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WHIPLASH

There have been films that depicted the intensely competitive atmosphere of music and dance academies before, and movies that portrayed teachers at them as hard taskmasters who drove students to their limits. But none have done so with quite the intensity of “Whiplash,” Damien Chazelle’s propulsive study of the brutal relationship between Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a teen who pushes himself mercilessly to become a great jazz drummer, and Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the ultra-intimidating conductor of the conservatory jazz band whose instructional technique consists primarily of hurling a barrage of insult and abuse at his talented but terrified players.

There really isn’t much more to Chazelle’s script than that. To be sure, he adds some grace touches—the relationship between Andrew and his supportive but recessive father (Paul Reiser); a far frostier one with his uncle (Chris Mulkey) and two cousins, who are dismissive of his passion; and most importantly, a halting romance he starts with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a pretty concession-counter attendant at the movie theatre he and his dad go to—but breaks off when he thinks it might interfere with his drumming career. And there are rivalries with other drummers jockeying for “first chair” status in the band—pretty boy Ryan (Austin Stowell) and uptight Carl (Nate Lang).

But it’s the on-again, off-again pal-and-tormentor role Fletcher plays with Andrew that’s the focus of the film, and it certainly moves into melodramatic territory, particularly in the last act, when the kid is so anxious to make it to an important competition that he gets into a car crash en route and arrives bloody but determined to play and then, after being instrumental in getting Fletcher fired, agrees to join Fletcher’s semi-pro band for a concert, only to face his former teacher’s sabotage. (Naturally there’s room for a triumphant resolution anyway, though frankly it’s one that strains credulity.)

But while one might groan over the implausibility of these late-inning twists, the fact is that even they work, thanks to the commitment of Teller and Simmons. The former, who was overpraised for “The Spectacular Now,” should convince even the skeptics this time around: the intensity that he invests Neyman with is palpable, and he manages to make the boy sympathetic, even if you consider his ambition a trifle ridiculous. But even he is overshadowed by Simmons, a journeyman actor who huffed and puffed his way through the role of J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” movies, among other supporting turns, and had recurring parts in such TV series as “Law & Order” and “The Closer.” He gets a lead here, and grabs the opportunity for all it’s worth. In his hands Fletcher is a sadistic, steely-eyed thug with a podium, as adept at slinging insidiously cutting remarks as he is running his fingers across a keyboard. Fletcher is a monster, but as awful as his actions are, they’re fueled by a real desire to force the best from youngsters he believes to be capable of greatness (a attitude beautifully encapsulated in his observation that there are no worse words in the English language than “Good job”); and Simmons conveys both the character’s cruelty and the passion that drives it. It’s a showy performance, but in this case the showiness is perfectly appropriate.

Nobody else in the cast can compete with these two, and frankly no one else tries very hard to do so. Reiser does his humble, laid-back shtick effortlessly, and Benoist is attractive and amiable, but little more. Of the others Lang makes the strongest impression as a drummer who will obviously never make the grade in Fletcher’s eyes, but whom the teacher will tolerate as long as no better player comes along—and knows it. On the technical side, Sharone Meir’s cinematography captures the action from every angle, using close-ups to powerful effect (especially in sequences in which Andrew drips sweat and blood trying to meet Fletcher’s—and his own—demands), and Tom Cross’ editing abets the hard-driving tempo Chazelle sets.

Ultimately, however, for all the virtuoso cutting and camerawork, “Whiplash” matters not so much for the question it raises about whether a dream is worth the sacrifices it entails, or the visuals it adopts to ask it. Its strength lies in the teaming of Teller and Simmons, who play their scenes together like an inspired jazz duet, tossing the themes back and forth between them with an insouciance that doesn’t entirely mask a determination to outdo the other. “Whiplash” is essentially an acting contest, and happily it winds up as pretty much a draw.

JOHN WICK

As a simple exercise in pulpish revenge cinema, “John Wick” is efficient and stylish, rattling off genre conventions with aplomb. If one is looking for a bit more than that, Chad Stahelski’s movie will not provide it. But why not be satisfied with what it does bring to the party?

Like Robert McCall, played by Denzel Washington in the recent misguided reboot of “The Equalizer,” the titular character here is retired from a career of violence. And like McCall, he’s grieving over the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan). But Washington’s character was a former CIA operative, a heroic type. Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is an antihero, a onetime legendary contract killer who abandoned the life for domesticity. And even now, he has no desire to return to his old trade, preferring to bond with Daisy, the loving Beagle puppy his wife arranged to be delivered after her funeral. (A reference to “Blondie,” perhaps?)

What changes his mind is an assault on his house by hotheaded Josef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, a suitably odious little snot), the son of Russian mob kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), for whom John once worked. Josef doesn’t know who Wick is, of course—he merely wants to appropriate the guy’s muscle car, a ’69 Mustang. But when he and his chums rough up Wick, steal the car and—gasp!—kill his dog, that pulls John back into the fray. And when he’s on the prowl, no one, and nothing, is safe, including great expanses of background scenery, like a glass-filled bar that’s pretty much devastated during one particularly prolonged sequence in which Wick dispatches a small army of Tarasov henchmen while on Josef’s trail. A church that serves as Viggo’s vault is another site that suffers a good deal of damage from Wick’s campaign—as does its corrupt pastor (Munro M. Bonnell), who’s in league with the mobster.

Along the way to the inevitable showdown—or series of showdowns, actually—other colorful characters appear. The most notable, after Viggo—played suavely by Nyqvist, with an undercurrent of menace just below the surface—is Marcus (the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe), a sharpshooting old colleague of John’s whose motives in the ensuing mayhem remain mysterious for a while. But there are also Avi (Dean Winters), Viggo’s yuppie aide-de-camp; Aurelio (John Leguizamo), a chop-shop owner in league with Viggo; Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), an ambitious femme fatale; and Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental, a hotel catering to professional assassins whose premises are off-limits to any violence—a rule that cannot be broken with impunity. All have their moments, but it’s McShane’s tongue-in-cheek turn that will certainly elicit the most smiles among genre aficionados.

There really isn’t much to the plot of the movie, which consists merely of Wick breaking open his hidden stash of weapons and grimly tracking down Josef while dealing with all those who either have been hired to protect him or are trying to collect the handsome bounty that Viggo has put on his head. But Stahelski and Reeves carry off the really important elements of the movie—the action set-pieces—with considerable skill. In an era when most such material is served up haphazardly, with jerky, hand-held camera shots and whiplash editing, they, working closely with cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elisabeth Ronalds, choreograph the motion carefully, so that you can actually see what’s happening even if the topography isn’t always entirely clear. The best comparison among recent films of this type is probably to “Drive,” which displayed a similar sense of coherence and elegance in composition. The result may seem a trifle sedate to some action junkies, but it has the virtue of limiting the likelihood of headache or nausea among viewers.

And the picture isn’t merely a success for the first-time director, an erstwhile stuntman who’s worked a good deal with Reeves in the past. It’s also a nice return to form for the actor, who frankly hasn’t had much luck as a leading man on screen since the original “Matrix” and whose best work (like “The Gift” and “Street Kings”) went pretty much ignored. Wick is a part that fits him perfectly, not exactly one-note but fairly close to it, and giving him space to brood without requiring him to recite much dialogue (never his strong suit). This will probably restore in great measure the iconic status that Reeves once enjoyed, at least among genre-movie fans, and which misfires like “47 Ronin” failed to rekindle.

“John Wick” brings to mind the old sexist observation that a ruffian once made about a thin but pretty girl. There isn’t much to it, but what there is, is choice.