Review: In John Wick, Keanu Reeves is Back Up to Speed

The Matrix's Neo goes retro in this revenge drama about a retired hit man who wipes out dozens because some bad guys killed his dog

A cop knocks on the door of John Wick’s home late one night and can’t help noticing a few thugs mortally strewn across the living room floor. “You workin’ again?” he asks mildly. “No,” Wick replies, “I’m just sorting stuff out.” The cop smiles and says, “O.K., John, Good night.”

Five years ago, Wick (Keanu Reeves) was an expert hit man who often worked for the Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). He fell in love with Helen (Bridget Moynahan), got out of the game, had a few peaceful years, then nursed Helen through the long cancer siege that finally took her life. Her parting gift: a beagle named Daisy to keep John company. Then Viggo’s screw-up son Iosef (Alfie Allen) brought a half-dozen of his henchmen to Wick’s house, beat him up, stole his car and killed the dog. In a few moments Iosef’s pals were the dead mess the cop spotted. John Wick is officially unretired.

And Keanu Reeves is back as an action star in John Wick. At 50 — 20 years after Speed made him a top-billed glowering hunk, and more than a decade since he played Neo in the Matrix trilogy — he’s not the hot icon he used to be. His last film, 47 Ronin, was an expensive flop, and he recently complained that the major studios don’t want him. (“It sucks.”) He gets headlines only when strange women pull a Iosef and break into his home, as two did on separate occasions last month. But on screen he’s still the essence of Zen cool.

In 1960, French critic Michel Mourlet famously proclaimed that “Charlton Heston is an axiom,” meaning that Heston’s image and impact transcended the definition of movie performer. In that sense, Keanu Reeves is a koan: a paradox that confounds all reason. Within the narrow range of emotions he displays — mad Keanu, bad Keanu and of course Sad Keanu — Reeves does not exactly act; he just is. And in John Wick, where he plays a retro Neo in a crime drama with lots of martial arts and gun fu, that “is” is plenty.

Action heroes need only the flimsiest motivation to start killing people. In The Rover, Guy Pearce launched a vendetta to get his car back; in Seven Psychopaths, gangster Woody Harrelson just wanted to retrieve his beloved Shih Tzu. Wick director Chad Stahelski and producer David Leitch hand their hero the double loss of his car and his dog, which is more than enough incentive for him to wipe out about 70 bad guys, one at a time, across New Jersey and New York City. He’ll use a handgun at close range in a Manhattan night club, a rifle on a rooftop across from Iosef’s Brooklyn hideout. He applies his lethal hands and feet in judo, jujitsu, the Russian sport called Sambo and, in a fine tussle with Viggo’s most imposing henchman Avi (Dean Winters), a mixture of wrestling and strangling.

Stahelski, who performed Reeves’ fight scenes in the Matrix movies, and Leitch, who stunt-doubled for Brad Pitt in Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, also served as action coordinators on The Hunger Games, The Bourne Legacy and Dracula Untold. Now in charge of a whole movie, they bring a sleek, chic gusto to the six or seven big action scenes, shooting the mayhem in longish takes rather than chopping it into short shots. Their work is not exactly edifying, but if you can forget the specter of North American gun carnage for a moment, you will acknowledge the movie’s violent artistry even as Viggo admires Wick’s. He calls him the Boogeyman, not because Wick is the monster from Russian legend but because “He’s the one you send to kill the f—in’ Boogeyman.”

So who’re you gonna call to kill Wick? Viggo has a couple of paid assassins in mind: the avuncular sniper Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and — simply because the filmmakers belatedly realized there were no living woman in Derek Kolstad’s script — the karate cutie Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). When they can’t finish the job, Viggo confronts Wick mano a mano, because intimate enemies should really settle things with fists, not guns.

The problem with this face-off is that Viggo is outmatched. Nyqvist, who played the crusading journalist in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, is solid but a little too genial as Wick’s looming adversary. It’s Alfie who triggered Wick’s revenge rage; Viggo is just the gruff dad trying to clean up his grown boy’s stupid spillages. The movie should have given its main villain a grander malevolence. — say, halfway through, Viggo tells Wick, “By the way, your wife’s cancer? I gave it to her.” (R-rated action films plant diseased thoughts like this in a viewer’s head.)

Quibbles aside, John Wick is the smartest display of the implacable but somehow ethical Reeves character since the 2008 Street Kings. It has vividly choreographed fights, a suave black suit for its hero to stalk in, swank homes and hotels to demolish, hoodlums who prove both the banality and the poor marksmanship of evil, and a hero with no greater moral purchase on our rooting interest than that he’s Keanu Reeves, and the bad guys killed his dog.

What else does a movie need? If you say complex human beings facing knotty moral dilemmas, you have mixed your media. You mean a Broadway play or a high-end cable series. Action movies are about movement, and John Wick pursues that goal with remorseless verve.

