, subbing in for Walker’s intended arc as Russell’s protege.

It was natural the first film in the post-Walker era would be Diesel-heavy, given the focus on his turn to the dark side. He’s fine, even good, but Dom’s betrayal, played up in the marketing material, has less impact than it should. For example, there’s no mistaking the editing and body doubles that neuters his on-screen relationship with Johnson’s Hobbs, rendering any hope that his and Diesel’s beef was a wrestling-esque rivalry stunt. This leads to Johnson growing chemistry with the series’ newest bald action star, Statham, and Diesel’s aforementioned squashing of the duo’s post-credits tag.

There’s always so much going on in these movies that it’s easy to overlook the flaws. The chases are filmed well and the action is sutibly extravagant. For all my criticism of the interchangeable nature of the series robbing it of what worked in the first place, the series is extraordinary for adding elements seamlessly. Helen Mirren mentioned off-handedly in an interview she’d love to be in a Fast & Furious movie and suddenly she pops up for a couple scenes as the Shaw matriarch, which dovetails nicely with Deckard’s redemption

It leads to problems, like with Statham’s character. Look, morality or anything like it doesn’t have much to do with the series; the “fah-muly” slogan is more of a libertarian honor-among-thieves bonding than anything else. But it is vacuous when a character kills an alleged main character (#JusticeforHan) and bygones-are-bygones a film later. There’s dramatic potential left hanging that is instead glossed over. Sure, it makes sense why the producers want to keep Statham’s ex-assassin around but does it make sense for our heroes? (I’m partly playing devil’s advocate here. Growing up on Dragon Ball Z taught me the trope of “villain’s defeat means friendship” young). Action movies are often indiscriminate with their body counts but there are levels and the audience can’t feel like there aren’t consequences to the characters’ actions.

The biggest takeaway from Fate may be that the series, without Walker, is missing an essential element. In the truest sense of “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone,” what I thought was the milquetoast boring Paul Walker turned out to be the emotional center of the franchise the whole time, without me realizing it. Now, with his farewell an emotional and financial highpoint of the series, what we’re left with is just shy of Bond-level camp. I’d like to avoid the lame pun that the series is “running out of gas,” but it certainly feels like Furious 9 needs to bring the family back together behind-the-scenes before we can get a truly satisfying Fast & Furious movie again.

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‘Kong: Skull Island’ Review: Glorious Monster Movie Fan Fiction

Movie
Kong: Skull Island is a movie for the child and inner geek inside us all. Rife with giant monster fights and classic movie references, this King Kong-by-way-of-Apocalypse-Now reboot has more on its mind than just spectacle but not quite the bandwidth to handle it. Though it’s hampered by its own preoccupations and weak characters from transcending as a B-movie tribute, it’s nonetheless the definition (well, my definition) of a good time at the movies.

The movie begins in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, with the discovery of Skull Island by MONARCH, the secret government organization first seen in 2014’s Godzilla. An eclectic group of scientists, soldiers, and other experts are assembled to investigate the island, before the Russians do (one of many unintentionally-timely political moments in the film) . Predictably, upon arrival, they find they’re not nearly as welcome as they thought as they encounter Kong and have to survive all manner of giant beasties.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ sophomore effort following his 2013 indie hit The Kings of Summer, he wears his influences on his sleeves. Skull Island has all the trappings of a gleeful kid in the most epic toy box imaginable and the film radiates that child-like joy, treating its characters more as action figures than actual characters. While they all (for the most part) get a moment or two beyond their introductions, it’s inevitably a joke or their death scene (sometimes both).

The film is a film lover’s pastiche, with Apocalypse Now in both story and visuals, with bits of Cannibal Holocaust and every previous film of King Kong of course. Roberts and writers Max Borenstein, Dan Gilroy, and Derek Connolly (with a story credit by  John Gatins) get a ton of mileage out of the Vietnam War metaphor but for all their cleverness, it lacks subtlety and occasionally gives way to some head-smacking moments. It takes spiritual cues from Jurassic Park but doesn’t quite reach Spielberg’s mastery of both story and character. The thin characterization and episodic narrative lead to some emotional investment and momentum problems, though never enough to sink or ruin the movie.

