The Equalizer Review – Judge, Jury & Excecutioner


Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writer: Richard Wenk

Stars: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo


Release date: September 26th, 2014

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 132 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: Washington’s aura.

Worst part: The inexcusable run-time.

Nowadays, with franchises controlling Hollywood’s back account, star power and name recognition don’t mean sh*t! Craving attention from studios, critics, and fans, A-list actors walk an ever-so-skinny tight rope between eternal success and straight-to-DVD hell. One man, becoming a shining example of big-screen staying power, has become a role model for aspiring actors the world over. Winning Best Actor back in 2001, mega-star Denzel Washington has since made the most of his immense prowess.

Denzel Washington doin’ his thing!

If nothing else, his new actioner, The Equalizer, exists solely to honour one of this generation’s most inspiring performers. Having spent his early career delivering heart-breaking performances in docudramas like Malcolm X and Glory, Washington has steered his post-Oscar career in a wholly different direction. Carrying many action-thrillers across the line, the veteran actor’s staggering range and charisma continually draw people back to the cinema. In fact, The Equalizer has already been slated to make big bucks over its opening weekend. Nowadays, Washington-led actioners and early-morning iPhone launches are the only two things guaranteed to deliver significant profit margins. Once again, the  59-year-old plays a badass on a mission dictated by God, the Devil, and the local mafia. Washington plays Robert McCall, a middle-aged simpleton working at the local Walmart rip-off. A hit with his co-workers, McCall leads a charmed life guided by a specific routine. His life – consisting of work, friends, reading, and the local diner – is hearteningly succinct. Obviously, this isn’t how he used to live. Being a former intelligence offer (for an unnamed organisation), McCall’s skills outmatch those of everyone in and around Boston. After befriending underage prostitute Teri (Chloe Crace Moretz), McCall begins to move on from his wife’s death. After Teri is brutally beaten by her pimp, he goes on a monstrous rampage through the Russian mob, the police, and the government.

Chloe Grace Moretz in a bland role.

Before I lambast The Equalizer for its many flaws, I’ll commend it for establishing Washington as Hollywood’s most alluring A-lister. Like Liam Neeson and Kevin Costner, the star pulls his movies through thick and thin. However, even he can’t save this action-thriller from the critical doldrums. Sadly, the movie has no idea what it wants to be or do. The movie – for the first 40 minutes, in particular – skulks aimlessly like a restless former spy. Some scenes – depicting him helping his friend lose weight, making the winning catch in a baseball game, or completing his household chores – serve little purpose. Dragging its wafer-thin story for 132 minutes, this action-thriller delivers several false starts and bum notes. Sadly, the first half hurriedly drifts from the consciousness. Throwing in more-than-enough genre tropes, plot-threads, comic reliefs, and minor twists, the character-study-esque first third – despite our lead’s intriguing behaviour and vague backstory – will make viewers pine for silly fist-fights, shoot-outs, and explosions. Eventually, well past the point of no return, McCall goes Old Testament on pimps, gangsters, corrupt cops, and senior mobsters. Washington – displaying his undeniable presence within the movie’s many daring scenarios – crafts a ferocious, pseudo-Christian saviour worth supporting. Unfortunately, in melding the bland first third with the action-and-exposition-heavy second and last thirds, the movie becomes a mess not even our all-powerful anti-hero can fix!

“I am offering you a chance to do the right thing. Take it.” (Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), The Equalizer).

Marton Csokas getting some well-deserved recognition.

Despite the confused tone and inconsistent pacing, The Equalizer never forgets to have fun. As the movie switches from suburban drama-thriller to balls-out action extravaganza, our lead character becomes increasingly more interesting. Timing himself with a stop-watch to refine his routine, Washington’s anti-hero bares several neat traits. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) revels in McCall’s super-human abilities. Flaunting McCall’s martial arts macho, intelligence, and DIY skills, Fuqua’s style yearns for our approval. His action – though marred by quick cuts, dimly-lit settings, and shaking cameras – delivers more-than-enough chills, tension, and “Ouch!” moments. The climactic action sequence – set in McCall’s workplace – becomes an ultra-visceral, Home Alone-esque thrill-ride. Based loosely on a 1980s TV series, Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk’s adaptation picks up and drops several signature characteristics without warning. McCall, despite suffering slight shades of Obsessive compulsive disorder, never develops beyond the tragic-vigilante archetype. Despite this, Washington’s insatiable talent kicks the movie into overdrive. Using every line, facial expression, and mannerism to his advantage, the A-lister cements his tough-guy status here. Kiwi character-actor Marton Csokas almost steals the show as Russian freelance hitman, Teddy. Described by Melissa Leo’s character as a: “sociopath with a business card”, his slimy, adept antagonist becomes a fun sparring partner. Sadly, commendable actors including Moretz, Bill Pullman, and David Harbour are left stranded in shallow roles.

It’s not simply that The Equalizer is a bad movie, it’s that there’s nothing special about it. Though far from the 2014’s worst action flick, this one forgets to connect with with audiences and critics. Certainly, everyone gets a kick out of seeing Washington eviscerate five mobsters, in under 20 seconds, without breaking a sweat. However, everything else about this revenge-thriller screams trouble. Despite Washington’s immense charms, his latest schlocker tries too hard to be Man on Fire. Unfortunately, Fuqua ain’t no Tony Scott!

Verdict: A disarming yet by-the-numbers action-thriller.

