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.

 

Why the New Magnificent Seven Fails

Film Poster for 2016 Magnificent Seven

As Hollywood continues to travel on the remake train, with a rumored re-imagining of The Wild Bunch still bouncing around the ether, despite the demise of Tony Scott who was to helm the picture, the new Magnificent Seven fails on several levels. Not as a western, per se, but as a remake of an original classic that was itself a remake.

Akira Kurosawa was a fan of the American western, specifically John Ford’s films.  He made Seven Samurai and also went on to make Yojimbo; the film that Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone turned into A Fistful of Dollars (which started Clint Eastwood on his rise to stardom and eventual transmutation into a film icon.)

Hollywood liked the western premise of “Seven Samurai” so much that they decided to make their own “westernized” version of Kurosawa’s love letter to the American West. John Sturges directed a script adapted by William Roberts; presumably based upon Akira’s original screenplay. 

The original film, “Seven Samurai” feels very western-ish with its Samurai heroes, who are in reality Ronin (Samurai without masters who are roaming the land and accomplishing little for money.) that still have the “code of honor” that they live by, or at least try to live by.

“SS” is slow and meandering and quite epic. It is also very verbose, all Japanese films at that time, even “Yojimbo,” featured heroes and villains who talk a lot. There are prerequisite (and long) speeches about everything, even before an attack, and the participants will talk the issue to death before turning to sword play.

The Sturges film got rid of all the heroes long winded pontification and kept it to a minimum. Yul Brynner, who plays the main gunfighter (Samurai) recruits the other six men who help the beleaguered villagers, and does so without resorting to long speeches.

Later in the film, when the time comes for a “long” speech, Brynner and the other gunfighters explain why their life is not one that anyone should envy. Each of the “Seven” give their short spin on the lifestyle.

Each of the gunfighters in the Sturges remake are like the Ronin (Samurai) from the Akira Kurosawa film. All have a code and each one has accomplished little in the recent months. The men not only have a sort of honor that they follow but they also find that their worth has diminished somewhat.

As the Charles Bronson character; Bernardo O’Reilly says, “Right now $20 is a lot of money.” All the men, after Brenner’s character Chris states that no one has given him “everything” before, follow for little money and the chance to do the right thing for people who need their help.

While Mexico was not overly pleased with how the Mexican villagers were depicted in the film; men with no weapons and little knowledge of the world outside their farms and families, the tale was intimate, simple and epic.

Sturges understood that the epic nature of this film depended on the intimate nature of the village and the naivety of the people who needed help. This naivety even extends to the bandit leader who really steals from the unfortunate villagers in order to feed his men.

It is a case of survival for both the heroes and the villains. Even Chris and his magnificent seven gunfighters are doing the job for the “food and board” more than anything else.

The bare minimum of recompense and reward is what turned this film into an instant classic. That and the performances of all the players, Brynner, Steve McQueen, Bronson, Eli Wallach, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn all turned in brilliant performances, each a shaded nuance of their Samurai counterparts, and this, along with the script and direction made this slow moving and simple western a massive hit.

The remake, however, and Antoine Fuqua work on the premise that bigger is better. The screenwriters (Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto) hark back to the original screenplays and the overall feeling is a mishmash of Spaghetti Western ambiance with a lot of Hollywood Western cliches.

Chris is now Sam Chisolm Denzel Washington, a warrant officer for the court and he has a connection with the villain of this piece, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Somewhat irritatingly, in a bit of backstory, Sarsgaard’s character hired men who hung, somewhat unsuccessfully, Sam Chisolm. This act turns the whole thing into a Hang ‘Em High type scenario at the end which detracts from the whole message of both the original and the 1960 remake.

This new version moves the action from south of the border and turns the farmers into town folk being terrorized by the greedy Bartholomew (Sarsgaard) who wants the gold and all the land to himself. This move alone creates a problem in that after the Civil War, many of the townspeople were not helpless sheep, as depicted in the 2016 film.