TIME Mocies

Review: Toys Scare Us in the Halloween Horror Film Ouija

Shelley Hennig stars as Debbie in Ouija. Universal

You'll shiver through this old-fashioned thriller that may be (faint praise) the best movie ever based on a popular board game

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

“Hi friend.” The message spelled out on the letters of a Ouija board sends a chill of hope through five teenagers seated at the dining room table. They have sought some sign from their late friend, who recently hanged herself in this very house. It must be Debbie! But over the next few days, the same phrase materializes menacingly as a computer message, or scrawled on a tunnel wall, or carved into a desk, or finger-painted on a misty car window. So the players return to the house and to the Ouija board. The overhead lights are suddenly doused; an empty chair at the table moves out to make room for some invisible force. “Are you Debbie?” they ask, and the planchette moves to “No.” “Who are you?” You don’t want to know. Let’s just say, Not a friend.

“It’s only a game,” says one skeptic at the table, and she’s right. The Ouija board, once and still used as a seance tool for communicating with the beyond, is marketed by Hasbro for plucky or morbid kids. Even nonbelievers can enjoy frightening themselves and others as they spell out words by moving the planchette from one letter to another. As the little girl in Emily Flake’s famed New Yorker cartoon explains, “It’s like texting, but for dead people.”

Hollywood hopes that Ouija, directed by Stiles White and written by White and Juliet Snowden, will get its message across to audiences: that it’s again O.K. to see a horror movie the week before Halloween. Last year was the first October in a decade that a film chiller — that is, a picture with Saw or Paranormal Activity in its title — did not earn at least $30 million its opening weekend. And in the first nine months of this year, no flat-out horror film came within a scare’s breadth of being a hit.

This October looks more dreadful, by which we mean rosier for the horror movie business. Annabelle, made for just $6.5 million, opened early this month to $37.1 million and in three weeks has taken in $75 million, plus another $90 million in foreign markets. Industry savants predict that Ouija will be No. 1 this weekend — a nice relaxing diversion for Americans ready to flee their TVs, having been terrified by much of the news and social media that Isis or Ebola will kill them. Ouija might simply give them a smart case of the shakes, with a seasonal afterchill.

When teenage Debbie (Shelley Hennig) hangs herself after consulting a Ouija board, her lifelong b.f. Laine (Olivia Cooke, who played the possessed girl in this April’s The Quiet Ones) thinks she can use the board to connect with the dead girl. Debbie’s family has conveniently vacated the premises, leaving Laine to keep an eye on things, from this world and the next. The “Hi friend” message seems to have been sent not by Debbie but by some other restless spirit — perhaps a child murdered by her mother in the same house. Anyway, someone, or some thing, is killing off Laine’s seance friends in generically gruesome fashion…

…and in one innovative way. Isabelle (Bianca Santos, the Angelina Jolie clone from ABC Family’s The Fosters) is in her bathroom, drawing the tub water and flossing her teeth. She turns to the mirror and is startled to see that her mouth has been sewn shut by the floss. As the tub water overflows, some power lifts her body a few feet in the air, then smashes her skull against the porcelain sink. (Moral for impressionable kids: Don’t floss.)

Like Annabelle, Ouija is an old-fashioned horror movie that dabbles in many familiar scare tactics: doors mysteriously creaking open or slamming shut, chandeliers swaying, stove burners spontaneously igniting, dolls that may have a malevolent life of their own, dark secrets lurking in a Psycho-inspired cellar. Ouija also honors the convention of characters whose IQs dip ominously as their peril increases. In a dark house, why don’t the kids think to turn on the lights, or to employ the buddy system when entering a room where evil lurks? Because they’re in a horror movie!

Laine at least has a reason for not throwing out the killer board: she’s ready to risk her life to help Debbie achieve a more restful afterlife. Ouija has a steady directorial hand, some attractive young actors who taking the silliness seriously and few admirable genre elements. It renounces the faux-found-footage ShakyCam style, instead employing a traditionally smooth visual style. It prizes suspense over shock, realizing that waiting for The Thing is harder on a moviegoer’s nerve than seeing The Thing. It’s not about a chainsaw-wielding sado-master; it’s a ghost story, a campfire tale for scaredy cats, a tale of the dead reaching out to touch the living.

And in the month of the Ebola scare, hypochondriacs needn’t worry that someone on the screen will sneeze and infect them. They can go home as healthy as when they arrived, and secure in the knowledge that Ouija, like its Hasbro source toy, is only a game.

TIME movies

Review: White Bird in a Blizzard: Snow Job for Shailene Woodley

Shailene Woodley and Shiloh Fernandez in White Bird in a Blizzard. 2014.
Shailene Woodley and Shiloh Fernandez in White Bird in a Blizzard. 2014. Magnolia Pictures

The Divergent star gives her all to this weird, affectless story of a blooming teenager in a festering family

Do actors ever say no to indie directors? Offered a role in a small movie based on a well-known novel, do they read the script before diving into what may be an empty pool? It’s nice that established and emerging stars agree to appear in ambitious low-budget films. Such pro-bono work gives the movie a higher profile and the actors a potentially more distinguished résumé. But what proved a brilliant career choice for, say, Matthew McConaughey — whose switch from major-studio romcoms to risky indies like Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Mud paid off with a Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club — doesn’t necessarily benefit every mainstream name.

