The Equalizer 2 (2018)

2020 #25
Antoine Fuqua | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Turkish & French | 15 / R

The Equalizer 2

Now we’re equalised, bitch.

Sadly, that is not a line Denzel actually says in this movie. The film would be about 50% better if he did. Instead, what we get is an action-thriller where both the action and thrills are, literally, few and far between.

For those who skipped the first film, Denzel is playing Robert McCall, a former Marine and intelligence agent who retired to a life of inconspicuous normality, but has been tempted back into righting some of the wrongs of the world — or “equalizing” them, I guess. This time, an array of subplots eventually gives way to a story in which McCall sets out to avenge the murder of a friend.

I mention the subplots there because they’re the film’s biggest problem. As a result of them, it’s… so… slow… To start with, the subplots are a couple of small ‘cases’ introduced in the first half-hour, presumably to try to liven the film up because the main storyline is crawling along. Neither works. I’m not here for a pleasant drama about a Lyft driver who does kindly things for others — I want to see Denzel Washington kicking the asses of nasty buggers. The first film was noteworthy for investing more time in its supporting characters than is typical for the action-thriller genre, but this one takes that notion to extremes.

Even when the main plot does get moving, it takes over an hour to get to a ‘twist’ that’s obvious just from reading the cast list. At least it doesn’t try to save it for the end, I guess. That reveal leads to a wannabe-Taken-phone-speech declaration from Denzel, which should’ve come a lot earlier. It’s not as memorable as the Taken one (though the final line lands), but at least it’s a moment of drama and the film perks up after it — but by then we’re well over an hour in to a less-than-two-hours movie.

A rare moment of almost-action

From there it’s a short hop, skip and jump to a climax set amidst a horrendous storm in an abandoned seaside town. It’s a nice concept and it’s solidly executed, but it’s an at-most 20-minute sequence and it’s not exceptional, just a lot more engaging than the film’s other 100 minutes, so it doesn’t really justify sitting through the rest of the movie. However, I did not realise that flour could be explosive, but turns out it can, so in that sense at least this was educational for me.

(FYI, the film was cut in the UK to get a 15 certificate, removing some of the more extreme gore (insides hanging out, a spine being severed, etc). The 4K Blu-ray release is uncut and rated 18 (presumably so they could just port the disc rather than having to faff with edits/a new transfer). On Netflix it has an 18 icon, so I guess it’s also the uncut version, should that concern you either way.)

The Equalizer 2 isn’t a terrible film, but it is quite a boring one. Not just slow paced — genuinely boring. A raft of subplots don’t really go anywhere or serve any purpose, the main story is incredibly thin, and the limited action sequences do little to balance the books.

2 out of 5

The Equalizer 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

2017 #57
Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Magnificent Seven

Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

The magnificent action

Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

The diverse seven

I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

4 out of 5

The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.

Man on Fire (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #57

A promise to protect.
A vow to avenge.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English & Spanish
Runtime: 146 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd April 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 8th October 2004
First Seen: in-flight, c.2004

Stars
Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Training Day)
Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, The Runaways)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Melinda and Melinda)
Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Hairspray)
Marc Anthony (Bringing Out the Dead, El cant ante)

Director
Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State)

Screenwriter
Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Legend)

Based on
Man on Fire, a novel by A.J. Quinnell.

The Story
As a wave of kidnappings from rich families sweeps Mexico City, burnt-out former soldier Creasy is hired as the bodyguard of little Pita Ramos. She begins to bring him out of his reclusive shell, so when he fails to prevent her abduction, he vows to make the people responsible pay — very, very violently.

Our Hero
Washed-up alcoholic former Marine and ex-CIA operative John Creasy is a broken man, only taking bodyguard work in Mexico City because he needs the cash. He still has a particular set of skills at hand when needed, though.

Our Villains
An array of ruthless kidnappers and corrupt cops, though some of the villains may be closer to home…

Best Supporting Character
Dakota Fanning has relatively limited screen time as little Pita, at least after the first act, but it’s enough for the viewer to warm to her as much as Creasy does, getting us on side for the violence to come.