As Louis L’Amour pointed out in many of his books about the old west; towns were filled with old campaigners who had fought in several wars, including taking on the indigenous population that the white man forced off their tribal lands. No one, in the real west, would have allowed Bartholomew’s hired guns to run roughshod over their town.

(In this film’s move to make corporate greed and gold the main motivation for the villain, they also inadvertently entered “Pale Rider” territory.  Even the film’s opening shot of Washington’s character has him riding through a heat shimmer, very similar to another Clint Eastwood western, “High Plains Drifter” – a western that also dealt with gold as its prevailing plot line.)

None of the original characters are transferred wholly from either film to the new “Seven.” There is the Robert Vaughn character Lee, being played by Ethan Hawke, but he is a sniper, not a gunfighter at all. James Coburn’s character, a variation on the master swordsman in Kurosawa’s classic, has been taken over by Korean actor Byung-hun Lee and there is no Horst Buchholz  character at all.

There are things that stand out with Fuqua’s vision of Magnificent Seven. He has included some Native American characters and his Mexican member of the team is no neophyte but is instead a hardened killer. He also allows the token female – Haley Bennett, who plays recently widowed Emma Cullen, to be one tough piece of work.

What is missing are the clean lines put forth by Sturges’ film. The intimacy has gone and been replaced with huge shoot outs that includes all the well-armed townspeople. By including dynamite, a gatling gun (Oh so reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) and a 150 strong army of hired gunfighters, the epic intimacy has been thrown out the window.

In this version of the film, the villagers are not so much learning what they must do to survive against an outside evil, not that much different from them, but are fighting against corporate greed and an inflated ego. Sarsgaard’s character in this film is an old west version of Donald Trump, in essence, and this move exacerbates the change of victim.

Ultimately, the film lacks the oomph of Sturges’ version and feels more like a homage to Sergio Leone than Akira Kurosawa.  The Elmer Bernstein score, from the 1960 film is only used during the end credits and this also effects the film.

The actors in the film all do well but lack the stoic and taciturn quality of the western heroes brought to screen in the original “Seven” and while they all bring much to their roles, the screenplay lets them down.

The 2016 Magnificent Seven, despite a huge shootout which leaves the streets of the one-horse town littered with bodies from both sides, is, in the end, a little boring and more of an oddity than a brilliant re-imagining of two classics.

By having a connection between the new and not improved version of the Mexican bandit and the new Yul Brynner character  the film loses the nobility of the characters and the storyline of both Sturges’ film and Kurosawa’s.

Despite the high scores on IMDb, with Rotten Tomatoes being a bit less enthusiastic, the film, with so many influences (including a bit of Tarantino) is only a 3.5 star film. It is enjoyable but not overly so. Watch once and then move on…

Action Films Equal Bodybuilding

Scene from BladeThings have changed in the action film world, to the extent that these types of movies equal a bodybuilding extravaganza for the actors involved. Take, for example, the Blade trilogy (1, 2 and 3) where in the last DVD  “Blade Trinity,” special features, the actors all talk about the inordinate amount of time spent weight training.

Actions films by the very definition of the genre include a lot of action sequences; car chases, shoot outs, heavy-duty fight scenes, et al. More emphasis is now place on action heroes looking more like professional athletes. As mentioned in the special features on the final Blade film, “more actors want to do a lot of their own stunts.”

This move toward shrugging off stunt performers who specialize in making the less athletic, or age challenged, actor is relatively new. Certainly the more “jock-like” actors have always wanted to do as many of their own stunts as possible, but now everyone wants to get into the act.

The “making of” documentaries on the third DVD point out this trend and watching films since the trilogy ended it appears that whether the movies are action oriented or not actors want to do more of their own stunts. This move seems to have broken the stunt world into three camps.