This week’s object lesson: Shailene Woodley in Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard.

Following the lead of YA-movie star Kristen Stewart, who took a break during her Twilight films to play it serious, and often naked, in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Woodley lends her Divergent luster to an ’80s-set melodrama about growing up sexy. And yes, to the teen boys wondering, she has a few nude scenes and no regrets. “I felt great doing it,” she told E! Online. “I was not fully robed. And our bodies had no makeup. Who needs makeup? I’m only 22. My boobs are great. They don’t need any help.” Now that’s how to sell a movie.

Beyond the prurient, there’s not much of interest in this dour portrait of middle-class family values. In her midteens, Woodley’s Kat Connor is coming of age physically and sexually. This inevitable course of nature upsets her mother Eve (Eva Green), who feels her youthful allure evaporating as her daughter’s blooms. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Eve reads a sex manual in her bedroom while, downstairs, hubby Brock (Christopher Meloni) masturbates to a Hustler pictorial. That Kat is getting her jollies with Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), the prole stud next door, so infuriates Eve that she reveals herself to him in a sheer peignoir. Then she vanishes, leaving no trace for the town’s hunky Detective Theo Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane) to track down. Eve’s a gone girl. Where’d she go?

Once Eve loved her daughter; she called the eight-year-old Kat her “purr-fect kitty.” But now, with the girl providing unfair competition, and after cooking two decades of dinners for a man she hates, Eve is spiraling into Serial Mom derangement. “I want my f—in’ life back!” she screams just before she goes missing. Brock mopes around trying to tamp the volcano of anger at his wife’s contempt.

And Kat, trying to become her own person, can’t shake her parents’ influence even in her most intimate moments. Her beau Phil is “dull, stupid,” she says — “like my dad.” And when Phil deflowers her, Kat’s voice-over declares: “And like that, in a blink, my virginity disappeared. Just like my mother.” The movie, which hopscotches in time from Kat’s early youth to her post-mom college days at U.C. Berkeley, could be a modern gloss on The Graduate: the hot girl from suburban L.A. (also enrolled at Berkeley), her horny mother and the young man who accepts favors from both women. Go back further, and Blizzard has enough crazy-family material for a Greek tragedy, if Greek tragedies weren’t very good.

Two decades ago, Araki made a bunch of gay or bisexual movies — The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation — that brought a perversely larkish lilt to the toxic stain of the AIDS generation. His Mysterious Skin, in 2004, managed to merge gay hustling with an alien-abduction plot. Blizzard, which Araki adapted from a novel by Laura Kasischke, lacks any major gay characters (until the end); so it must serve as a lavender look at the straight suburban world. And God, the view is so awful it’s almost amusing — at least for Araki.

Like Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’ queer deconstruction of straight Hollywood melodramas from the ’50s, Blizzard lets art direction amplify (and sometimes substitute for) characterization. The Connor home is a living museum of ’80s kitsch, with the costumes coordinated to blend with the furnishings; the clothes really do match the drapes. The noirish lighting of the interiors contrasts with the whiteness of Kat’s nightmares of her mother buried alive in snow. And to show the psychological distance between characters, Araki plants actors at opposite ends of the wide screen. When Kat visits the detective in his man cave, they sit far apart on a curved couch long enough to be King Kong’s boomerang. Then they get this close for the sex scene.

Musing on her therapy visits to a sympathetic shrink (Angela Bassett, with nothing to do), Kat says, “I feel like an actress playing myself — a bad actress.” Woodley is quite a good actress, as she revealed in The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent. Here too, she displays her gift for making wounded emotion visible: her face can sear as if sunburnt. But she’s better at playing the ordinary girl with heroic resolve than a teen so stunning she drives her aging mom bonkers.

The miscasting is especially severe with the 34-year-old Green in the role of Kat’s 42-year-old mother. Green, the siren of this year’s 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, regularly seduces viewers with her sexual fury, but she can’t persuade them that she’s a frump suffering from daughter envy.

For Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard might prove a fun vacation from her Divergent series. But Green, offered an ill-fitting role in Araki’s affectless, ineffectual drama, should have said No thanks.

TIME movies

When Mr. Smith Took Washington by Storm

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Seventy-five years ago, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' premiered in D.C. — and not everyone in the audience was happy about it

In 1939, Frank Capra had just won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director with his film of the Broadway hit You Can’t Take It with You. His 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town had also roused audiences with its story of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a naive bumpkin who inherits a fortune and is beset by big-city predators, including the tabloid press.

