Monday, 23 July 2018

IN THEATRES: Equalizer 2

Denzel returns as Robert McCall to equalise more people into an early mass grave after the only friend he has/significant female character in the movie (Melissa Leo) is brutally murdered.

I liked the first Equaliser. It's a fun action movie that gets in, does the job and gets out. It had a couple of interesting qualities (good acting, a fun villain) but was just generic enough that a more ambitious sequel sounded intriguing.

While it is fun, Equaliser 2 feels a little bit more cookie cutter than its (already pretty generic) predecessor.

Every element of the first movie felt familiar, but there was at least a smattering of interesting touches to add a bit of flavour (the one that really sticks in the mind is the minor bad guy with a bald head, a stove pipe beard and a kaiser moustache).

Equaliser 2 feels like the same recipe, but made totally to template, with generic ingredients and no love or attention.

First of all, the inciting incident is total 80s b-movie tacky story-telling: from the beginning, you can see Leo's death coming. There is even. a line ('I'm the only friend you got') which was so on the nose I thought it was only shot for the trailer. The inclusion of Pedro Pascal as the only other character of significance makes it fairly easy to figure out who is responsible for her death.

I was expecting there to be something more unexpected (how about making Leo the villain?) but the filmmakers do not deviate from the obvious path.

Leo's death scene plays out like a sequel to her hair-pulling histrionics from Olympus Has Fallen (also directed by Fuqua) - Leo is ambushed by two assailants in her hotel room, cueing an extended scene in which she alternately beats and is beaten by the villains. Plenty of blood and screaming included.

The one interesting aspect of this sequence is how long it goes on, with Leo turning the tables on her attackers. In the end, Fuqua cuts away from her death. I was surprised at the restraint (it turns out to be in service of a plot reveal).

I had three problems with the scene:

a) killing Leo is just a lazy way of personalising the story.

b) the whole point of the Equaliser is that he helps people. He does not need a personal story.

c) while it is cool to see Leo lay the smack down, it feels tokenistic, considering her fate (and the lack of opportunities she has had in the films to show off these skills).

As with the first movie, McCall is paired with a younger person who helps to break out of a bad situation. Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) plays Miles, a young man with a talent for art who is falling into drugs and gangs.

This subplot is where the politics of The Equaliser are foregrounded. In a scene that feels reminiscent of a million action movies, McCall finds Miles in a drug den and uses his equalising skills to get him out. This leads to an extended monologue from McCall about personal responsibility, brushing aside any context (Miles's brother's death; or broader issues like systemic racism). McCall's blunt approach to personal problems may be an extension of the TV show, but it also calls back the messaging of action movies featuring ageing stars, which would often emphasise how the action hero's 'old school' approach to life is applicable to contemporary issues (while also being superior to contemporary ways of addressing them).

While it is familiar, there is something oddly out-dated and disquieting about this subplot, mostly because McCall's mentoring of Miles does not feel like tough love so much as it recalls the arbitrary brutality of Lean On Me's Joe Louis Clark (Morgan Freeman). It is hard to see how this action hero who solves problems by equalising people with guns and corkscrews can equalise personal problems.

My biggest disappointment with this movie are the villains. On paper, they sound promising: four of McCall's former colleagues have gone private, working as contract killers. One of the joys of the first movie was that the villain was basically an evil version of McCall, with a similar skillset that made him a formidable foe. Taking that bad guy, and multiplying him for the sequel makes sense.

Sadly, the filmmakers do not take advantage of this to create some great set pieces wherein McCall has to out-think his opponents.

The final sequence is not bad - McCall lures the Fearsome Foursome (copyright, Tim George) to the coastal town he used to live in. The town has been evacuated due to a massive storm, so the final showdown is basically One Equaliser v four not-Equalisers in the middle of storm-swept ghost town. In concept, it is great.

But in execution, the scene leaves something to be desired. Aside from Pascal (who takes up position as a sniper with a viewer of the entire town), none of the other not-Equalisers are given any distinguishing skills or personality (the one bad guy with a beard is nowhere near as memorable as Kaiser Mo Stovepipe from the first movie!). To add further indignity, there is nothing special about any of their showdowns with McCall - they die as innocuously as the cannon fodder he dispatches in the rest of the movie.

Pedro Pascal is a fine actor, but at no point does he feel like an equal to Denzel Washington. He feels more believable as the corrupt government stooge who (spoilers) killed Melissa Leo.

Overall, while it is never terrible, Equaliser 2 never really surpasses the unpretentious charms of the original film.

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