The cast is absolutely stacked, though most have simply archetypal roles to work with. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are mostly stand-ins as leads, with only a couple moments to work through their emotions and only then, they’re reflective of one or two things about them; he’s a a tracker, she’s a photographer (ahem, “antiwar” photographer) etc. Thankfully, the movie is self-aware enough to spare us any romantic plot tumors.

Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman are great, as usual, particularly the former as the soldiers’ commanding officer who develops a Captain Ahab-like obsession with killing Kong. 24: Legacy‘s Corey Hawkins acquits himself well as Randa’s number two, but John Ortiz and Jing Tian have thankless roles as a MONARCH scientists along for the ride. The soldiers played by Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, and Thomas Mann all make the most of their parts, with Whigham as the shell-shocked stand-out.

The real protagonist of the movie is Hank Marlow, a fighter pilot stranded on the island since World War II, played with humor and heart by John C. Reilly. He, along to a lesser-degree Jackson, act as nexus points for that coveted story-character convergence that Spielberg masters, making a character’s arc not only present, but the thrust of the story.

Jackson, the human villain, embodies the corrupting nature of war but he is contrasted, not with the nominal leads Hiddleston or Larson, but with Reilly’s character, who against all odds maintained his sanity (mostly) amidst the craziness of Skull Island. Marlow wants something more than just survival; to see his wife again, meet his son for the first time, and watch the Cubs with a Budweiser and a hot dog. Incidentally, it’s with Marlow whom we start the movie and with Marlow that it ends.

The film’s Kong is a straight-up hero, a noble creature who protects all creatures from those who seek to cause malicious or gross harm on his home. Terry Notary comes straight from the previous Kong Andy Serkis’ (currently aping it up in the Planet of the Apes movies, which Notary also stars in) school of motion capture. The various monsters, fights, and monster fights tick off the boxes of what you want from monsters, fights, and monster fights.

In Legendary’s nascent MonsterVerse, it’s all about pitting them against each other. Like Godzilla, Kong is now a “protector,” one side of nature’s balance and the unabashedly good one at that. That leaves the human characters stuck in the middle, their efforts overshadowed literally and figuratively by the enormous monsters duking it out around them. It’s a lovely (and expensive) creature feature who’s main goal is entertain above all, making the movie with child-like imagination. John Hammond would be proud; they “spared no expense.”

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‘Logan’ Review: A Superhero Movie With Soul

Logan
How many times are the third installments of trilogies the best? Going by the X-Men franchise at this point, which yielded X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse as abysmal trilogy cappers, never. But Wolverine, embodied by Hugh Jackman now in nine films since his 1999 casting in X-Men  has always walked his own path. His spinoff series started with its worst film, progressing slowly from the travesty of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (the worst superhero movie title until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to director James Magnold’s previous entry, the 2/3 good, 1/3 awful The Wolverine, and, now, to Mangold’s Logan, a Western masquerading as a superhero movie. Make no mistake, this is the best X-Men movie to date, a pastiche of True Grit, Unforgiven, The Professional, and even Little Miss Sunshine, all rolled up in superhero wrapping paper.

Set in 2029, five years after the epilogue of X-Men: Days of Future Past, mutants have all-but-disappeared for reasons unknown. James “Logan” Howlett aka Wolverine is in hiding on the Mexican border, caring for a mentally-ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant). When a nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) with a young girl Laura (Dafne Keen) arrive on their doorstep, it forces Logan to confront his demons if he’s to protect Laura from Transigen, the evil corporation behind experiments to replicate the Weapon X program that created Wolverine, led by Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) and his enforcer Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).

It could not be a more perfect send-off for the 18 years Jackman spent playing the character. A theater actor with a love of musicals, he is not who you would expect would have owned the primal rage, morose melancholy, and cynical meanness that defines the character. The actor himself cannot stop smiling outside the role, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a smirk throughout his time as Wolverine. The dichotomy between actor and character is like a reminder of the task Jackman accomplished here: making Wolverine not only believable, but human. Someone who is invulnerable to harm and a dick to most everyone should not be sympathetic. In Jackman’s hands, his invulnerability is a curse and his dickishness a clear mask for pain.