Capra had some capital to spend, and he spent it in the Nation’s Capital. His new film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, would send a Deeds-like naïf, James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, to the U.S. Senate, where his dewy ideals collide with the invested power of corrupt lawmakers. When the film opened 75 years ago, on Oct. 19, 1939, the TIME reviewer noted:

This new Capra fable is as whimsical, the Capra directing as slick, the script as fast and funny as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The acting of the brilliant cast is sometimes superb. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is bigger than any of these things. Its real hero is not calfy Jeff Smith, but the things he believes, as embodied in the hero of U. S. democracy’s first crisis, Abraham Lincoln.

A U.S. Senator dies, and the state’s governor names Smith, editor of a Boy Scout-type newspaper called Boy’s Stuff, to fill the seat. That’s fine with Boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who figures he can control Smith the way he has run, through bullying and bribes, the Governor, the local industry, the press, the state legislature and Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the senior U.S. Senator. When Smith proposes a bill to set aside an area near Willet Creek Dam for a Boy Ranger park, Taylor instructs Paine to denounce Smith as “a contemptible young man with a contemptible scheme,” falsely charging him with secretly owning the land the park is to be built on. Scorned by the entire Senate, but encouraged by his wily Chief of Staff Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith launches an all-night filibuster to prove his innocence and righteousness.

Arthur, who had starred in Mr. Deeds and You Can’t Take It with You, was top-billed, but Stewart carries the film in his first career-defining role. With a plangent voice always breaking as if he’s on the cusp of puberty, Stewart’s Smith proves how a young man’s ideals can trump his own ignorance and the infernal forces aligned against him. Seven years later, Stewart would play an older, more desperate Smith type as George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the all-TIME 100 Movies.

In the freewheeling, fire-breathing script by Sidney Buchman, Smith is an overgrown boy searching for a father figure; his own dad was “a struggling editor” whose efforts against men like Taylor led to his death — “slumped over his desk… shot in the back.” (If a politician thinks you’re in his way, he may kill you.) He thinks Paine might be a shining replacement, until he learns of the man’s craven fealty to Taylor. Paine’s rationalization — “I compromised, yes, so that all these years I could stay in that Senate, and serve the people in a thousand honest ways” — sounds like the forlorn words a weaselly Congressman shouts to himself in the bathroom mirror. Halfway through the film Smith realizes that his one and only father figure is the seated figure in the Lincoln Memorial.

Having castigated American governance as a do-nothing cabal of corruption (sound familiar?), Capra then had an even bolder idea: He would premiere Mr. Smith in a special showing hosted by the National Press Club in the capital, with members of the Cabinet and both Houses of Congress present. As TIME reported the following week:

When the picture was over, the audience applauded loudly. [But] Three Senators (who declined to be quoted) upheld Senatorial dignity with these pungent comments on the film: “Not all Senators are sons of bitches.” “Punk!” “It stinks!”

That translates as “How dare he!” — which had to be music to the nervy little Sicilian director. Like Jefferson Smith, Frank Capra had walked into the U.S. Senate, given it a stern civics lesson, endured the catcalls of its denizens and emerged triumphant. Mr. Smith would be nominated for 11 Oscars — winning only for Best Story (Lewis R. Foster) in the sweep year of Gone With the Wind — and became a popular, enduring hit. But Capra’s most savory memory had to be displaying the Senate’s venery to itself. What filmmaker today would have such big steels balls?

Read TIME’s full Oct. 1939 report on the D.C. premiere of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, here in the archives: Mr. Smith Riles Washington

TIME movies

Review: In Fury, Brad Pitt Wins World War II, Again

Columbia Pictures

The Inglourious Basterds star returns for another tour in this grisly account of an American tank crew in the war's last month

Correction appended: Oct. 16, 2014

“Done much killing?” tough Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) asks winsome newbie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). “No,” Ellison answers timidly. “You will,” the big guy spits out.

He’s not kidding. Fury, writer-director David Ayer’s war film to end all war films (fingers crossed), begins with Wardaddy killing a German cavalry officer with a knife, then cutting his eye out as a souvenir. It ends, a draining two hours and 10 minutes later, in a battle that makes the Alamo look like a pie dessert — à la mode.

This is War Movie 101: all fighting, nearly all the time. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down pictured a similarly unrelenting siege (Somalia), as did, in a fantasy landscape, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Rohan). Saving Private Ryan traced an American unit’s trajectory across World War II–era France, and Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, once that film got past the fatal hazing of basic training, submerged the viewer in the Vietnam nightmare as seen by its edgy American invaders. Fury doesn’t come close to the achievement of those edifying cinematic ordeals, let alone to Samuel Maoz’s harrowing Israeli film Lebanon, which summoned a claustrophobic psychopathy by setting virtually all its action inside an Israeli tank. But Ayer’s movie has the admirable ambition of showing how even the Greatest Generation could brutalize and be brutalized by war.

Brad Pitt, you’ll recall, already won World War II in Inglourious Basterds. Hell, last year he won World War Z. So how can he and the near victorious GIs of the 2nd Armored Division be established as underdogs in a movie set in Germany in April 1945, just a few weeks before Hitler would blow his brains out in a bunker? Ayer’s solution: put ‘em in a tank, where their rumbling weapon was far outclassed by the enemy’s. Henry Ford produced the Americans’ thin-skinned Sherman tank; Ferdinand Porsche designed the Germans’ much larger, sturdier Tiger. It was, essentially, the Tin Lizzie vs. the Mercedes-Benz Super Sport.

