Equalizer 2, The (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is clear from the opening scenes of “The Equalizer 2” that director Antoine Fuqua is not interested in regurgitating what had come before. Compared to the predecessor, this story is an attempt to explore Robert McCall, former Marine and intelligence agent turned Lyft driver, in new ways, to open him up, and to make our protagonist’s world feel a little bigger. By comparison, it is faster-paced, more suspenseful, and certainly more entertaining. Look at the way the director stages action scenes. Instead of going for standard shootouts, the journey from setup to catharsis unfolds like a thriller; it actively works to immerse the viewer in an experience—even through the experience offers nothing new—by finding creative ways to hit familiar notes.
McCall is once again played by the first-class Denzel Washington. It is smart that screenwriter Richard Wenk provides the actor occasional dramatic moments because the performer is the type to milk silence to his advantage, particularly when McCall’s deceased wife becomes the subject of conversation. A great example occurs early in the picture when McCall gets a visit from a longtime friend (Melissa Leo) who is aware of his past life. As McCall reminisces about his wife, Washington decides to shut his eyes; his body is left with us his but his mind, his spirit is transported to a time and place that is long gone. Subtle but powerful instances like these elevate the material in such a way that is atypical in action-thrillers. Although originally based on a mid- to late-eighties television series, Washington makes the character his own.
Several subplots are juggled in the air with seeming ease: a girl (Rhys Olivia Cote) who has been kidnapped by her father, a young artist (Ashton Sanders) torn between continuing his education and joining a gang, and a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) who hopes to provide enough proof for the courts that the person on a multimillion-dollar painting is in fact his sister. Fuqua allows these subplots to simmer and we wonder how these disparate strands would, or could, come together. Observe closely and recognize that, in a way, each one has something to say about McCall’s personal life, particularly his definition of justice and morality and why each one must be corrected.
A case can be made that at times these subplots do get in the way of providing a smooth and consistent rising action. Although I can acknowledge this shortcoming, I enjoyed that McCall’s journey of solving the aforementioned strands is not a straight line. It would have been easier to set the subplots aside once the central story kicks into full gear. It certainly is the more familiar route. “Revenge is never a straight line. It is a forest,” according to key character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” And indeed, “The Equalizer 2” is a revenge film; justice, or punishment in this case, must be exacted to those who attempt to get away with their crimes. We know what must happen: McCall will set things right. Still, there remains delicious irony in every one of the perpetrators’ deaths.
Those looking for a deep exploration of one man’s morality are likely to walk away from “The Equalizer 2” with disappointment. Although dramatic elements are there, when broken down to its essence, the work remains an action film. And so entertaining action sequences and showing bone-crunching violence—with proper context—matter more than providing a gradient of right and wrong. It is possible that ardent fans of the first film may require to warm up to the sequel because it offers a different personality. And yet—it is still worth seeing exactly for this reason.
Equalizer, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Antoine Fuqua’s interpretation of the television-based “The Equalizer” is a type of action-thriller that offers no surprises, but it works anyway because of a script that strives to tell a story instead of presenting one breathless action sequence after another and a magnetic lead performance by Denzel Washington. It is certain to entertain fans of vigilante justice movies because the line between good versus evil is so thick and the two camps being a mile apart, it leaves little moral ambiguity in between. And sometimes that’s good enough.
Washington, as expected, delivers a character who is worthy of our curiosity. Aided by carefully calibrated opening scenes that highlight McCall’s isolation, perhaps even loneliness—a trait that we never really hear him admit himself, as a widowed man whose purpose in existing relies on his every day habits, there is plenty to unearth about the protagonist. This is why later scenes that touch upon his past, particularly Washington’s short but rich conversations with Melissa Leo, are obvious standouts.
Action pieces are appropriately brutal and beautifully choreographed. There is a sense of humor mixed in with violence, especially in how McCall employs common household items to render his enemies incapacitated or dead. When one thinks about it further, however, it is sort of a mixed bag because our hero’s quest for justice is dead serious but the manner in which conflicts are resolved is quite tongue-in-cheek which sends a conflicting message. I got the impression eventually that the screenwriter Richard Wenk chose this approach in order to remind the audience that the experience is supposed to be fun. But it is already fun—bad guys getting their comeuppance. Just because the villains get pummeled with a hammer doesn’t mean the audience should, too.
There are story elements that come across rather episodic. Perhaps it is intentional, but from a cinematic point of view, it is jarring at times. For instance, McCall works at a hardware store and he helps a portly co-worker to lose weight and gain confidence to become a security guard. The tone of this subplot is comical and when placed side-by-side with Russian mafias and corrupt cops, it is a strange combination. Still, there is amusement to be had in these scenes and it creates a portrait of McCall as approachable and human. Perhaps the film might have improved if there had a bridge between such extremes.
