The Equalizer 2 (2018): Languid Denzel Washington Sequel (Review)

The Equalizer 2 (2018): Languid Denzel Washington Sequel (Review)

It is fair to say that I was a bit underwhelmed at the first outing of Denzel Washington as Robert McCall. The Equalizer 2, while moving at a frustratingly languid rate, does perform a tad better. The stormy ending of this sequel, directed again by Antoine Fuqua,  manages to make up for much of what is lacking in pace and storyline.

Once again, McCall deals mostly with “foreigners” versus the more homegrown baddies of the television series. The Russians have taken a backseat this go around with a trip to Brussels and a very short outing to Turkey. McCall helps out another unfortunate; Miles – played by Ashton Sanders and exacts revenge for the murder of an old friend (Melissa Leo).

However, without giving too much away plot wise, the bad guys he goes after this time around are a mixture of nationalities and at least one, is another old pal. An member of McCall’s old governmental group is murdered in Brussels and when Susan (Leo) and Dave York (Pedro Pascal) go to investigate, Susan is exterminated with extreme prejudice.

This sequel gives Washington another chance to deepen the character of McCall. We see his personal side, this time as a valued neighbor and helpful Lyft driver. (His character no longer works at the DIY store) Although he does little to help Fatima (Sakina Jaffrey whom we see far too little of) when her garden is destroyed, opting to clean up her graffitied mural instead.

Jonathan Scarfe is splendid as the nasty bit of work who murders for hire, Bill Pullman is not used enough and Pascal steps out smartly in his role. Sadly, no one has a chance to shine too brightly as the plot, despite trotting out an impressive amount of backstory, moves at a snail’s pace.  

Washington makes McCall just as believable this time around as he did in the first outing. The double Oscar winner never disappoints, bringing an impressive amount of gravitas and truth to whatever role he plays. (Take for example, his gunfighter in the abysmal Magnificent Seven remake. Washington was the one shining light in a classic western destroyed by a modern script and poor understanding of the genre.)

All in all, The Equalizer 2 does deliver in the entertainment department. The action pieces are very good – the battle between Susan and in the Belgium hotel room is impressive and it looks painful and believable. As usual, Washington, as McCall, comes across as the ultimate “bad ass.” While this ability shone through in The Book of Eli, he makes each move and countermove look impressively easy.

(Kudos to Stunt Coordinators Jeffrey J. Dashnaw and Mick Gould who make everyone’s fight scenes look gritty, painful and pretty darned realistic.)

The cinematography is spot on and the effects, especially at the end of the film, are brilliant. The Equalizer 2 is languid, as sequels go, but Denzel Washington and his fellow actors deliver across the board.

The film earns 4 stars because, despite the slow pacing, it does deliver. It has several redeeming features, like those brilliantly staged fight scenes, and is well worth watching at the cinema.

 

Rampage (2018): Dwayne Johnson, Moneypenny and Video Game Nostalgia (Review)

Rampage (2018): Dwayne Johnson, Moneypenny and George of the Jungle (Review)

Rampage (directed by Dwayne Johnson fave director Brad Peyton) stars “The Rock” and Miss Moneypenny (London actress Naomie Harris) and is a nostalgic look at an old video game of the same name. Granted, the film does deviate somewhat but there are plenty of nods and winks for fans of the 1986 arcade game.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a government agent “good ole boy” type (he tells Okoye – Johnson, that he works for OGA or Other Government Agency with a sincere country delivery) who later steps up to help our heroes. Harris again delivers almost effortlessly as the former scientist/convict and there is far too little of personal favorite Marley Shelton.

George, the big ape, is brought to life by “Doug Jones” type Jason Liles and the film’s primary villain; Clare Wyden, is portrayed nastily by Malin Akerman. The cast contains a number of “familiar faces” and while it may seem a tad trite (it is, after all, based on a 1980’s platform game) it moves at a good pace and is funny in all the right places. 

