The Equalizer II / EQ2

Let’s face it, the review for this is simple. Denzel is at his stone cold best killing people who deserve to die. If you want that, here it is.  That’s it.

OK, as much as I want to leave it with the above couple of sentences, there really is more to the movie and it is worth talking about. If all you are looking for is a recommendation, see above. Mr. Washington is back as former government operative Robert McCall. He is a man with deadly skills who is putting them to use in the most productive ways he can think of. The 2014 film was something of an origin story, if like this film, you can see this character as a superhero. In my original review of that film, I suggested that this is an inversion of a horror story, but I think the superhero metaphor is apt if a little too on the nose.

There are several episodic sections of the film where we get a chance to see the hero/monster McCall in action. He rescues a stolen child, avenges an abused woman and draws a line for a local drug network. We also see him engaging with people on a superficial but empathetic level. The TV show used classified ads in a newspaper to find people who needed help. At the end of the last film, it sounded like we were going to connect with the downtrodden on line. Those approaches disappear in this film. Mr. McCall is working as a Lyft driver and he seems to happen onto the people who need help. Maybe it is an interesting twist, maybe it sheds the string that held the tv series together, neither matters. What happens in this story is a trip to the past for the character. The one friend that he kept from his time as a government asset, gets involved in s plot which we never quite know anything about, and trouble ensues.

Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo return as the one set of friends Mac has, and they are knee deep in some kind of nefarious activity that is not authorized by the agency but does turn out to have some connections. Pedro Pascal is introduced as Robert’s former partner, who provides some assistance in investigating the events that turn McCall loose. No other characters from the first film return but there is another mentor relationship in the film that gives Denzel a chance to be the kind of father he wasn’t in “Fences”. Two or three other people are going to benefit from his largess as well. So like Robin Hood, McCall is taking from some to give to others. It is not profitable, but it seems to sooth his guilty soul from time to time.

Duplicity is inherent in films like this. The one thing that makes the betrayal in this story tolerable is that we get a chance to see a bit of the life of the betrayer. Another film would ignore this aspect of a story, or try to turn it into a subplot in some way. Here it is presented as a casual piece of character development that makes you wish even more that the reality of the backstabbing were not true.  Usually, all we get is the bad guy’s rationalization for his or her actions. The unique part of this story is the mundane way of life the villain seems to lead. You might even feel sorry for the character as you empathize with those who will be hurt by what has to happen. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk have added a bit of character to the film that makes it step up from the shoot’em up that this really is.

Sometimes the plot is murky. There are characters that get taken out pretty quickly, and maybe before we really get a sense of what is going on. It may not matter that we don’t quite understand how the dominoes started falling in the plot mechanism, but it felt noticeable to me.  It doesn’t really matter however because plenty of people die at Denzel’s hands and he knows how to convey cold-hearted justice. He is smart, brutal and efficient, just like this movie.

Fences

Since Gene Hackman, my favorite actor , retired a dozen years ago, he has been replaced in my esteem by another American actor who embodies the potential of everyman in dramatic situations. I first saw Denzel Washington in a comedy with George Segal as his father, back in the very early 1980s. The movie was “Carbon Copy” and it was not very good but Denzel was. Since then, he has won two Academy Awards and starred in a string of box office successes that would please any acting career. Earlier this year he appeared in a remake of “The Magnificent Seven”, which was solid if not spectacular. He has now directed himself in his third film as a director, the screen version of the August Wilson play, “Fences”.

As a director,  Denzel has stuck closely to the boundaries of a stage play. There are one or two moments that move the scenes beyond where most of the play is set, but the vast majority of the film still is located  in the kitchen and the backyard of his character Troy Maxson. The play addresses issues of black life in the first half of the last century. Troy is a man who has turned himself around from a thug in his teen years to a responsible adult in middle age, but he has deep resentments against the society that restricted his potential because of the color of his skin, and like all of us, he has difficulty escaping the shadow of his own family. As a consequence, we see that he is a stern father while being a loving husband. His views of family are solid but he also has some strong views on masculinity that threaten the peaceful life he has found and they undermine the progress that he has made.

The script is by the playwright himself, so it is no surprise that the dialogue sounds like the words of a play. Even though the dialect and slang are of a particular culture and time, the words sometimes sound so complete in their sentences, that you might wonder who the characters are cribbing from. What plays on the stage often works because we are so willing to suspend our disbelief due to the context. In a film, I think audiences expect things to play out a little more naturalistically. Characteres talk over one another in films, actions take place in the background, visuals drive our interest in the story. A play requires turn taking to be able to follow what is being said, the scenes are set in locations that are not likely to have wild visuals that draw our eye because the focus is supposed to be on the characters. There is nothing wrong with the story here, and the performances are top notch, but the film never moves or feels like real life, it feels like a play.

 

The dialogue however is a joy to listen to when it is being delivered by consummate professionals like Denzel and his co-star Viola Davis.  The two leads are convincing as a long married couple at odds over the life of their teenage son, and the crisis that raises it’s head in the second act. Mr. Washington has the right degree of belligerence and resignation in his voice. When events are against him, he gets his dander up and spouts off like a man certain of his position. When faced with his own failings however, he becomes truculent and the warmth that he often displayed along with a good deal of humor becomes sullenness that is not very appealing. Viola Davis is the most supportive partner a man could have, and at times she seems to be the most powerful force in her husbands life. When Rose is confronted with Troy’s weakness, she is defiant herself, but ustimately becomes a passive force for good. Davis meets both challenges directly and she will probably win the award she deserved back in 2011 for “The Help”.