Memorable Quote #1
“Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” — Rayburn

Memorable Quote #2
“Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” — Creasy

Memorable Scene
After corrupt detective Fuentes is kidnapped by Creasy, he wakes up tied to the bonnet of a car wearing just his boxers. Creasy demonstrates how he built a small bomb, before informing Fuentes where that bomb is currently located. To be blunt: it’s in Fuentes’ ass. That certainly gives the interrogation a different flavour.

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style — jumpy cutting, heavy saturation, etc — is apparently designed to reflect Creasy’s fractured mental state. The most memorable part, at least for me, were the subtitles, which use various fonts, placements, and reveals to make them feel part of the whole package, rather than a bunged-at-the-bottom last-minute addition.

Making of
The film was really shot in Mexico City, under the real threat of kidnapping and/or other violence. Radha Mitchell was escorted by three bodyguards after her driver was carjacked at gunpoint; Denzel Washington was also surrounded by bodyguards at all times; several crew members were robbed at gunpoint, and, according to the police, the crew were also targeted for kidnapping

Previously on…
A.J. Quinnell’s novel was previously adapted in 1987 starring Scott Glenn, Joe Pesci, and Jonathan Pryce.

Awards
2 Golden Trailer Awards nominations (Best Action (for trailer C), Best Drama (for trailer B))
3 nominations for Dakota Fanning as supporting or young actress (Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Golden Schmoes Awards, Young Artist Awards)

What the Critics Said
“On paper, we have a well-worn initial-mistrust-gives-over-to-mutual-affection arc, but Washington’s despair-tinged reserve and Fanning’s astonishing naturalness give the relationship warmth and resonance. Fanning exudes more than enough charm and decency to make Creasy’s renewal of faith completely believable. […] As the action goes increasingly over the top, so does Scott’s visual pyrotechnics. Probably setting a new world record for the number of different film stocks in one movie, Scott and hot-to-trot cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral) whip-pan and crash-zoom to new levels of excess, heightening both the teeming life of Mexico City and the anxiety around Pita’s kidnapping. Best of all are the subtitles: rather than simply translating dialogue, they assault the viewer, conveying drama and emotion through aggressive graphic design. You’ve never seen any done like this before.” — Ian Freer, Empire

Score: 39%
(I had no idea this was so critically reviled! I thought it was quite well liked, in fact.)

What the Public Say
“it is relentless in assaulting your senses and your sensibilities, and that can often be unpleasant, at best. While this is obviously the intended effect in many cases, [it] has the effect of making it unlikeable to watch, if not for the actions of its star character, then just for the fact that it seems intent on making the audience feel every ounce of anguish in the torturer and his victim. It’s definitely intended, but it doesn’t exactly result in me feeling empathy for either character, one way or another. It must be said, however, that Tony Scott is not afraid to have his character do horrible things to people. He’s not concerned about what the audience thinks about Creasy so much as they just consider why he is.” — CJ Stewart, The Viewer’s Commentary

Verdict

On the one hand, Man on Fire represents the start of Tony Scott’s stylistic excess that would see him through the rest of his career — the jumpy editing, oddly saturated images, etc. (It’s also present to an extent in Spy Game, though.) It would get a bit much at times (Domino), but Man on Fire uses it effectively. On the other hand, the film works just as well as a character-driven revenge drama. Rather than rush to the shooting-and-killing, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland take their time to build the relationship between Creasy and Pita, so that when we do reach the vengeance portion of the story, you’re as invested as the characters are. Of course, from there it is (as a film from the year before would put it) a roaring rampage of revenge.

#58 will be… practically perfect in every way.

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

The Book of Eli (2010)

2012 #11
The Hughes Brothers | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

After last week’s reviews of Priest and Legion, here’s another disappointingly religious action blockbuster…

The Book of EliThe directors of From Hell (what did they do for nine years? Struggle to find work perhaps) helm the tale of Denzel Washington being a sunglasses-wearing loner mofo in a post-apocalyptic America. I really enjoyed it… for maybe 50 minutes, before it gradually slid away, ultimately degenerating to a Christianity circle jerk ending.

I warn you now, this review contains spoilers, because I don’t care if I ruin the crap bits for you. Indeed, I’d say less “ruin” and more “prepare”.