And though World War II would shortly end, the U.S. soldiers couldn’t take it easy, like college seniors in the final term before graduation. Their mission was to roll through Germany, whose Nazi leaders called for every citizen to fight the invaders to their death. To the Americans, each person they meet is a potential sniper; every man, woman and child is cannon fodder. Some of the soldiers became efficient killing machines. Some of them may have liked it.

Norman, who looks about 12 and takes most of the movie to grow stubble on his sweet peach face, doesn’t like killing, doesn’t want it and, when he’s drafted as Wardaddy’s gunner, doesn’t know how to do it. His first job is to scrape the remains of his predecessor off the insides of the tank, nicknamed Fury. He is the token innocent, the audience surrogate, almost the girl joining a quartet of grizzled veterans.

Because their characters are reduced to their religious, ethnic or lowlife stereotypes, they may as well be called Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Mex (Michael Peña) and Animal (Jon Bernthal). Their tour has taken them to hell and halfway back, which makes them the rude tutors in Norman’s life-or-death indoctrination. “The war’s gotta end, soon,” Wardaddy says, in one of the boilerplate truisms that serve as this movie’s dialogue. “But before it ends, a lotta people gotta die.”

Sometimes, even a little death is a lot. Conquering one village, Wardaddy and Norman enter a house that holds two frightened young German women, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg) and Irma (Anamaria Marinca, star of the Romanian prize winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Irma makes lunch for Wardaddy, who sends Norman off to the bedroom with Emma in what may be their mutual deflowering. The assignation is meant to be tender, but the viewer has to wonder if Emma (or for that matter, Norman) is a willing participant, and if the scene doesn’t carry the lingering toxicity of sexual violence. Then the other tank troopers barge in, and Animal uncorks a flood of insults that amount to assault. By velvet glove or iron fist, barbarism rules.

That, Ayer would argue, is just war, daddy. And in staging his big battle sequences, he brings Fury to fitful life. The attack of three Shermans on a giant Tiger is choreographed for maximum impact, as is the looming face-off between Wardaddy’s crippled tank and about 300 SS troops marching toward it. Pitt, who at 50 still looks great with his shirt off, has the gruff charisma to play a dauntless soldier with killer courage and a vestigial streak of humanity.

He carries a film that could stumble under the burden of its clichés. You know that when one character who’s chomped out bits of Norman’s callow butt for most of the movie finally makes gentle amends, he’ll be the next to die. And that another character, having faced death countless times by German fire or misadventure, will survive through an act of enemy kindness. World War II was a historical event, but also a movie genre, and Fury occasionally prints the legend. The rest of it is plenty grim and grisly. Audience members may feel like prisoners of war forced to watch a training-torture film.

The original version of this story misspelled the name of Brad Pitt’s character. It is Don “Wardaddy” Collier.

TIME movies

How Pulp Fiction Went from Cannes Surprise to Movie of the Year

Pulp Fiction
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Twenty years after its release, Quentin Tarantino's multipart melodrama retains its vivid savor and revolutionary kick

For the four stories in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which had its theatrical release 20 years ago on Oct. 14, 1994, here are four TIME articles tracing the movie’s progress from Cannes surprise to best movie of the year.

When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie seemed to come out of nowhere, which I’ve reflected on in the past. As I wrote at the time, it was a shock to the festival’s system:

For a while, everything was so quiet. The first week or so of the 12-day Cannes Film Festival proceeded as sedately as a Riviera quilting bee. … Then BLAM!, the Wild Bunch hit town. … Pulp Fiction brought some big-time, macho-and- mayhem, Uzi-in-your-gut star quality to Cannes. … It was as if Tarantino were telling Cannes, “O.K., nap time is over. Now, pay attention, and I’ll show you how it’s done. Here’s why they’re called moving pictures.”

Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein — who picked up the movie when TriStar, the original distributor, balked at John Travolta character’s being a heroin dealer and user — hosted a press luncheon on May 23, 1994, at le plus posh Eden Roc restaurant. At outdoor tables in the blissful Riviera sunlight, Travolta, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson joined the 31-year-old writer-director to charm the critics. They knew, as we did, that they had a winner at Cannes and beyond. And though the smart money for the Palme d’Or was on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, the Cannes Jury chaired by Clint Eastwood did the right thing and gave Pulp Fiction the festival’s top prize.

By the time the movie made it to theaters that fall, the signs were clear that the world had a phenomenon on its hands:

Onscreen, John Travolta had just raised an Adrenalin-filled hypodermic needle above the comatose body of Uma Thurman and, with desperate force, plunged it straight into her heart. In the audience at New York City’s Lincoln Center, where Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was being shown, a young man watched this scene and passed out. “Is there a doctor in the house?” someone actually asked. The film was stopped for nine anxious minutes before the announcement came: “The victim is just fine.”