Logan

It’s this part of Wolverine Mangold intuitively understands. He takes the core themes of The Wolverine – of the character’s exhausting immortality and fear of intimacy – and applies them here again, liberated from the third-act nonsense of that film and emboldened by the R-rating. The rating allows for more than just blood, language, and nudity. The tone itself is so dark it borders nihilistic, a direct reflection of the hero’s mindset. The fatalism is amplified for fans of the whole franchise, as the film effectively erases the “happy” ending of Days of Future Past, after all the timey-wimey shenanigans to save mutants in that movie.

Dafne Keen is a force to be reckoned with as Laura aka X-23, a young mutant imbued with Wolverine’s powers. She plays the near-mute character with effortless gravitas and truly amazing facial acting for the English-Spanish actress’s feature film debut. Patrick Stewart also gets to give his seventh and best performance as Charles Xavier aka Professor X. The bleakness reaches even the serene leader of the X-Men, now suffering from dementia that makes him dependent on medication and dangerous for anyone but Caliban or Wolverine. The former, an albino mutant played by British actor Stephen Merchant, completes the makeshift family, offering a softer side to the jaded ex-X-Men.

With such a seminal moment for these long-running superheroes, it makes sense the villains would generally take a backseat to the movie’s focus. Model-turned-actor Boyd Holbrook (of Netflix’s Narcos) is like a mix of young Brad Pitt circa True Romance and Kalifornia and Jeremy Renner circa Dahmer, a low-key Midwesterner that mixes leading man looks with real acting chops. He plays the cybernetically-enhanced leader of the mercenary Reavers with appropriate amounts of slime and cunning. His boss Dr. Rice is played by British stage actor Richard E. Grant (seen on the last season of Game of Thrones) who actually underplays his role as the mad scientist behind all of Transigen’s mutant experiments, including Laura’s “creation.”

Logan

Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine in LOGAN. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein.

Logan proves once again “comic book” or “superhero” are insufficient descriptors of these adaptations. For true success involves marrying the ideas of the source material with a tried-and-true genre of film. The Dark Knight is a Michael Mann crime drama. X-Men: First Class is a period Bond film. Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s Star Wars, Ant-Man its heist movie. Logan wears its influence on its sleeve even more overtly; it’s the 1953 Western Shane, a film which is watched by the characters in Logan.

Actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, writer of such modern Westerns as Sicario (and its upcoming sequel Soldado) and recent Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water, said in a THR writers’ roundtable that he liked simple plots so he could focus entirely on the characters. It’s a lesson Mangold and his fellow screenwriters Scott Frank, and Michael Green take to heart, making essentially an Australian chase movie in the vein of George Miller’s Mad Max series. Mangold deftly navigates genre by managing the tone, as he did when he lent the tropes of samurai movies to The Wolverine. He evokes classical cinema such as noir (his underrated sophomore effort Cop Land) and Westerns (his excellent 3:10 to Yuma remake).

(For more on my thoughts on how Logan achieved such critical success, check out my recent column over at Heroic Hollywood).

Realism pervades the picture. Like all good themes, it seeps into all facets, big and small. This is a film that takes place in diners, motels, abandoned areas and forgotten places. It’s about taking care of your old, sickly father figure and caring for a rebellious, angry child. It resonates when these characters forget to take their medicine, or get enough sleep, or fail to start a car. Logan wipes the blockbuster shine away to get at the mundane humblings underneath. The dystopia of the film – one where mutants are gone and humans are more vapid and mindless than ever, where a wall separates countries, where the powerless are ruthlessly exploited – couldn’t be more timely given the dismal state of American politics.