The film makes use of devices from other, earlier, movies dealing with apes. Congo, starring Tim Curry, Ernie Hudson and a very young Laura Linney as the romantic/strong action lead, used sign language to communicate with the tame ape being returned to the wild.

However, Okoye’s pal George is much lighter and has a better and  naughtier sense of humour with his signage. (Going from a fist bump to flipping off his friend, George is an ape of many colours, unlike the drab and downbeat Amy in Congo.)

There is a nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing with the helicopter hunt of a 30 foot wolf and references to the video game itself are there for the taking. Rampage’s story, in a nutshell, deals with mutating animals that head to Chicago. They are set to destroy the city until Dr. Caldwell (Harris), Okoye and OGA Agent Russell (Morgan) step up, with the help of a cured George, and save the day.

The film is not deep and bears a slight resemblance to most Kong remakes. As video game films go, this one is fast paced, fun and not a little addictive. Shakespeare it ain’t but it is another Dwayne Johnson vehicle for the highest paid actor in Forbes history.

Joe Manganiello is good as the buggy eyed mercenary hired by the evil scientist to dispatch the 30 foot wolf and Demetrius Grosse is perfect as Colonel Blake; a man who overestimates the military’s competence and underestimates his targets. 

Morgan could have phoned his role in as it is a variation of his Negan character in AMC favorite The Walking Dead. Any downside to the film is, along with a yearning for more Marley Shelton, that the delightful and overly talented Ms. Harris could have also benefitted from more screen time. (Harris is a performer of many hues who delivered brilliantly in last years Moonlight playing splendidly against type.)

Rampage, however,  is an almost atypical Dwayne Johnson vehicle. It is yet another action/comedy part played by the wildly popular actor/icon this year (the other being Skyscraper with Neve Campbell) and, once again, the performer manages to thrill and entertain.

The film earns a cool 4.5 stars for its  fun factor alone. Rampage can be owned/streamed right now and it is worth a look, if one enjoys nostalgic video game films. The effects are good, the action plentiful and the comedy well timed. There is no nudity, foul language (except for the finger) and the violence is oddly bloodless.

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): Broader Comedy and a Connection (Review)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): Broader Comedy and a Connection (Review)

Ever since Edgar Wright was given the old “heave ho” from the original Ant-Man the tiny (and not so tiny) superhero’s fate has been open to debate. Certainly Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a like-able alternative to Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym but one can only imagine what Wright’s take on the whole thing would have been. 

Still, Bring It On director Peyton Reed was an inspired choice to helm the first outing of Ant-Man and he has proven with Ant-Man and the Wasp that he can blend his comic touch, yet again, with action flawlessly. The film delivers on a broader scale, in terms of comedy, (although it has lost some of the delightful dichotomies involved in that Thomas the Tank engine fight) and introduces a gender changed Ghost.

Of course the best bit about making Ghost a female is that the incredibly gorgeous and talented Hannah John-Kamen (who kicked bad-guy butt weekly on SyFy via Killjoys and recently did a star turn in Ready Player One) got to show off her excellent acting chops once again. Evangeline Lily reprises her role as Hank’s chip off the old block daughter, Hope and Rudd’s character’s three stooge pals return as well.

A quick nod to the splendid Michael Peña, who once again shows his comic genius is in order here.  He almost steals every single scene he is in which almost cements his return in future installments of this franchise. Everyone, including the “newcomers” – Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne and the brilliant Walton Goggins all bring something to the Marvel table. Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale and the always adorable Abby Ryder Fortson give us an Ant-Man verse we know and love. 

There is, of course, the inevitable tie-in with “Infinity Wars” and the eagerly waited second half of said film. While, in this reviewer’s estimation, it all may stem from that green stone that Dr. Strange coughed up to Thanos to save Tony Stark, it may well be the Quantum bits and Lang’s exposure to them that turns around the downbeat and upsetting of part one of Infinity Wars…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is built around Scott’s escape from the same trap that Janet Van Dyne (Pfeiffer) fell into 30 years before. But there is also the “Accord” law breakage that puts Lang on house arrest and the dilemma of Ghost, who become a major fly in the ointment of our heroes.