The intensity of the Pulp Fiction experience for that one viewer indicates how Tarantino’s movie polarized audiences; tepid reactions were simply not allowed. Filmgoers who thought they’d seen everything hadn’t seen anything with quite this scope, nerve and kick. In a totally ’90s way, it went medieval on the ass of the Zeitgeist. So everyone had to see it. Made for a frugal $8 million, the film grossed $108 million in North America and another $106 million abroad, back when that was real money. “I wanted it to look like an epic,” QT said of this, his second feature. “It’s an epic in everything – in invention, in ambition, in length, in scope, in everything except the price tag.”

Read TIME’s Oct. 1994 review of Pulp Fiction, free of charge, here in the archives: A Blast to the Heart

Pulp Fiction — a great title, by the way — perched proudly and deservedly atop the 10-best Cinema list that Richard Schickel and I compiled for TIME’s 1994 year-end issue.

No. 1: Pulp Fiction. Now here’s a movie. … Quentin Tarantino’s adrenaline rush of a melodrama is a brash dare to timid Hollywood filmmakers. Let’s see, he says, if you can be this smart about going this far.

But more than a few movie professionals were pretty f—in’ far from O.K. with it. At the New York Film Critics Circle, where some members took an anything-but-Pulp-Fiction stance, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show was named Best Film, though Tarantino got the Director and Screenplay prizes.

At the Oscars, Pulp Fiction’s rivals for Best Picture included Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Shawshank Redemption (which had opened the same day as QT’s film). None of those won. The top prize went to Forrest Gump, whose broader, more genial appeal also made it the No. 1 box-office hit of 1994. Robert Zemeckis’s box of chocolates beat out Tarantino’s 200-proof Valentine sampler of cool old movies in a post-modern box.

About a decade later, Schickel and I would wrangle over many titles in our joint selection of the all-TIME 100 Movies, published in May 2005 — but Pulp Fiction was one of our easiest picks.

The (approximately) 46th, and most recent, film noir on this list, Tarantino’s multipart murder comedy is (unquestionably) the most influential American movie of the ’90s. … Yeah yeah, but Pulp Fiction is still fresh—in fact, astonishingly impudent—and fully up to matching its cocksure ambition with its care for framing a scene and its love for the actors within them. The joy of filmmaking is evident and infectious. The film still has the impact of an adrenalin shot to the heart. Seen today, 20 years after its premiere, the film impresses even more for its density, daring and precision — for fiddling with chronology (so that Travolta’s character, killed in the third story, is alive in the fourth), for out-of-nowhere scenes that later prove their resonance (Christopher Walken’s monologue about the watch), for dreaming up fake commercial brands (Red Apple cigarettes, McCleary blended Scotch whiskey, Sam’s Toaster Pastries).

A trivia bonus track on the 2003 DVD release, which chats away in subtitles for almost the entirety of the movie’s 2 hours and 34 minutes — as if Tarantino were sitting with you offering a frame-by-frame analysis — explains how certain “mistakes” (the bullet holes behind Jackson and Travolta in the first story) might have been intentional. At the moment of Travolta’s needle resuscitation of Thurman, we get a “Reality Check” from the Trivia track: “Don’t try this at home, because it wouldn’t work.” (The needle would break, and so would the patient’s sternum.)

Tarantino has made other terrific movies before and after Pulp Fiction. Our favorite is the double feature Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which is sprawling where Pulp Fiction was svelte. We also love large swatches of Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. And we drool in anticipation at The Hateful Eight, whose screenplay promises a Western showdown of comic or cosmic proportions.

But no film of the now middle-aged auteur can match the Shock of the New that Pulp Fiction administered in 1994. We envy those who see it now for the first time — a movie that remains young, smart, vivacious and extraordinarily, indeed coronarily, entertaining.

TIME movies

The Vampire as Messiah in Dracula Untold

In this non-horror origins story about the world's favorite bloodsucker, Luke Evans plays Vlad the Impaler as an action-film hunk with a bit of a Jesus glow

In a cave teeming with bats and littered with crushed skulls, a skeletal demon appraises the young stalwart who stands before him. “Most men reek of fear,” says the Master Vampire (Charles Dance). “In you I smell hope.” Vlad (Luke Evans), the King, top fighter and undisputed hunk of Transylvania, does have a desperate hope: that he can defeat the invading Turks of the Ottoman Empire. So the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) offers to bestow all the infernal powers of his species on Vlad. And, in a kind of infomercial twist on Faust, he’ll get a free three-day trial. The small print: If, in that time, Vlad surrenders to the insatiable lust for human blood—the vampire’s most delicious addiction—he is doomed to become a monarch of the eternal undead. No refunds.