These seem to be: Coordinators, professionals who do the real risky stunts (like being set on fire) and standby performers (in case the actor cannot do the gig because of physical limitations or insurance, or “bottles it.”) *Losing one’s bottle, or “bottles it” and all the various iterations of this phrase equals Brit Speak for chickening out.*

Still of Dwayne Johnson

A lot of actors specialize in action features because they are athletic or former athletes. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the perfect example of a sports figure (we won’t go into the debate of WWE being mostly staged, these guys and gals are athletes…period.) who is forging a new career playing roles that are action heavy and he does a lot of his own stunts. Not only that, but Johnson’s acting is very impressive on top of his physical attributes.

But what about actors who aren’t natural athletes or, as stated above, limited by age?

With action films putting a lot more emphasis in actors at least looking like they could perform their own stunts, bodybuilding is the order of the day. This visual believability is crucial if the audience is to suspend their disbelief enough to buy the screen action equaling reality.

Gone are the days when attitude alone made a character deadly in terms of combat. Take for example, the television show “The Equalizer.” The late Edward Woodward, that brilliant actor from across the pond, played Robert McCall aka the Equalizer. McCall was an ex government agent of some sort, an assassin type, who hires himself out as a private detective. He is there to help the “little guy” who needs someone to fight the bullies.

Edward Woodward as Robert McCall

Woodward as McCall didn’t need to look like “The Rock” or Arnold Schwarzenegger to convince the audience he was deadly or tough. His acting skills and the character’s psychological makeup did that. McCall used guns to take out the villains, along with some physical action, and this did not require him to look like a bodybuilder or professional athlete.

Fast forward quite a number of years and Denzel Washington played Robert McCall as a very athletic and martial arts type of ex government killer. Guns were used very little as his McCall used a lot of “The Book of Eli” moves in his version of “The Equalizer.”

The character of McCall becomes less about shooting and more about being creative in dealing out death with something other than bullets. He was also more physical, in keeping with the new millennium’s perception of age; people are lot more active in their “twilight years” now than in the 1980s. Being in one’s late 50s or early 60s “back in the day” meant more reliance on walking frames, canes and a general lack of energy. In 2015 the retired generation have much more get up and go as well as being in better shape physically.

At least in the acting world, fitness is being stressed in terms of time spent in the gym prior to filming. Physical training, fight training and so on all take place in the run up to shooting and throughout the production. “Making of” documentaries on DVD’s feature a lot of “normal” actors talking about “beefing up” and getting “ripped” for a feature film.

It may well be that the action film equaling bodybuilding for its participants is now the norm. Certain actors, like “Resident Evil” star Milla Jovovich, have discovered that they enjoy the more physical aspects of doing stunts and, more importantly, are very good at it. The real dangerous gigs are still done by professionals, but the emphasis on the actor’s looking fit makes it easier for the viewer to believe in the action onscreen.

7 February 2015

The Equalizer: Why is Denzel Washington More MacGyver than Robert McCall

The Equalizer: Why is Denzel Washington More MacGyver than Robert McCall

From 1985 to 1989 English actor Edward Woodward was The Equalizer, aka Robert McCall, a former well armed shadowy governmental agent who “had gun and traveled,” albeit not very far, to help the innocent; why then, in the big screen adaptation is Denzel Washington more like MacGyver than Robert McCall? Anyone watching the film its opening weekend would have noticed that, unlike the small screen version of the character, McCall used quite a number of implements to kill the bad guys. Implements that were not guns. It should also be pointed out that in Mr. Woodward’s televised, and fairly violent, series the villains were mostly homegrown rapists, murderers, blackmailers, et al versus the Russian baddies in the film versio

The Equalizer: Denzel Washington Thrills as Robert McCall

The Equalizer: Denzel Washington Thrills as Robert McCall

This big screen version of the 1980’s series The Equalizer, which starred English actor Edward Woodward as Robert Mccall thrills just as much, if not more, with Denzel Washington playing the former governmental tough guy. The audience certainly enjoyed seeing the star dish out punishment to the bad guys with spontaneous applause breaking out whenever McCall took out another baddie. Widespread laughter in all the right places and a good amount of cheering went on as well. Despite the obvious satisfaction displayed by the majority of the audience there were a few things that could have been changed to enhance the story onscreen.