The comedy in this second installment of the franchise is surely a touch of genius on the part of Reed as helmsman. The hilarity is so contagious and spot on that good old Stan Lee’s cameo is quite tame. It also affects the gag from the first film about the tiny crashing items and their lack of fan-fare.

Douglas is still grumpy and funny in turns, Lily is still hot as ever as Wasp, even before she dons the suit and, John-Kamen kills it as the trapped between dimensions “villain” being driven mad by the pain.

There is not a lot wrong with the film and it is a mark of its success that one immediately wants to sit through the entire thing again as soon as it finishes.  Ant-Man and the Wasp ends on a huge cliffhanger, one that only those Marvel fans who remember to stick around after the credits start rolling will see, and it is a real “Debbie Downer” of an ending.

(It is amazing to see how many filmgoers leave before the credits finish. Have they learned nothing?)

Theories abound about the ending and the possible connection between the upcoming part two of Infinity Wars. We are reasonably sure that despite the negative vibe put off by the end of this film, Ant-Man and his new sidekick Wasp will be around to fight another day…

The film earns a full 5 stars just for its comedy alone. Rudd, Lily and Douglas make a great team, along with Fortson and the three stooges that accompany Rudd’s character once again. Cannavale has little to do and Judy Greer (a personal favorite since Cursed) is funny as Lang’s ex who’s had a change of heart.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is still playing at cinemas and is worth seeing on the big screen. This one is a keeper though and will make a great addition to all your other Marvel verse films.

 

Skyscraper (2018): Dwayne Johnson and Neve Campbell Rock (Review)

Skyscraper (2018): Dwayne Johnson and Neve Campbell Rock (Review)

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers) Skyscraper stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Jumanji: Welcome to the JungleRampage and a slew of other films) and Neve Campbell ( the Canadian actress best known to horror fans as the survivor Sidney Prescott from the Scream franchise).  The film, made on an estimated budget of over $125 million, feels a bit old fashioned despite its high flying premise.

The title structure is in the new Hong Kong and is now the tallest structure in the world. Johnson’s character, Will Sawyer,  is a former rescue team leader who misses a bomb and loses his leg as a result. Campbell (Sarah Sawyer) is a former military surgeon who operated on him, married him and then became the mother of his children.

Sawyer is now the head of a small security company hired to check out the new skyscraper after being given a push by an old pal and former rescue teammate. The family are living in the towering structure and they are the only inhabitants in the entire residential section of the building.

On the day that Will must certify the skyscrape as being safe and secure, a former partner of builder Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) – Kores Botha, played by Roland Møller, sets the building on fire. The plan is to force Ji to flee with his most prized possession so Botha can steal it.

This plan puts Sawyer’s family at risk as they return from an abortive panda visit and are now just above the deadly conflagration started by Botha and his henchmen.  Cue some heroics from Will and Sarah as they struggle to save the kids (Henry and Georgia –Noah Cottrell and McKenna Roberts who are brilliant in their roles) and take down the evil baddies who are willing to destroy everything to get what they want. 

All in all, the film feels like a throwback to the days of, not just, Towering Inferno with a touch of Die Hard but to a less bloody and profanity filled Hollywood PG-13 action thriller. Skyscraper entertains from its very first frame, however, it is all that bit too predictable to be originally entertaining.

Johnson, who really cannot seem to put a foot wrong lately, convinces and it is a treat to see Campbell play yet another strong female who proves to be the equal of her giant of a husband.  Perhaps the thing that really works is how Johnson manages to stay away from Schwarzenegger territory, despite his incredible physique. The fact that the former wrestling icon can act circle around the former “Governator” also helps Johnson show a more human side.