Dracula Untold means not only to upend the charnel image of Bram Stoker’s vampire but also to give a sweet sheen to the legend of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula, the Wallachian king whose name Stoker borrowed for his novel. Known as a sadistic warrior who left his victims piked on spikes, like scarecrows in a cemetery, Vlad gets a bio-makeover comparable to turning England’s Richard III, another 15th-century king of fearsome rep, into Henry V. This origins story, directed by Gary Shore and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (all first-timers in feature films), casts Vlad as a loving husband, a protective father and a national hero—Vladímir the Redeemer.

That’s right: Dracula is a little bit Jesus. Like the Christian Messiah, Vlad spends part of his childhood in a foreign land (not Egypt but Turkey) before maturing into an idealist and a freedom fighter. Choosing to die—to be undead—for the salvation of his people, Vlad endures a Calvary of sacrifice and spends the requisite three days between Crucifixion and Resurrection. The difference is that for him the resurrection, as a vampire in training, comes first. He’ll pay later.

Intended as the launching of a film franchise—the movie’s last line is “Let the games begin!”—Dracula Untold grossed a tidy $23.5 million on its opening weekend in North American theaters. It has also earned about $63 million in its release abroad. Most reviewers slammed the movie, but it’s not nearly as awful, or offal, as its critical odor. If Untold isn’t exactly must-see big-screen fare, it would be a welcome companion on a long flight or as a rainy-day Netflix rental.

The big shock, if you were expecting a typical Dracula story, is that this not a horror film. You show up for the predatory pestilence of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or the toxic love bites of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst—to cite the two vampire films on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list—and instead find a stately epic in the Sword and (Satanic) sorcery genre.

Hewing with fair fidelity to the Vlad’s story as recounted by historians (or at least Wikipedians), the script recounts his adolescent years in the Ottoman court, where his father had sent him as a prince-captive, and his long battle as a leader of the Christian crusade that Pope Pius II had ordered against against the Muslim invaders. When the Turkish king Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands that Vlad hand over a thousand boys as soldiers for the Empire, including his young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson), he refuses.

That’s when Vlad makes his deal with the demon. It gives him the strength to singlehandedly defeat an army of thousands—whose soldiers courteously wait until he’s slaughtered one bunch before attacking him—and it creates an aura that will scare other troops. As he cogently observes, “Men do not fear swords. They fear monsters.” Very well: for God and country, he’ll be one.

The Transylvanian monks first mount the world’s fastest insurrection, then try to contain Vlad when they note those telltale vampire signs: fear of sunlight and the avoidance of gleaming silver. As the third of his free-trial nights nears its end, Vlad’s wife Malena (Sarah Gadon) learns of his deal just before she is to die at Ottoman hands. Like any good spouse, she insists he drink her blood for the strength he needs to defeat his foe. So Vlad’s transformation into vampire isn’t an act of infernal craving. It’s what he did for love.

The battles are robust but mostly bloodless; in a PG-13 action film, you see a weapon’s thrust, not its impact. This is no Game of Thrones (also shot in Ireland, also costarring Dance (as Tywin Lannister). To extend the Jesus metaphor, it’s more a Crown of Thorns. But cinematographer John Schwartzman finds strong, subtle tones in all the nighttime battles and photographs everyone to look great — even when they’re supposed to look bat-split ugly, like Dance. The actor, under his CGI makeup, has creepy majesty as the demon who’s grown long of tooth (and claw). And Gadon, the Canadian actress who played a teen victim of vampirism in The Moth Diaries, is both pure and sexy in the sort of role — faithful wife with heaving bosom — that Hazel Court so often took in old Hammer horror films.

Evans, the Welshman who made solid early screen impressions as Apollo in Clash of the Titans and as the rustic stud in Tamara Drewe, carries Untold by admirably fulfilling the two essential functions of a period-movie hero: to enunciate comic-book dialogue with Shakespearean authority and to look great with his shirt off. Any viewer, male or female, would be happy to meet him in a dark cave and give him a free three-day trial.

TIME movies

Review: Whiplash Moves to the Beat of a Driven Drummer

Daniel McFadden—Sony Pictures

Miles Teller is the prodigy and J.K. Simmons his remorseless teacher in Damien Chazelle's intimate and intimidating two-hander

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) lives to play jazz drums, and at 19, he’s the youngest drummer in the vaunted “Studio Band” at New York City’s Juilliard-like Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Little problem: the bandleader, 50-something teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), runs the outfit like a sadistic Master Sergeant’s boot camp. When Andrew ever-so-slightly screws up in a rehearsal of Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” a very complex composition with a 7/4 beat, Fletcher tosses a chair at him. He makes castrating jokes about Andrew’s father and mother. He slaps the boy, hard. Andrew wants to be “one of the greats,” and he might mature from a promising musician into an exceptional one — if he can just survive Fletcher’s tough love.

A hit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival, where it was nicknamed Full Metal Drum Kit, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash adds welcome flavor to the fall movie season, like Raisinettes sprinkled on a tub of popcorn. Directing with a cool, steady hand that renounces shaky-cam the way Fletcher would denounce rock ‘n roll, and getting strong performances from his two leads, Chazelle provides a potent metaphor for artistic ambition as both a religion and an addiction. You go through Hell to reach your goal, and maybe Hell was the best, most intense part of the process.