Logan

My issues with Logan are quibbles of my own more than any fault of the filmmakers. For example, just a ray or two more of sunshine to make the whole exercise more punctuated would have been nice. At different points, I yearned for more revelation or catharsis, a little more sweetness to balance out the bitter. For all the dividends paid from the darkness and grit, I would have liked a couple more “epic” moments, separated from the pervading bleakness elsewhere. Some revelations could have carried more importance.

Nevertheless, this is a great movie through and through. Whatever plot holes or weak elements exist are no different than those in fellow superhero epic The Dark Knight. This is a movie where the alchemy of the mixture produces something entirely new. It’s a rare treat to see a film series evolve steadily over the course of three films. Indeed, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Logan are almost diametrically-opposed from the titles down to the hero’s claws yet exist on the same continuum.

Efforts like Deadpool and Logan establish a space for risky, even R-rated, films based on lesser-known or niche adaptations. While the former succeeds as a live-action cartoon with no-holds-barred comedy, the latter is a real-world drama, where even the superpowers are more curse than gift. The movie doesn’t outright reject its pulpy origins either, incorporating X-Men comics into the story itself as a way of commenting on the fiction of superheroism vs. the world-weary facts. Plus, there’s a distinctly comic book-y nemesis for Wolvie to fight that takes symbolism to a whole ‘nother (literal) level. For genre fans like me, it worked, but it might not for everyone.

But whatever a person’s storytelling preferences, there is no denying Logan is an achievement in blockbuster cinema, an auteur’s vision on the level of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. It stands out as distinctive in an entertainment industry where movies are becoming more codified. Increasingly, interesting, challenging stories in popular entertainment are funneled into TV due to the dearth of mid-range films between blockbusters and indies. Like the central father/daughter relationship at the center of the movie, I hope Logan‘s success critically (and commercially now) and the end of Jackman’s tenure open up for a new generation of superhero movies in its image.

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‘Get Out’ Review: An Instant Horror Classic

Get Out
From the mind of writer/director Jordan Peele, best known as part of the Key & Peele sketch comedy show that wrapped up its five season run on Comedy Central last year, comes Get Out, a horror movie sucks you in with its simple story laced with genre awareness and reverence. The film feels both familiar and new, formally earning it, in my book, the instant classic status. You can see the all the strains of influence on Peele’s movie, as well as his clear intent and vision for the film. It’s an impressive directorial debut.

He uses the techniques of the likes of Hitchcock and Carpenter to tell the story of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African-American man who meets his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family over a weekend. Of course, not all is what it seems and the good-natured ignorance of Rose’s family gives way to far more sinister stuff.

Given it’s no-frills set-up about a get-together gone awry, it recalls last year’s horror sleeper hit The Invitation from director Karyn Kusama. Bot she and Peele elevate a fairly-standard horror movie premise, of a trip or get-together gone awry, by infusing it with layers of meaning and depth of imagination. Like all good films – and, indeed, all good stories – the magic of Get Out is not in what it’s about, but in how it’s told and why it’s important to the storyteller.

Peele offers a clear vision: a darkly comic horror movie that analyzes and deconstructs racism in its Hydra-like form. There’s plenty of social commentary, a byproduct of Peele’s keen comedic talent, much recalling the themes of The Stepford Wives, another example of allegorical horror.

The genre trappings are dressing for the message. Peele wants to impart, which is that benevolent racism is still racism and often merely a symptom of deeper resentment and hate. The fantastical happenings are a metaphor for positive discrimination, institutional racism, and cultural appropriation.

Kaluuya is an excellent audience surrogate, his highly-expressive face dominating many of the movie’s moments, grounding them with a touch of side eye or an uncomfortable smile. Befitting a story with something on its mind, the family is made of excellent character actors like Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, and Stephen Root. Peele’s comic talent isn’t wasted either, making its way in mostly via Chris’ best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery).

There’s a keen understanding of narrative at work. The pacing is brisk but deliberate and, along with Kaluuya, does wonders for disarming both the character and the viewer. The dark comedy of Chris’ awkward interactions and ignorant, casual racism is steadily ramped up until the inevitable third act explosion of violence. When it does come, I gotta say, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a theater where people were clapping and rooting for the protagonist as actively as the audience in my theater was.

