Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Equalizer

Alternate Title:  Liam Neeson Denzel Washington Kills Everyone

One sentence synopsis:  A mild-mannered hardware store worker with a hidden past takes revenge against human traffickers and slavers when they beat a young prostitute within an inch of her life.

Things Havoc liked: There's a great and rich history to revenge fantasy movies, movies about quiet, usually middle-aged men of dignity and simple virtue, who are either wronged or have their loved-ones wronged by the evil men that some imagine to be lurking around every dark corner in the dirty cesspools that are "the city", and who set out to take revenge. Charles Bronson made a number of these films back in the day, including the immortal "Death Wish", which touched off a firestorm by inverting the point of the novel it was based on and coming down on the side of vigilante justice. In more recent times, actors such as Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson have played these sorts of roles in everything from Air Force One to the Taken series. There are those who revile these sorts of films as nothing more than middle-aged power fantasies of paternalistic violence delivered against scary minorities by virtuous white men. Unlike such critics, I try to remember that movies in general are the stuff of power fantasies the world over, for every audience imaginable, and that it is easy to twist power dynamic theory to condemn literally anything. That said, there is still perhaps something to the notion, which is why it pleases me to see that for this latest rendition of the old revenge-movie staple, the producers have decided it's time to try the formula out with a black hero and white villains.

Based on a CBS show from the late 1980s, the Equalizer stars Denzel Washington as your typical Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women. The MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW has been a staple of film for years, but unlike Neeson, who has always been a director's actor and requires a steady hand to produce a good performance, Denzel is, as always, effortlessly charismatic, no matter his role, and manages here to appear far more convincingly a rational, reaosnable surrogate-dad figure to the cast of vulnerable little people that are required to surround the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW in movies like this. This role does not exactly stretch Washington's range, but he can play something like this in his sleep, transitioning efficiently at a split second from ruthless killer to concerned, and empathetic protagonist, sometimes doing so several times in the same scene. Given that Washington is, like Neeson and Ford and Bronson before him, playing an absolutely invulnerable killing machine, it's actually nice to see some of the smaller touches the film gives him. His attempts to defuse situations without violence (which are, of course, rejected by our evil villains), actually feel genuine, such as an occasion when he simply gives an armed robber money from the cash register at his workplace, or an earlier effort to buy out the mobsters who have enslaved a young prostitute. Only when these attempts fail do the fireworks begin, something many modern movies (like the Taken series) fail to do. It's not that I have some moral objection to people striking first in films, I'm as big a fan of Han shooting Greedo as anyone. But moments like this are character moments, and help establish that we're watching something other than an armored robot in the shape of a person gunning down mooks.

It also helps if the mooks have a decent villainous leader, and for this purpose we have Teddy, a half-Sherlock, half-Ivan Drago-style Russian mob enforcer played by New Zealand actor Marton Csokas, whose last major role was as Guy de Lusignan in Ridley Scott's massively underrated Kingdom of Heaven. Like action movie villains the world over, Csokas takes refuge in audacity with this one, whether completely extraneous shirtless-flexing scenes which exist merely to show off his tattoo and physique, unflappable feats of deductive reasoning and stone-faced murder, or explosions of raging violence when confronted with the unstoppable force he is ultimately up against. Csokas played the main villain (another Russian mob boss) in 2002's wretched xXx, and was the only redeeming element of that film, so something like this is right up his alley.

Things Havoc disliked: There are times I wonder if I've seen too many films. I know that's something of a tall claim, given how many movies professional critics go to, but nevertheless, I wonder if a film like this would have been more up my alley if I'd seen it ten years ago. There are movies like this I enjoy, after all, the original Taken was decent, as was Washington's previous MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movie, the surprisingly good Man on Fire. And yet... this time around, as Washington effortlessly slaughtered, detonated, and massacred his way through what appears to be the entirety of the Russian mafia, I was left wondering what the hell the point of all this was. The killing is decent, but lacks the artistry that would make it its own justification, and without that, the film is precisely what we expected it to be.

There's some inventiveness to the film, yes, the opening fight scene in particular is a lot more patient than I expected it to be, and showcases the hero's skills quite well, but it really never ceases showcasing them throughout the entire movie, long after it has established Washington as a badass, to the point of almost comical invulnerability. If Washington were shown to be getting one over on his enemies by means of wit and intelligence and proper planning (ala Riddick), that would be one thing, but we're just asked to swallow, retroactively, that he read the mind of all of the bad guys every time they laid a trap for him, allowing him to achieve his goal without fail. It gets to the point by the end of the film where I was almost as frustrated as the villain, as this superhuman death machine more or less toyed with his supposedly-lethal adversaries before dispatching them all. Again, I could understand this sort of thing if, perhaps, the point of the film was that the mobsters had gone far beyond the pale, and that Washington wished to torment them as well as kill them, plunging deep into the darker side of revenge. But Washington is so unflappable that nothing poses a threat, not to him, not to those who rely on him, nothing at all. He is a god, dispensing almost perfunctory wrath upon the insects who threaten him. For a hundred and thirty one minutes.

And maybe something could have been salvaged if those who are not invulnerable death machines were menaced effectively, but unfortunately no such luck. Chloe Grace-Moretz, a young actress I've been a huge fan of since the original Kick-Ass, is grossly underutilized as an underage prostitute in bondage to the mob, serving as Washington's obligatory trigger for fatherly violence-instincts. A few early sequences show promise, particularly ones where she, despite her youth and the terrible circumstances around her, shows off her ability to deal with awful situations through resignation and wisdom hard-bought. Yet all-too-quickly, the character is downshifted into a parody of some kind of "vulnerable young girl" complete with sparkling dreams of a singing career, before being summarily shunted off-screen for two-thirds of the movie. Perhaps it's me, perhaps I simply couldn't let my preconceptions go and sit back and enjoy the story before me, but I could not help but think, as the film progressed on, what a wonderfully-refreshing take on the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW genre it would be if Moretz decided halfway through the film to break out her Hit Girl character again, and team up with Washington to massacre the entire Russian Mafia.

Final thoughts:   Honestly, there's nothing particularly wrong with the Equalizer by the standard of MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW films (yes, I'm sticking with that damned acronym), but then again there's nothing particularly right about it either. It does what it sets out to do, showing us Denzel Washington killing people, without a whole lot of artistry, care, or interest. Maybe I'm just too old for movies like this, or maybe I've seen the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW done too many times, but I simply need a film to do more than hit the minimum required notes for me to praise it, even when it's a film plowing such a well-worn trail as this. I don't much care usually when a movie is derivative, but it has to bring something to the table to get me to pay attention, and merely failing to suck horribly is not enough.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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