There is one casting misstep that I felt diminished the picture—problematic because the performer pushes the central plot forward. Chloë Grace Moretz plays a teenage prostitute for the Russian mafia and she is most unconvincing. Watching her play a whore with dreams of becoming a singer is like pulling teeth. The way she relies upon behavior and cosmetics is thoroughly distracting; not for one second do we believe that the character is desperate to leave her occupation. Washington steals their scenes right from under her. Unlike Moretz’ approach, Washington knows that one of the surefire ways to convince the audience is the eyes.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although Jay (Roshan Seth) was born and raised in Uganda, he and his family were forced to pack up their lives and emigrate when Idi Amin, the president in 1972, gave Asians ninety days to leave the country. The ethnic cleansing in Uganda was an event that Jay never chose to move on from, consistently sending letters, despite having established a life in Greenwood, Mississippi, to the Ugandan government. He wishes to sue for the property he had left behind.
Directed by Mira Nair, “Mississippi Masala” is a movie actually about something—and although it was released more than twenty years ago, it remains all the more resonant today. The picture is about race, yes, but it is also more than that. It is about identity and the film explores this subject on three fronts: Jay who considers himself Ugandan first and Indian second; Meena (Sarita Choudhury), Jay’s daughter, who gets romantically involved with a black man, Demetrius (Denzel Washington), despite knowing that her Indian community will disapprove of the relationship; and Demetrius, a carpet cleaner who has his own business, who must deal with the aftermath once everybody in town learns of his private life. Because the lives of the characters have so much depth, it is wise to end the film with some closure but not with a neat little bow.
The romantic and love scenes between Demetrius and Meena stand out. In the movies, seeing two people of color from different ethnic background remains uncommon in the first place, but treating their thoughts and feelings with complexity is rare. They are not reduced to stereotypes. I relished the scenes where the two characters are just talking and getting to know each other. There is always build-up. We learn about their key similarities and differences. We come up with good reasons why they should be together. Yet we acknowledge some of the challenges they might face. Will they hold hands? Kiss? Go to bed? Whatever happens, the chemistry between Washington and Choudhury is undeniable.
Perceptive is a good word to describe the film. A lower level of writing would have made the father a one-dimensional racist who does not want his daughter dating a black man. Deep down, we know Jay is not a racist even though some of his actions suggest he might be. Seth is a performer who fascinates the longer his face remains on a shot. He has a way of always wearing and thereby communicating his character’s painful final experiences in Uganda. Trauma becomes a part of his later choices.
Nair executes the scenes with confidence and flavor. I admired how she takes the time to show little things like how a specific family celebrates a birthday party, how a person sizes up the competition when it comes to winning over a man, how the central couple make love for the first time. Because almost each scene offers something special, combined with a story arc that is not a facsimile of Screenplay 101, what results is a work with a defined perspective, one that challenges, engages, and satiates the viewer.
Some might argue that perhaps it is too ambitious in scope. A valid criticism is that because it must spend time painting a complex picture of Jay’s trauma, Demetrius is not given a more definite or dramatic arc. At times I felt as though he comes across as too much of a nice guy. There is evidence that he grew up in poverty—or at least close to it. We expect to feel a bit of roughness from the character but we never do. Perhaps the writer and director considered that to be a predictable route and simply decided to go against it.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Having led ten flights in just three days, some might say that Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is not in the best of shape to fly a plane. Add him having consumed high levels of alcohol and cocaine the night prior to flying an airliner from Atlanta to Orlando the next day through a portentous rainclouds, some would say that not only does he choose to be irresponsible, his behavior is downright criminal.
But SouthJet Flight 227 is meant to crash due to a faulty machinery. Capt. Whitaker just happens to get on that plane. Through intense aircraft acrobatics, he manages to minimize the casualties onboard by landing the plane onto an open field. But there is a problem: a tragedy of this magnitude has the National Transportation Safety Board investigating what went wrong, beginning with the crew’s blood samples. Someone is responsible.
Written by John Gatins and directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Flight” is superficially about one man’s addiction to alcohol and how it consumes his life from the inside out. Although a topic that has been taken under a microscope many times before, the material is elevated by a carefully measured lead performance in front of the camera as well as ace talent from behind the lens. It paints a scary portrait of the beast in the bottle that takes control of the mind without relying on typical “down in the dumps” scenarios. That is a feat worth noting.
Whitaker is a man of pride who is deeply hurt that his ex-wife and son want nothing to do with him other than times when they are in need of money. Right from the opening scene, Washington tunes into the pain of his character through anger. But not just anger. Anger with a thin layer of regret and yearning to at least have some kind of connection, one that is rewarding, with his family. I liked the way Washington pulls himself back from lashing out completely at his former wife on the other line because it communicates clearly that Whip values her even though she talks to him like he is less than nothing. It is amazing how we can feel their history when we do not even lay eyes on the two of them sharing a space until much later on in the picture. That is telling of a great script.