 

Steven Henderson, who had a small one scene role in “Manchester by the Sea”, a film I saw earlier this week, has a much more substantial part here. As Troy’s oldest friend, he provides wise counsel that largely gets ignored. He is the voice of the audience, yelling for Troy to try to think about an issue in another way, but who ultimately understands the intransigence of his friend. Having played the part on Broadway, he seems to have the relationship mastered. Mykelti Williamson has played a variety of roles over the years. He was memorable as the stony Elliston Limehouse in the TV series “Justified”.   As Troy’s combat injured brother with reduced mental capacity, he seems to be repeating his most famous role as Bubba Blue in “Forrest Gump”. Denzel the director must be aware of the similarity of the characters, and while Williamson does a good job, the comparison is going to linger over the performance and that seems to be a shame.

I don’t want to sound down on the film. I thought it was well made and there were a couple of nice things the director added to the mix. The golden gate that Saint Peter is manning was nicely visualized, and the use of old murals in the city buildings added some texture to the story. This is a film worthy for the performances and the dialogue. If you are unlikely to ever see the play that the movie is based on, by all means check this out. If you are a theater person, expect a very familiar and comfortable experience. As a film, it is a little talky and workmanlike in it’s visualizations.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Remakes inevitably suffer from comparison to their predecessors. This version of the Magnificent Seven will not be an exception. It has star power, and entertainment value, but it seems to be short in stature because of the times in which it is made and the demands of contemporary audiences. We need our action to be spectacular and the visualization to be inventive. The problem is, with such a traditional setting, it sometimes feels a bit anachronistic. Characters playing out the events of the story in 1879, sound like they might have been born in 1979. The touches of humor and the self referential moments left me a little less impressed, despite some excellent tweaks to the well known story.

Let’s begin with the stuff that works and helps this movie cross the line as a winner. Denzel Washington is the closest thing we have to a movie star working today. His presence in a film can still bring out an audience and his acting chops are top notch. The only film star comparable would be Tom Cruise, and I think Mr. Cruise is more limited in what an audience is willing to see him in these days. Of course Mr. Washington is also playing in the action field now more than any other genre also. Cast as the lead cowboy in this band of mercenaries, he is completely believable in spit of  question of his heritage. You never once think that he is not exactly who he says he is and there is no question that the people he encounters grant him the respect he clearly communicate to all that he deserves. It is a credit to the makers of the film that they don’t exploit what might have been a distracting non-issue and instead focus on the story at hand.

 

Ethan Hawke’s character is also a plus in the film. We get a little more back story than we ever got with Robert Vaughn in the 1960 version, and it makes most of his actions seem more reasonable. As a deadly sniper who survived the  Civil War, his struggle with PTSD seems understandable even if it is only partially fleshed out. His friendship with an Asian assassin in the old west is a little more difficult to swallow, although it offers a nice relationship and provides quite a bit of entertainment. Also worthy are the characters played by Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. They make up a worthy second tier trio of mercenaries. I liked Byung-hun Lee perfectly well in the film but as I said, his character is one of two that draws attention to the fact that we are watching a story made by people trying to entertain us any way they can.

The second character that sticks out a bit like a sore thumb is Chris Pratt’s gambling cowboy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he is in the film and I enjoyed his performance just fine. The trouble is that the character is so overdone in an effort to make the film a little more hip that the story loses much of it’s organic nature. It screams for attention and the manner in which the character talks is more in keeping with the Space Opera Pratt is noted for than the Horse Opera we are watching. His story is written more for the audience than for the events in the film.

There are moments in the reworking of the story that I thought fit well. The events that propel the character of Emma Cullen to reach out for help from such dangerous men was well set up and executed. She develops as a character only so far however and in the end her role becomes a plot device rather than someone we can care about and relate to. I will say however that the audience I saw this with was enthusiastic about her piece of action at the climax of the film. Peter Sarsgaard as the villain of the piece is suitably despicable, although the capricious manner in which he treats his employees would make most people think twice about taking a job from him.

I could have lived without the backstory for Denzel’s Chisolm, I think he would be more interesting as a cypher but it does provide a bit more logical reason for him to take on the task that he himself describes as impossible. The planning components of the final battle are reminiscent of some of the same things that were found in “Seven Samurai”, the film that was remade as the first “Magnificent Seven”. That battle sequence does go on quite a while and it is one of the places that the action sometimes feels over the top. I did not count the number killed but it would certainly approach two hundred. I can say however that the deaths that occur in the group seem relevant and well earned.

 

This is the final score of the late James Horner, who died last year far too young but with a set of films on his vita that would make anybody proud. Two nights ago, in preparation for an upcoming podcast, I watched “Battle Beyond the Stars”, a Roger Corman cheapy Star Wars wannabe that uses the plot of The Magnificent Seven as it’s source. One of the gems in that otherwise minor film is the score, by a young James Horner. His career is thus somewhat bookended by this story. This score is not as iconic as either of those other two films but it does convey some seriousness and in a couple of places, the grandeur of the west. There is a continuing echo of the classic Elmer Bernstein theme in several spots, but that tune is not fully utilized until the end of the film.

I’m a sucker for a western, so my opinion on this was likely to be pretty high to begin with. It is a solid entertainment and a reasonable facsimile of a traditional western, but it has a few elements that make it feel more manufactured than it ought to be. I look forward to discussing it with my fellow bloggers next week, but for mow I will say you should definitely see it. There are not likely to be a lot of westerns in Denzel’s future career, and that is a shame because he fits in the saddle really well.