Before I Go to Sleep Review – Painful Memories


Director: Rowan Joffe

Writer: Rowan Joffe (screenplay), S. J. Watson (novel)

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff


Release date: September 5th, 2014

Distributors: Clarius Entertainment, Eagle Films

Country: UK

Running time: 92 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Strong’s dynamic turn.

Worst part: Kidman and Firth.

Amnesia – in real-life and entertainment – is a cruel, remorseless, yet fascinating mistress. Despite lacking physical pain, the psychological effects – of all temporary and permanent memory disorders – yield major consequences. For the victims and those around them, this affliction can’t simply be shaken off. In many big and small screen cases, ranging from Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to 50 First Dates, amnesia is primarily used as a valuable plot device. In Before I Go to Sleep‘s case, it guides each character’s fate from go to woe. Unfortunately, there’s much more of the latter.

Nicole Kidman hiding from the critics.

Before I Go to Sleep‘s crippling afflictions reside elsewhere. Born from one tiny idea, the original material turned its intricate premise into a 2011 Sunday Times and New York Times best-selling crime novel. Attracting three A-listers and an ambitious writer/director, the project could have delivered a worthwhile adaptation. However, like with several of 2014’s  premise-driven productions, good concepts are met with poor results. Author S. J. Watson must be reeling from this wasted opportunity. His novel, known to book clubs around the globe, is worthy of careful analysis and lively debate. Before the conflict takes hold, the story kicks off from relatively modest beginnings. In the first shot, we see housewife Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) at her most vulnerable. After waking up, our main character wildly panics before darting around the house; looking for something to calm her down. Her insistent husband, Ben (Colin Firth), informs her of her situation through trust exercises and a romantic collage. Christine suffers from short-term memory loss (anterograde amnesia, to be precise), caused by a car crash 10 years earlier. Despite the efforts to absorb new information, her brain erases everything each night. Stuck at home, Christine yearns for determined psychologist Dr. Nash(Mark Strong)’s advice. Behind Ben’s back, she develops a video diary to piece her life together. Questioning her meaningless existence, she – after suffering horrific, contradictory nightmares/memories – demands answers about the accident, the aftermath, and everyone around her.

Colin Firth still reeling from Magic in the Moonlight.

Colin Firth still reeling from Magic in the Moonlight.

Writing the book whilst working as an audiologist, Watson  knew how to take charge of his narrative. Carrying a firm awareness of the genre and topic, Watson should have taken control over this production. Sadly, the studio gave it to writer/director Rowan Joffe (Brighton Rock). Despite Joffe’s stature in British film and TV, the ambitious filmmaker’s sophomore effort doesn’t do Watson justice. Infatuated by Before I Go to Sleep‘s third-act twists, Joffe seems entirely disinterested with everything else. Skulking towards the last third, Joffe’s execution – creating an awkward contrast between suburban drama and mystery-thriller – is as exhaustive and frustrating as Christine’s affliction. In particular, the first half-hour – instead of establishing the pros and cons of Christine’s life – plays out like a lifeless soap opera void of subtlety, tragedy, or development. Clinging onto underwhelming revelations and dull conversations, the movie never harnesses stakes, emotional resonance, or originality. Despite the premise’s allure, Joffe’s insecure direction overplays small moments and obscures important titbits. Clinging onto the original material, his direction spells out wholly predictable twists. Following a banal relationship-drama structure, the repetitive first half might cause viewers to sigh loudly and check their watches. Bafflingly so, the movie copies and pastes concepts and sequences from similar efforts. Dr. Nash’s story-line, coming off like a gritty detective thriller, distorts the trajectory of this ridiculous psychological-drama.

“I have to remember who did this to me.” (Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), Before I Go to Sleep).

For once, Mark Strong isn't playing a baddie!

For once, Mark Strong isn’t playing a baddie!

Despite the 92-minute run-time, Before I Go to Sleep‘s inconsistent tone and sluggish pacing cause more yawns than gasps. However, blitzing the abysmal first half, the second half switches gears before capitalising on the material. Moving the chess pieces around, Joffe’s screenplay matches the novel’s reputation; making us ask: “Who’s really trying to help?”. Switching from American Beauty to Insomnia to Memento, the movie – forming a tug of war between Ben and Dr. Nash – delivers several thrilling set-pieces and twists. In fact, its biggest twist is almost makes the first half worthwhile. Aided by Hitchcockian plot threads, the move pays homage to a long, lost form of big-budget cinema. Aided by a blistering score, muted colour palette, and Ben Davis’ sumptuous cinematography, the tension and atmosphere bolster the dour story. However, despite the compelling psychological disorder/gimmick, the movie has little to say about anything. Alienating its characters, the narrative merely hints at disability care, identity issues, and domestic violence. Sadly, Kidman – despite channeling Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde bombshells – never successfully inhabits the topsy-turvy role. Filling most scenes with blank stares and hushed tones, her subdued turn hinders the character arc. Firth, having a rough year with this, Magic in the Moonlight, and Devil’s Knot, never overcomes his character’s preposterous transitions. Despite his immense talents, the British icon seems entirely out-of-place. Gracefully, Strong becomes the shining star. Despite his underdeveloped role, the thespian delivers enough verve and guile to bolster this underwhelming effort.

Whilst Before I Go to Sleep drifted from my consciousness, I reflected upon its many accomplishments and failures. Sadly, this process did little but remind me of much better psychological-thrillers. Influenced by major movies, directors, and writers, Joffe’s adaptation never lets us absorb the scintillating premise. Thanks to questionable logic, an inconsistent tone, and mind-numbing pace, this adaptation proves just how different movies and novels are.

Verdict: A mindless and dreary psychological-thriller.