We can take the gymnastics that the plane goes through as an example of the director’s level of control. Logically, flying the plane upside down in order prevent it from losing altitude requires a leap of faith. I’m not sure that jet airliners are designed to function that way. However, we cannot help but buy into it completely because Zemeckis pays close attention to the details of a typical flight: stewardesses making announcements while most passengers do not pay attention, people walking about on board, and the stresses on people’s faces when a plane goes through convulsions that can attributed to rough clouds. We also get detailed shots of what happens in the cockpit like what is being relayed between pilots and technicians at the command center. It is an isolated environment and since the elements are in place to align, when a jolt is applied, our eyes are glued on the images. We are thrilled, we are horrified and bemused, and we demand how it will all turn out.
Many people are convinced that the alcoholism defines the picture. I thought about it and I’m not convinced. I think the void that Whitaker has nurtured from within is the spotlight. Yes, we see him drink a whole lot, but why is it that he drinks? Because he wishes to fill in that emptiness. The alcohol and the drugs just happen to be there, the alcohol being most available. There is a reason behind someone being an alcoholic. Look closely during the denouement. The attention is on the person who is making a choice.
Safe House (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
A stultifying life in a C.I.A. safe house in Cape Town, South Africa was not a job that Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) found especially gratifying. Having been stationed in the same spot for twelve months, he was more than vocal with his superior, Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), about a highly sought out case officer position. However, the job required an extensive field experience, something that Weston didn’t have much. When Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) was taken to Weston’s safe house which was quickly ambushed upon his arrival, Weston took it upon himself to present Frost to the proper authorities. It just might be the field experience he needed to advance his career. “Safe House,” written by David Guggenheim, was an exciting espionage action-thriller only when Frost and Weston were together. It also did a good job establishing excitement prior to the first moment they were able to occupy the same room. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the actors approached their characters. Reynolds was able to highlight Weston’s ambition and greenness by portraying a level of fear and uncertainty when the character faced life-changing decisions. Do I shoot this cop who thinks that I’m the bad guy? Do I snap this fellow agent’s neck who’s trying to kill me when he has no idea that he might be working for a traitor of this country? Despite shaky cams and quick cuts, Daniel Espinosa, the director, was smart enough to slow down the material and allow it to breathe. Even though the angle of humanity within a cutthroat job was not delved into in especially thoughtful ways, the decision separated it from nondescript action flicks where raining bullets was the one and only source of entertainment. On the other hand, Washington was magnetic as a man so involved in whatever he felt needed to be done, at times I wondered if he actually enjoyed or craved the aggressiveness natural in his profession. As an agent that had gone rogue nine years ago, selling information to terrorists in the meantime and wanted by agencies in four continents, I enjoyed that it was difficult to gauge what exactly it was he intended to accomplish. It was established that it may appear that he was doing one thing but he was actually doing another. He certainly shouldn’t be trusted. It was fun that he wasn’t meant to be trusted. Reynolds and Washington fed off each other’s energy which made an otherwise unremarkable template more than what it was.Other reasons why the picture worked were the extended car chases and its accompanying sounds. When our protagonist’s vehicle crashed into other cars, I noticed by jaw clenching as bullets showered the car and glass crunched from the impact. It was wise to minimize the number of times when the camera pulled away from the action because it gave the illusion that we were in the passenger seat, receiving one whiplash after another. A special mention to Joel Kinnaman as Keller, a safe house keeper toward the end of the film. I was so fascinated with the way he moved and carried his character. When he blinked, I thought, “What is he thinking?” Kinnaman may be someone to watch out for. “Safe House” was padded by a bland bureaucratic talk, a romance heavy on the eyelids, and a gauzy main villain. If anything, the film was lucky to have charming presences which elevated its more pedestrian corners.
