The Equalizer (2014)

2016 #37
Antoine Fuqua | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Russian & Spanish | 15 / R

Back in the ’80s, everyone’s favourite actor whose name is also the punchline to a joke (“what do you call a man with three planks on his head?”), Edward Woodward, starred in a US TV drama about a former secret agent who uses those skills to exact vigilante justice for innocents who can’t help themselves. I’ve never seen it, but I guess it was popular back in the day because, 25 years after it ended, it was rebooted on the big screen. Or maybe they’ve just run out of popular stuff and are now rebooting anything and everything they can get their hands on. Either way, it’s a decent enough IP to fashion into a contemporary action-thriller, and indeed director Antoine Fuqua has made a decent-enough contemporary action-thriller.

In this iteration, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is, by day, a mild-mannered member of staff at whatever the US equivalent of B&Q is; but by night, memories of his former life as some kind of special agent keep him awake, so he hangs out at a diner where he regularly bumps into working girl Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). After she’s hospitalised by a client, McCall feels he can’t sit on the sidelines anymore, and applies his Very Special Skills to her pimps — just to, you know, equalise things. Unfortunately, turns out those pimps were Russian gangsters, and now McCall has a bigger fight on his hands…

The Equalizer is a decently-made, well-performed, pretty entertaining action-thriller for fans of the genre. There’s nothing fundamental to complain about if you take it for what it is, and anyone who enjoys inventive deaths will be tickled by some sequences. Otherwise, it lacks originality, remixing familiar tropes and plot points into a passably-new shape.

Viewers who as a rule don’t enjoy this kind of movie will find nothing remarkable. Equally, fans of the genre will be perfectly entertained for a couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Dark Shadows (2012)

2014 #86
Tim Burton | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Dark ShadowsDirector Tim Burton’s most recent live-action movie is an adaptation of a 1960s soap opera… albeit one featuring vampires, witches, ghosts and sundry other supernatural goings-on. You wouldn’t get that on EastEnders (more’s the pity).

In the mid 18th Century, the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World, setting up a successful fishing empire and their own town, Collinsport. The son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has a fling with the maid, Angelique (Eva Green), before laying his affections on Josette (Bella Heathcote). Little does he know, Angelique is a witch, who kills Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and goads the townsfolk into burying him alive. As you do.

Fastforward 200 years to 1972, where young Victoria Winters (also Heathcote) arrives in Collinsport to become governess for the still-surviving Collins family’s youngest. The fishing business is failing, the mansion crumbling, and the family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gully McGrath, plus live-in psychologist Helena Bonham Carter and handyman Jackie Earle Haley) are a collection of odd-sorts. Then Barnabas’ coffin is dug up, resurrecting him, and… Oh, look, I’m basically telling you the whole movie now. It’s quite hard to provide a summary of the introduction to the plot, because there’s actually rather a lot going on.

white-facepainted-weirdo Burton stapleEarly on, it works. The first 20 to 30 minutes offer a serviceable prologue and an engaging introduction to most of the characters. It’s funny, it’s occasionally spooky, there’s a good deal of promise for a marginally-more-serious Addams Family-cum-Edward Scissorhands fantasy (I did say “marginally”). All in all, it’s a skilful and cohesive opening, if nonetheless a little Burton-by-numbers. Sadly, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it after that.

The story is hard to summarise because it feels like someone tried to cut a year’s worth of a soap into a movie. There are more characters than the film knows what to do with, meaning we get major developments that come literally out of nowhere, plots that are explained rather than seen, others that are introduced only to be wrapped up, and the nagging sense that a lot of material has been deleted.

Standing out from that crowd are Eva Green, who chews the scenery with aplomb, and Bella Heathcote, who grabs her chance to shine among an otherwise starry but phoning-it-in cast. Depp trots out the latest variation on his white-facepainted-weirdo Burton staple; Pfeiffer seems to wish she was back in Stardust or Hairspray; Moretz almost undermines her rising-star status (and is a little too jailbait-y to boot); Jonny Lee Miller battles his American accent almost as much as his character’s lack of purpose; and Helena Bonham Carter is in it as well, obviously.

Eva Green steals the filmIt’s a tonal grab bag: at times it seems to be a knowing spoof of daytime soaps, at others pushing for drama almost with a straight face; it’s sometimes deliberately and successfully comedic, at others straining too hard for a desperate laugh; it has a strain of bizarre sexuality that may be aiming at comic but is frequently just uncomfortable. This scrappiness leads to the most cardinal sin of any entertainment: it ends up a bit boring; and, in its out-of-the-blue big-battle climax, crushingly derivative.

Burton has spent almost a decade picking projects that are glaringly obvious choices for him. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Planet of the Apes’ failure; perhaps he’s just as predictable as the “Burton-esque” labelling these projects would likely have received under a different director. Whatever, it seems to have led to an artistically-criminal level of laziness — and I say laziness rather than ineptitude because, for all the project’s predictability, some almost-inspired moments do shine through. Just not often enough.

3 out of 5