Much like the film, let’s start with the good stuff. It has a slow, almost elegiac pace early on, punctuated by bursts of violence and action. This section is very good. Then it begins to slip into more typical action blockbuster territory. A fake-single-take shoot-out might’ve seemed virtuoso filmmaking in the right film, but here it seems like director willy-waggling in preference to serving the mood and tone thus far created. Same goes for other independently cool things that follow, like the explosive destruction of a truck.

Ironically, one of the earlier good action sequences (a bar brawl… to sell it short!) is included in a beautifully-choreographed single-take form in the deleted & alternate scenes. That should’ve been left in the film. The final version isn’t bad — the Hughes brothers use a variety of static and wide shots to lens all the film’s fights in a way that reminds you that all handheld close-up shaky-jumpy super-fast-cut modern action sequences are inferior to an old-style well-staged, well-shot sequence — but if they’d had the restraint not to intercut some sequence-extending close-ups they would have had a massively more memorable sequence.

Robin HoodThe music is by Atticus Ross, which was interesting because I’d thought it was reminiscent of The Social Network. So that’s nice.

There are nice, subtle CG effects (I presume) for much of the film, making the world brown-grey and bleak with green-tinged clouds… but all that is ditched for the digitally stitched together ‘single take’ gunfight and, even more so, a vision of a desolate San Francisco during the closing minutes. It’s decent enough in itself — I’ve seen worse — but like, say, the ‘vampires’ in I Am Legend, it’s jarring and awkward because it doesn’t fit with the tone and style established elsewhere.

A bit like Mila Kunis, who is kinda fine but also an acting weak link. Washington and Gary Oldman (especially) are as great as ever. After years of Harry Potter, Batman and recently Tinker Tailor, it’s quite nice to see Oldman back as a villain! He knows how to pitch it perfectly, and while the lack of out-and-out crazy means this one isn’t as memorable as Leon’s Stansfield (well, who is?), it fits the film like a glove. It can’t withstand the blockbusterised let’s-go-get-’em second half, but then not much can. Certainly not the directors’ skills. The oft-underrated Ray Stevenson even offers a cut-above-average lead henchman figure. But there’s something about Kunis… something too present-day and preppy for someone who’s supposed to have been born and raised in a deeply post-apocalyptic back-of-beyond world. She’s nowhere near rough enough.

Old-villainLate on the film pulls out surprise appearances from Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. Their roles aren’t even close to needing thesps of such calibre though — they appear fleetingly, the actors underused. Particularly Gambon, who really has nothing to do except fire a gun. I know it’s usually a joke to comment that a usually-better cast member must have needed the money, but that’s the only reason I can imagine he’s here.

Worst of all is a pat ending, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in various ways. They really destroyed every Bible? He really memorised all of it? He wasn’t blind all along, surely? Because you assume he is and then no one says so you think maybe you’ve read it wrong but then it’s meant to be a twist that he’s blind — what?! Why is that facility on Alcatraz? Why have they just been collecting for 30 years? For 30 years?! I could go on.

As well as being religiousified to extremes, these attempts at giving surprising twists just don’t wash. To quote Kim Newman in Empire,

Given that the leather-bound tome Eli treasures is embossed with a crucifix, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out what it is…

Eli’s literary devotion is more giggly than inspirational. Frankly, it would be more affecting if humanity’s last hope rested in almost any other book than the one chosen here – Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Empire Movie Almanac.

So, so true. This must be why American reviewers seem to have loved the film, but our more secular nature sees it as Just Daft. Thank God for that.

Let us pray. (Please don't.)Newman concludes that “you can’t help feel you were invited to a party with fizzy pop and cream cake and got suckered into a sermon instead.” I couldn’t have put it better. Eli starts off with the potential for an arty 5; slips slightly to a solid 4 when the standard post-apocalyptic trope of a gang fighting for local power comes in to play; unsteadies that 4 with an increasingly atonal second half; and quite frankly borders a 1 with its sickening ending.

I land on a generous 3, because anything less would be unfair to the good stuff it achieves early on. What a shame it couldn’t continue in that vein.

3 out of 5

The Book of Eli featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.