Chazelle, a 28-year-old Harvard grad, has suffused most of his films with music. (His script for the horror movie The Last Exorcism Part II doesn’t fit, so we’re ignoring it.) In his 2009 debut feature, Guy and Madeleine on a Park, characters burst into song — Chazelle also wrote the songs’ lyrics — as if in a Vincente Minnelli MGM musical or, given the black-and-white, spontaneous ambiance, Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave lark A Woman Is a Woman. Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for Eugenio Mora’s 2013 Grand Piano, a thriller about a classical pianist who, on the night of his comeback concert, finds in his sheet music the note, “Play one wrong note and you die.”

Fletcher’s instructional style carries that kind of threat: that Andrew must play through the pain — that his life almost literally depends on his keeping the beat. We never learn why these students in the improv art of jazz have to play the exact charts of pieces at least 75 years old: Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” (It’s as if an art teacher at the turn of the 20th century had told one brilliant student, “Hey, Picasso, stop painting those ladies as cubes!”) But we do know that Fletcher thinks the way to goad his pupils to their full potential is to demand more of them than they think they have to offer, and to refuse to accept less than what he thinks is their best. As he says, “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job.'”

He also enjoys citing a famous anecdote in which Count Basie drummer Jo Jones, in a 1930s gig with the raw teenager Charlie Parker, threw a cymbal at Parker when he went off-tempo. (Clint Eastwood replayed the incident in his 1988 bio-pic Bird.) But Fletcher apparently believes the drummers, not the alto sax players, should get the abuse. Except for one early scene, he doesn’t ritually humiliate the other members of the Studio Band. In the movie’s scheme, they are mere sidemen to the central conflict: their leader’s mission to haze his drummers toward greatness or madness. In Andrew’s first session with the Studio Band, Fletcher keeps questioning the tyro’s tempo: “Were you rushing or were you dragging?” It’s mental and physical torture of the kind applied by Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man when he asks Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?”

The difference is that Andrew wants to practice and play till his hands bleed; that’s a visual badge of devotion to his craft that may become his art. (It also suggests a reason for the reputations of jazz and rock drummers as junkies or crazies.) Like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, Andrew bonds with his captor, mimicking Fletcher’s mode of personal rancor with his sometime girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). And given that his father Jim (Paul Reiser) submerged his failure as a writer by becoming a high school English teacher, Andrew may also be fishing for a more authoritative father figure. Fletcher mocks Jim’s career defeat — those who can’t, teach — yet, a later scene at a jazz club, where Fletcher plays solo piano, shows why he’s a teacher: He’s not that good at what he’d love to be great at.

Conventional at its core, Whiplash has a lot in common with movies made from YA novels — The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner — that set daunting rites of passage for its protagonist to overcome. (In Divergent, Teller played Shailene Woodley’s hazer: bigger, stronger and, eventually, loser.) It’s also a backstage musical in which the young protagonist rebels against a brutal taskmaster — like the seminal Broadway show Gypsy, except that, this time, the one in authority is not the heroine’s mother but the hero’s college teacher. And like Gypsy Rose Lee, who blooms as a stripper instead of a chorus girl, Andrew hopes to prove that Fletcher is wrong, that you learn the system to beat the system, in a climactic battle of wills played out on stage at Lincoln Center.

To accept Whiplash as a totally successful film rather than a work of a promising young artist, audiences must indulge Chazelle’s piling on of coincidences — at crucial moments Andrew loses his rival’s playbook (accidentally on purpose?), then his drumsticks — and the needless melodrama of a car crash. They must also allow that a conductor would sabotage an important concert by humiliating his drummer off the stage, and risk presenting the rest of his jazz set with no percussion. There are times when the only justification for certain scenes is the familiar one: because it’s a movie. For Andrew to grab his dream by the cojones, he must fly over the abyss of implausibility. That’s what happens in dreams, and in movies with a more secure hold on tone and performance than on plot logic.

To raise money for the project, Chazelle first made Whiplash as a short film, with J.K. Simmons in the teacher’s role and Johnny Simmons (no relation) as the drummer. For the feature-length version, Chazelle replaced the younger Simmons with Teller. (Movie casting can be every bit as humiliating as band practice.) The two stars truly deliver. Teller, 27, has been playing drums since he was 15; he did most of the riff work, and that blood on the drum skin is his. He has just the right mix of youth and obsession to stand up to Simmons’s musical martinet.

Of this longtime character actor, people often say, “He’s always good.” They’re right. At 59, well into a protean career, he gets his breakthrough shot, as Richard Jenkins did in the 2007 The Visitor. Simmons could parlay the role, Jenkins-style, to an Oscar nomination. He would deserve it, because with little personal backstory he makes Fletcher a figure of frightening solidity. Viewers will march to his beat, in this intimate, intimidating film, because he’s so much damn fun to watch. He’s the whip of Whiplash.

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