Friday, July 20, 2018

Equalizer 2: Sophomore slump

Equalizer 2 (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, dramatic intensity and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.20.18

Various interpersonal character dynamics — mostly sidebar stories — are the most satisfying part of Denzel Washington’s second outing as justice-minded Robert McCall.

That’s because scripter Richard Wenk’s core plot is sloppy, vague, laden with logical flaws, and needlessly mean-spirited.

On a day when unhappy memories become particularly vivid, McCall (Denzel Washington)
is delighted to receive a surprise visit from longtime best friend Susan Plummer
(Melissa Leo)
The film also builds to a breathtaking climax that must’ve been a helluva challenge for director Antoine Fuqua and production designer Naomi Shohan to stage … but makes not a lick of sense, given what has come before. The characters in question never, ever would be so stupid.

Indeed, Fuqua indulges in the sort of nonsense that makes popcorn thrillers such as Skyscraper so eye-rollingly dumb. McCall is smarter than that. Washington plays him smarter than that.

And this is really odd, because Fuqua and Wenk also were responsible for this series’ far more satisfying 2014 debut. What went wrong during the intervening four years?

The first Equalizer, led by Washington’s mesmerizing, tightly controlled starring performance, was a sharply sculpted espionage action/drama on par with Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass’ early Bourne entries. That’s far from the case this time, and more’s the pity.

Boston-based McCall has moved from Chelsea to an apartment complex off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of the city. He’s an amiable, readily visible presence with his neighbors and local shopkeepers, notably a bookseller who helps track down the eclectic titles on the lengthy reading list through which he continues to work. Still unable to sleep much, McCall spends considerable time reading and watching the world outside his apartment windows.

He also “works” frequently as a Lyft driver, which puts him in constant touch with sometimes candid total strangers with troubles that deserve to be addressed, even rectified. In short, it’s the perfect cover for a guy with a fondness for clandestinely righting wrongs.

McCall gets to know some folks better than others: notably neighbor Miles (Ashton Sanders), a budding young artist at risk of being courted by local gang-bangers; and the elderly Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a Jewish concentration camp survivor trying — and failing — to prove his rightful ownership of a valuable painting stolen from his family by Nazis, long years ago.

Both Sanders and Bean are stand-out performers who give this film its heart. 

Sanders adopts the self-protective swagger of a street kid who knows he needs to look tough, simply to survive; at the same time, it’s obvious that Miles is willing to be pointed in a better direction (even if he’d never admit as much). The Washington/Sanders exchanges are captivating: Miles can’t quite figure out this older guy who playfully challenges him at every turn. Yet it’s not a game, and both know it.

Their sparring plays out over a mural on one exterior wall of the apartment complex: a project — a teachable moment — that McCall orchestrates with the mastery of Tom Sawyer charming his friends into white-washing the fence.

(An eventual confrontation with some of the gun-toting gang-bangers is left hanging. Like, they wouldn’t come back? Seriously?)

Bean’s Sam Rubinstein, on the other hand, is both wryly droll and deeply melancholy: a broken man, alone in his twilight years, who gamely adopts a cheerful façade and refuses to abandon his quixotic quest. Our hearts ache for him.

As does McCall’s.

But such matters are secondary to a heinous act that opens the film: the brutal assassination of a husband and wife in Brussels, Belgium. (You’ll spend the entire film wondering precisely why this happened, or who ordered the hit. You’ll wait in vain.) The incident comes to the attention of McCall’s former CIA handler and longtime friend, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), because one of the victims did occasional “favors” for the agency.

Susan and her husband Brian (Bill Pullman), it should be remembered from the first film, are the only people who know that McCall is still alive; everybody else believes he perished years ago.

The bond between McCall and Susan is another of this film’s strong points. She impulsively visits on the anniversary of his wife’s death; they share dinner, a late-night walk and a deeply intimate chat. Washington and Leo are consummate actors, and they play off each other superbly; we tend to forget that McCall and Susan are mere characters, and instead accept them as actual people.

Fuqua takes his time with all these sidebar encounters. Each reveals a bit more about McCall: his past, his passions, his tightly buried despair and regrets. Washington nails all the finely tuned details of this complex man: from the near anal tics — lining up apples just so, after washing them — to the thoughtful expressions that anticipate quiet, well-reasoned statements or questions that cut to the core of a given matter. 

He never raises his voice; he never needs to.

As always is the case, Washington is fascinating to watch, and hear, no matter whathe’s doing: a sublime actor, in total control of every facet of his performance.

Half the film passes, Fuqua and Wenk in no hurry, before we get back to that unpleasant little matter in Brussels. At which point, things get even nastier ... and they attract McCall’s attention.

No question: Fuqua knows how to tighten the screws. Several sequences are brilliantly executed for maximum suspense; one interlude in McCall’s apartment is orchestrated for throat-gulping, edge-of-the-seat tension (equal credit to editor Conrad Buff IV).

Unfortunately, having so carefully crafted his first two acts, Fuqua then throws reason and common sense to the winds — literally — with a dog-nuts finale that shifts the action to the Massachusetts coast. It feels as if he and Wenk abruptly lost interest in their own film, and decided to conclude it as rapidly as possible, continuity and consequences be hanged.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score deftly complements on-screen activity: quietly orchestral, for poignant moments; thunderously baroque — with plenty of booming synth — during more violent events.

The film concludes with Washington’s McCall looking contemplatively into the distance of his own future. Whether that includes a third film probably depends on box-office returns; if they prove healthy, I hope Fuqua and Wenk try harder next time.

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