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Denzel Washington makes The Equalizer 2 a sequel worth seeing
Denzel dishing out retribution. Plenty of bad guys. Bad guys disguised as good guys. Brutal action scenes. Death by credit card, notepad and bank note. An apocalyptic-style shoot out. And, oh yes, Denzel: you can’t go wrong.
It will come as no surprise that the Oscar winner behind the hero (Robert McCall) elevates what could be any old hackneyed action thriller to an intense and immensely watchable sequel. Denzel is just that good (I might say this more than once).
But it may come as a surprise that this is Washington’s first ever sequel. So why break this career-long duck with The Equalizer franchise? One answer may be that the son of a preacher man identifies with a hero who systematically rights the wrongs he witnesses. The other is that working with Antoine Fuqua is a tried and tested success. At the regional premiere of the movie, it became clear the latter answer rings true, whatever Denzel’s MO.
Carrying on from the first movie, the premise is a simple one: retired black ops agent goes around redeeming humankind, in a brutal display of real-world vigilantism (the movie does take a moral stance on this approach to law and order, but it’s almost subliminal).
McCall is basically Batman. Without the cape. The Money. Or Alfred.
This time around, having destroyed the Home Depot store he worked in during the first movie in his quest to eradicate the Russian problem he encountered, McCall has moved on to become a Lyft driver: imagine the pitch to Washington’s agent: “Hey, Denzel, wanna play a cab driver?”
The cabbie-by-day role allows McCall to people watch. To see the gamut of Boston-based humanity: from the good (though he’s not so bothered about this) to the worst, which is where our second brutal retribution sequence comes from.
A bunch of high-flying bankers dump an almost comatose intern into the back of Denzel’s cab… Bad move. Queue the characteristic setting of McCall’s watch in a locked room full of bad folks. An idiosyncrasy in his character that fans of the original 1980s TV programmes (around which the films are loosely based) and the first movie alike will appreciate: McCall likes to time how long it takes him to clean up a room of baddies on his stopwatch.
The film then moves through a rather predictable sequence of plot twists and turns, with the stakes raising when you expect them to and discoveries made when the pace starts to slow.
McCall gets pulled into investigating an incident in Brussels after a close friend, and former CIA colleague, makes a critical discovery. Things escalate and work their way towards a stormy resolution. Your usual plot device.
All the while McCall, living a minimalist life in a tenement building in Boston is helping a troubled, but artistically-gifted young man (Miles) find a life outside of the gang he’s mixed up with.
Aside: Moonlight star Ashton Sanders’ performance as Miles is excellent, treading that fine line between tragedy and comedy with nimble feet. Expect more from this kid.
And of course, McCall is still reading his way through his books-to-read-before-you-die list. The inclusion of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Herman Hess’s Siddhartha are nice little golden nuggets that reveal much of McCall’s character.
The Equalizer sequel benefits from the initial exposition laid out in the first movie, though not too much is revealed about McCall’s background. And here we learn much more about his life. His personal losses and demons.
But, as with the other films that benefit from the Washington-Fuqua combination (Training Day, The Equalizer), the exposition is not awkward or forced. The backstory becomes clear, understandable and evinces a gratifying amount of pathos, and we feel a natural catharsis come the dénouement without any laborious and overly structured explanation sequences.
But, for the predictability of the plot, this movie operates on a basic law of Hollywood: people love to see Denzel lay waste to bad guys. Even after 63 summers.
Not many actors can have an audience cheering for a man who cuts throats with credit cards and shoots mercenary agents three times in the head.
To highlight the point, in one of those tragi-comic lines that scriptwriters search for, McCall says to four CIA black ops-trained tough guys, “I’m going to kill each and every one of you, and the only disappointment is that I’m only going to get to do it once.”
Taken on its own, it’s a cheese-ball of a line straight from the pages of a trite action thriller. Uttered by Denzel, it has an undeniable gravitas, an edge, a grip on you. He’s just that good.
Further, the scene between Sanders and Washington — when McCall is forcing Miles to make a decision — is a Denzel master-class in elevating a script and a character from the ordinary to the extraordinary, as he breathes passion and warmth into someone we might not otherwise invest our emotions in.
What the movie may lack in narrative guile and originality, Denzel makes up for with his characteristic watch-ability, turning a character who could be a drab, colourless hermit consumed by his self-imposed isolation into a hero you root for from the opening scene.
There is also some poignancy, should you want it, from this movie. A sentiment that echoes beyond the walls of and CIA circles of Langley, Virginia. The movie is also about coming to terms with our place in the ever-evolving, fast-paced world we now inhabit. “One day you’re an asset, next day you’re an after thought” — a key character says. It’s a thought that sticks.
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