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This week - action! With awards season behind us it's time to leave the prestige films behind and embrace work by The Prestige director Christopher Nolan, as last year’s (only) blockbuster Tenet finally hits streaming, along with some other 2000s and 2010s genre gems.
Please note that subscriptions will be required to watch.
Tenet - NOW with a Sky Cinema membership
Christopher Nolan's films generally unfold like puzzles to be solved, mystery boxes constructed around studies of varying degrees of grief. Tenet however, is entirely absorbed in its time-bending, palindromic, narrative mechanic. John David Washington plays ‘The Protagonist’ (yes, that’s what they call him), an intelligence operative introduced into the secretive world of Tenet, recruited by an unnamed organisation to prevent the end of the world.
The result is one of Nolan’s more divisive works: full of hollow characters, expository nonsense acting in service of tightly constructed, Bond-esque action with a time travel twist (though, they insist on it NOT being time travel for some reason). For many, Tenet’s appeal is in that purity; in figuring out where the hell these characters fit on the film’s labyrinthine timeline, in observing its backwards action with awe, in being deafened by the aggressive sound mixing and Ludwig Gorranson’s incredible score.
Watch a trailer for Tenet
It’s pure nonsense: for starters, Kenneth Branagh plays a corny Russian villain who wants to destroy the world with an “inverted” nuclear bomb (because apparently making munitions go backwards makes them more dangerous). But it’s very entertaining nonsense with Oscar-winning VFX.
Also on NOW: Heat, Pan’s Labyrinth
Unbreakable - Disney+
M. Night Shyamalan’s deconstruction of the superhero myth is mostly unparalleled in the genre. With its deliberate pacing and slowly unravelling mystery, combining with comic book mythos and deeply felt character study, it’s a hypnotic film and to this day one of Shyamalan’s finest works.
It’s the story of a man named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who miraculously survives a horrific train crash in which everyone else was killed. He becomes increasingly convinced that he has superpowers, though of course that can’t really save his struggling marriage. Whether or not David is delusional is kept agonisingly, fascinatingly vague; his sense of importance becoming bolstered by a man he meets named Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), nicknamed “Mr Glass” for his struggle with brittle bone disease.
Watch a trailer for Unbreakable sequel Glass, also on Disney+
The narrative was recently revisited in his film Glass (also on Disney+), which serves as a sequel to both Unbreakable and the horror film Split. All three are among Shyamalan most interesting genre works, but the Unbreakable is an assertive counterpoint to the incoming flux of superhero action movies of the late 90s and early 2000s, consciously avoiding the flashy violence that every superhero film since has embraced.
Beyond all that it also houses one of Shyamalan’s finest (and patented) twists, inspiring wonderful turns of performance from leads Willis and Jackson.
Also on Disney+: Glass, Unstoppable
John Wick: Chapter Two - Amazon Prime Video
Every now and then an American action series comes along that comes to define the genre for some time — and at the moment, we’re living in the era of John Wick. The first film was a sleeper hit, gaining surprising traction for its canny revitalisation of Keanu Reeves as an action star, and for its incredibly bloody, impeccably staged and framed fight scenes.
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch were once stuntmen themselves (having doubled for Keanu in The Matrix), and the care for the craft that comes from such an occupation shines through in the Wick films. Instead of the frantic and intentionally disorientating quick-cutting and handheld camerawork of Greengrass’s Bourne films, Stahelski and Leitch hold the camera in longer takes at medium distance to fully show off the choreography. They also don't sky away from the full toll of the violence, on both victim (the people who killed John Wick’s dog) and perpetrator (John Wick).
Watch the first four minutes of John Wick: Chapter Two
It all tied back into Keanu as the star, an immensely physical actor who excels in telling the story with his body. It was difficult to tell what value would be found in a sequel, but the answer turned out to be both an expansion of such physical storytelling (indeed, the second film opens with a projection of a Buster Keaton film on the side of a building), as well as the bizarre and absorbing mythos of the world of assassins in which Wick exists, with its assassin hotels, and ancient pirate coins currency.
Chapter Two, directed by Stahelski alone this time, might be the giddy highpoint of the series so far, taking Wick out of retirement once again and to settle some old scores in Rome. It reveals insane new depths to the world that Wick had once left behind (there’s a king of New York City’s homeless population played by Lawrence Fishburne, who is also an assassin). And it seeks to surpass its predecessor in its set pieces: one hilarious standout being Wick and rival assassin Cassian (played by Common!) silently shooting at each other in a busy subway station. An action comedy, in its own way.
Also on Prime Video: Without Remorse, War of the Worlds