★★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Denzel Washington), a train engineer, and Will (Chris Pine), a rookie train conductor, attempted to stop a runaway train of increasing speed and containing toxic chemicals before it reached a curve in the tracks and killed thousands of lives. A corporate employee (Rosario Dawson) guided them from behind-the-scenes, completely neglecting her boss’ orders of choosing to protect stocks instead of lives. Directed by Tony Scott and written by Mark Bomback, what I liked most about “Unstoppable” was it didn’t pretend to be philosophical or allegorical. It wasn’t even a satire of the media considering FOX News, an easy and deserving target, was covering the whole ordeal. It was simply about a train that was out of control and if the characters didn’t stop it, people would die. Naturally, there were clichés such as Will’s struggle at home involving his wife and not being able to be with his son and Frank missing his daughter’s oh-so-important birthday party. It was obvious the script wanted to infuse some heart in the two main characters so we would care about them when their lives would eventually be in danger. With their acts of heroism, despite their imperfections, we all knew both of them would be forgiven in the end. There was nothing new because its only aim was to entertain. On that level, I thought it was successful. I enjoyed the scenes when the train would collide onto cars and other trains, the cops’ ridiculous attempt of shooting at a target that would supposedly slow the train down but the target was right next to tank full of very combustable gas, and when the train would go slightly off-track as it leaned on one side over another. I caught myself trying to steer the train in the correct direction with my mind so I knew I was involved with all of the insanity. I did wish, however, that Scott wouldn’t have been so transparent with his camera work. He took the obvious path of making an action picture too many times to the point where I wondered if he would (or could) change up his technique. Shaking the camera, blurrying the scene, and increasing the volume of the score is a familiar action picture formula. It would have been nice if the director tried to surprise us my suspending our expectations in the air. For instance, an occasional use of silence or perhaps slow motion during the most critical times could have helped to build some level of suspense. Sometimes taking a risk, whether the outcome be success or failure, might go a long way. It’s better than being one-note and driving some audiences dizzy from all the movements. Still, “Unstoppable” was thrilling, sometimes amusing, and had energy to spare. Sometimes that’s all we need.
Book of Eli, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Book of Eli” was about a man (Denzel Washington) whose goal was to protect a book and journey toward the west of post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, he met a friend named Solara (Mila Kunis) who was enslaved by a power-hungry leader (Gary Oldman) in desperate search for the very same book that the mysterious man held. The picture started off strong and it immediately looked great. I believed that I was really looking at a world so ravaged by starvation, desperation and a lack of ethical and moral conduct. It reminded me of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” in terms of its tone and sadness elicited by the gray environment. Unfortunately, the middle section felt interminable and it lacked a sense of isolation that the first twenty to thirty minutes had. It was painfully obvious that the film tried to establish a contrast between Washington and Oldman’s characters. For a movie about faith and retaining that faith against all odds, the easy answers came quick so the material ultimately lacked subtlety and I slowly lost interest over time. As for the action sequences, they came few and far between but only one stood out to me. I was impressed with the almost western-like stand-off in and out of the house of an old couple (Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon) who happened to be cannibals. I wished more action sequences were similar to that scene in terms of tension and delivering dynamic (sometimes awkward) camera angles. Furthermore, I craved more interactions between the protagonists and the couple who offered them human meat to eat as a meal. There was something very sinister during that part of the film but at the same time it felt darkly comic. It would have been nice if Washington and Kunis forced themselves to eat the human flesh just as they felt forced to drink the tea offered to them prior. At the end of the day “The Book of Eli,” directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, blended into other more recent post-apocalyptic movies with religion as an undercurrent instead of standing out via using similar works as templates to avoid making similar mistakes. I would have liked the movie a lot more if it offered us answers that were vague but surely make us think like haunting ending that Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” had. I just wanted to be challenged instead of spoon-fed.
Taking of Pelham 123, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Tony Scott directed this thriller about a criminal (John Travolta) with a mysterious reason for taking a train full hostages. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) thought it was just another day in regular train traffic, but once he got a call from the mastermind of the hostage situation, he had to think quickly and act swiftly to get to the right authorities and bargain for the lives of the hostages. For a hostage movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” should have been more exciting. For me, only the first hour of the picture really worked because Travolta and Washington’s characters constantly tried to measure each other up; they were both smart characters and each had their own flaws and far from innocent past. The mindgames they played with each other was more interesting than the last forty-five minutes’ car crashes, quick cuts aided by random blasting of music and gunfires. In fact, the last forty-five minutes was drenched in typicality, it was hard for me to sit through because I knew where it was heading. That excitement and spark that it had in the first half were completely elimated and I somewhat lost interest. I thought the supporting actors (who are usually great in other films) such as James Gandolfini (as the mayor), John Turturro (as a professional hostage negotiator) and Luis Guzmán (as one of the three criminals) were not pushed enough to make their characters come alive and make a significant impact in the story. Their characters could have been played by other actors and the movie would essentially have been the same. I also believe the movie had some serious problems when it comes to logic. For instance, the extended chase sequence near the end could have been completely avoided if the police had put trackers in any of the money bags. Since the police would know the exact positions of the criminals, the movie would not have wasted fifteen minutes of its time showing confusion and chaos. Overall, “The Taking of Pelham 123” isn’t really a bad movie because more than half of it was right on track (pardon the pun). It’s just that it tried too hard to inject that Hollywood way of storytelling where a big chase sequence is a requisite. For a movie having characters who exuded edginess and intelligence, the movie was pretty dull and safe.