The cast deliver across the board.Hannah Quinlivan – as Xia – is good as the deadly and rather nasty bit of work who orchestrates a number of dirty deeds for Botha. Byron Mann (Inspector Wu) also convinces as the cop in charge of first arresting then assisting Sawyer and his family. 

Special effects are outstanding overall and the stunts are thrilling enough to impress the most jaded of film fans. Thurber proves that he can do much more than comedy although the script feels almost like a “by the numbers” effort.

Skyscraper pulls in an impressive 4.5 stars, despite the schmaltzy ending and rather bloodless final battle. The effects in the “pearl” are good, although they are a computer screen re-imagining of the old carnival hall of mirrors. The film is worth seeing as it does move at a breakneck speed and one could easily bring the kids and the grandparents to see this one.

The entire film is worth the price of admission for Neve Campbell alone, throw in Johnson and, despite the films few drawbacks, Thurber has a winner here. The actors rock their respective roles and help to make this one heck of an enjoyable experience.

The First Purge (2018): A Template Tale (Review)

The First Purge

The First Purge may feel like “Billy Jack ”  without the hat and the protagonist is a caring and sharing neighborhood drug lord, but it really aims for much higher ideals. Trotting out the tropes of “you cannot trust the government and that all people of color, even those of oriental descent, are to be exterminated with extreme prejudice, The First Purge follows its own template yet again.

All of the films in this popular franchise are carbon copies of each other. Albeit slightly different directions are taken in each iteration. However, apart from the tendency to stick with one small group throughout, the film offers the same overall theme: That government want to clear out the “minorities” and the ghettos via “The Purge.”

Written by James DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray, The First Purge stars the heart stoppingly beautiful and abundantly talented Lee Scott Davis and features a biggish cameo by the evergreen Marisa Tomei. The film  tries to offer an insight to all that mercenary involvement that features heavily in the other installments of the franchise.

Unfortunately, the entire thing  feels like a template from the other films that followed the first offering back in 2013. With a final message (Spoiler Alert) of your local crime lord caring more for his fellow downtrodden and impoverished neighbors than the cold hearted government (read Donald Trump’s cabinet and the Republican Party here) the timing of this tale is, perhaps, too close for comfort.

While it strains believability, the film does throw shade on the current government. That being said, the earlier installments also cocked a snook at the establishment. One that was headed by then president Barrack Obama. So the message, which feels quite relevant now, is still trodding the path of good old Billy Jack: “We cannot trust government” or “the Man.”

(Or as the outlaw Josie Wales tells the Cherokee chief in the film of the same name – “Looks like we can’t trust the white man.”)

All racial aspects aside, and political relevancy ignored, The First Purge offers an almost eerily correct picture of the current government in the United States of America. We never see the president, but we hear the one-sided sycophantic conversation that the leader of the social experiment passes on to the “current leader” before sending Marisa Tomei’s character out to be shot in the head.

By the end of the film one feels that nothing is really new here. McMurray and DeMonaco both lead the audience in the same direction as previous offerings in the franchise. No one, in terms of the cast, really stands out. Y’lan Noel (as Dimitri) is limited by the script and Mugga  plays a role that, in earlier years, would have been filled by Octavia Spencer

Overall, The First Purge is not quite mutton dressed as lamb but it lacks the enjoyment level of the other offerings in this violent and, perhaps, prophetic set of films. The message is the same in this template tale of big brother murdering the lower classes and while the presence of Aunt May helps to a degree it is not enough to save this one from a certain mediocrity and mendacity.

(On a side note: The colored contacts that the “players” wear, is never really utilized to its full potential. It makes the purge participants look like zombies, to a degree, but it, in the end, detracts from the action.)

The First Purge is a three star offering; a stale and repeated tale without the personal touches of previous films in the franchise. Fans may enjoy it, although I am admittedly a fan of all the previous films and found it a bit…hum-drum, but this is one to view via DVD or streaming. Seeing it in the cinema is not recommended as this film follows the same old template ad nauseam….