It has the concise communication of comedy melded with the highly-effective language of cinematic horror. Peele builds his tension from everyday interactions, taking “normal” racism and microaggressions and casting them in the light of genre. The shadows that dance from this method are both truthful and uncomfortable, both pre-requisites for accomplished satire and horror.

Get Out is already a huge success, with over $30 million on opening weekend against a $4 million budget and overwhelming positive reviews (holding 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes initially). The lightning strike of success is a result of a confluence and multiple factors. Blumhouse, the horror-centric outlet behind the film, continues its domination on the heels Split and after spending almost a decade building a catalog of cheap-but-effective horror franchises, like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, and The Purge. The Donald Trump presidency has cast a political shadow on everything.

Our beloved “melting pot” is boiling. Art has always been political. It’s simply peoples’ awareness of it that is different now. And Get Out is art for the ages.

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‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ Review: Ballet with Bullets and Blood

John Wick
Sequel escalation never felt so good as it does in John Wick: Chapter 2. It elevates everything that made the 2014 original so great: the worldbuilding, the fight choreography, the lighting and imagery, the genre throwbacks, and Keanu Reeves’ character tailor-made for the actor’s skills.

After taking his revenge for the death of his dog in the first film, John Wick thinks he can return to his quiet retirement (with a a new hound in tow). However, the sins of his past won’t let him go so easily, when an old associate Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a blood debt, it forces Wick to fight once again for his freedom and grapple with his inner demons.

Watching John Wick: Chapter 2 is a little like watching ballet for dudes. The movie drips in neon lighting and religious imagery, from the Greek pantheon to Buddha, with a dose of doves as well. It highlights the reverence for the story they’re telling, as well as reinforces the heightened reality we, the audience, are entering, a place where archetypes and ideas dwell, reigning over oblivious humans. The international and underground order of the Continental has a lot in common with the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

Chapter 2‘s motto is doubling down. From the body count to the locations to the glorious flourishes, this sequel has all the original had, dialed up. It’s more confrontational and in-your-face than the quieter, understated, and altogether simpler original, but for those who dug the mythology of a shadowy (and very polite) assassins’ guild and Wick’s inherent invincibility, it can only be a good thing.

Reeves is a bishonen, seemingly walked off the manga page. He fits gracefully in these roles, like Neo in The Matrix trilogy, where he uses his fists and guns, and does it in style. The training and discipline the actor shows in performing his own stunts, even in his 50s, is admirable. Reeves’ acting can easily be dismissed as monotone. Indeed, it took me a while to appreciate his ability. The subtlety in his quieter moments make his explosions of emotion that much more interesting to watch. That talent is perfect for a film that relies less on dialogue and more on faces, particularly the eyes.

The film continues to stack its supporting cast with able character actors, some who seemingly pop by just for the hell of it, like John Leguizamo. Common and Ruby Rose join as a couple nemeses Wick faces. Both are quite good, with my doubts about the former particularly put to rest by his performance, while Rose continues to impress in her third action role this year (after Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and xXx: Return of Xander Cage). The filmmakers wisely gave Ian McShane more dialogue to chew here while Laurence Fishburne gets an ENORMOUSLY hammy role as the Bowery King, a homeless cult leader (one thing this movie makes clear: everyone in New York, up to and including the street beggars, are assassins).

Stunt coordinator-turned-director Chad Stahelski returns from the first film, sans co-director David Leitch, who instead directed the August spy thriller The Coldest City starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy before getting hired to direct the superhero sequel Deadpool 2. While Leitch appears to have moved on to greener pastures, Stahelski is sticking with Wick, and this entry has a hook for an inevitable third chapter.

If there is a moral to the John Wick franchise, it is: never harm an animal. If there is a second, it is: respect your stunt coordinators, because, with the right story, they can deliver some of the best action movies of the last decade. And if there’s a third, it’s that I will never tire of Keanu Reeves’ one-man army headshotting his way through Earth’s population.

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