Action Thriller

The Equalizer

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2014

Village Roadshow Pictures/Escape Artists/Columbia Pictures

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumethal, Denzel Washington, Alex Siskin, SteveTisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge and Michael Sloan

Screenplay by Richard Wenk

Based on the CBS TV Show “The Equalizer” created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim

Back in the bad old days of the 1980’s, a TV show such as “The Equalizer” was a slam dunk hit. Taking place in a New York City that was much darker and certainly more dangerous than the New York City of today, “The Equalizer” starred the highly respected and talented British actor Edward Woodward as ex-black ops specialist Robert McCall. McCall retires from “The Company” and takes up residence in Manhattan. Seeking to reconcile with his now adult son and atone for the dirty deeds he did as a covert operative, McCall puts an ad in all the major newspapers: “Odds against you? Need help? Call The Equalizer. 212-555-4200” As The Equalizer, McCall puts his considerably dangerous and lethal skills at the service of those innocent people who for some reason cannot get help from the authorities.

The reason the show became a hit? Because with crime being as rampant as it was during the 1980’s, many felt that an real-life Equalizer was exactly what the city needed. And make no mistake; sure he was middle aged but Robert McCall was a Bad Ass. In fact, The Equalizer was the Bad Ass that other bad asses called when they needed help. And to go along with his Bad Ass self, The Equalizer had an equally Bad Ass Theme Song:

The film version of THE EQUALIZER is a very loose adaptation of the TV show in that our main character played here by Denzel Washington is also named Robert McCall and he too worked for an ultra-secret government espionage agency as a covert operative. And he helps out ordinary people who need extraordinary help. But while watching THE EQUALIZER I couldn’t help but think that the current superhero movie boom is affecting even action thrillers as this movie is put together like a superhero origin movie.

When we meet Robert McCall we see he spends his days living and working at a Home Depot clone called Home Mart in Boston. He can’t sleep most nights so he hangs out in the neighborhood diner, reading the classics and drinking tea. It’s during these nights that he meets and become friends with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) a young Russian prostitute.

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A savage beating at the hands of her pimp puts her in the hospital. McCall visits the pimp to try and buy Teri out of that life and let’s just say negotiations do not go well. What McCall is unaware of is that the pimp was a member of the Russian Mafia and its godfather Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) sends his enforcer, Teddy (Marton Csokas) to handle the situation. And in a frighteningly short amount of time McCall finds himself not only at war with the Russian Mafia but also with the corrupt cops on their payroll. It seems as if the odds are against McCall but then again, he is The Equalizer, right?

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The plot isn’t exactly the most original but let’s be honest: we’re not going to see this movie because we’re looking for a wildly original or innovative spin on the Action Thriller. We’re going to see Denzel Washington play a Bad Ass who kicks much ass. And that’s precisely what we get. Washington has played much more complex, layered characters in other movies so we know he can. The Edward Woodward Robert McCall had more depth than Washington’s but again, there’s not a lot of depth called for here and Washington doesn’t give McCall any more than needed. We get subtle little hints as apparently McCall has some form of OCD and that he was once married. But at the same time, Washington doesn’t allow any of that to get in the way of what he’s delivering.

I was disappointed that Chloe Grace Moretz didn’t have more scenes with Washington as her role is little more than an extended cameo. Her character is here to jumpstart the plot and get McCall involved with the Russian Mafia and that’s it. Marton Csokas radiates real menace as Teddy and there’s a wonderful scene where McCall confronts Teddy in a restaurant and even while he’s being the personification of evil, Teddy is being polite and even respectful toward McCall. Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman have Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-Them extended cameos as former colleagues of McCall’s he visits for information.

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The direction by Antoine Fuqua is solid and stylish. Some may say a little too stylish but I didn’t mind as it gave the movie a distinctive look from say, the “Taken” movies which also has a middle-aged hero pounding the piss outta the bad guys. It’s a nice touch that McCall doesn’t really become The Equalizer until the end of the movie where we finally see that classic ad being used, but in a modern way. All they left out was the theme song which would have made the final scene of the movie perfect.  THE EQUALIZER is not a complicated movie at all. It’s as simple as a peanut butter & jelly sandwich and just as enjoyable. Don’t go into it expecting a “Training Day” or “2 Guns” and you’ll be just fine. Enjoy.

Rated R

131 Minutes

Lucy

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2014

Universal Pictures

Written and Directed by Luc Besson

Produced by Virginie Silla

I know quite a few people who have said that they’re not going to go see LUCY because it’s “scientifically inaccurate.” You see, the plot of the movie hinges upon the long held belief that human beings only use 10% of their brain capacity and that if we ever gained conscious control of our entire brain then the results would be unimaginable. It could be that we would possess godlike abilities such as telekinesis, telepathy, matter reconstruction, time travel, levitation. The 10% thing has long been debunked as myth and I can’t understand why just because LUCY uses it as a MacGuffin that would keep anyone from seeing it. After all, it’s scientifically inaccurate that a high school student can get bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly gain the ability to climb walls but that didn’t stop people from enjoying Spider-Man movies. It’s scientifically inaccurate that there are hundreds of alien races so close to humanity that they can breathe our atmosphere, mate with us and in general are configured much like humans but that didn’t stop people from enjoying the various Star Trek movies and television series.

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Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is going to school in Taiwan and after a night of wild partying with her new boyfriend of a week is tricked by him into delivering a locked briefcase to Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) a Korean crimelord. The briefcase contains a package of CPH4, a synthetic superdrug that increases brain function. Lucy is drafted into being a drug mule and the package is sewed into her abdomen. There are three other mules, all with identical packages inside their abdomens, heading for different European cities where they will be met by Mr. Jang’s people and the packages removed.

But due to a vicious assault, Lucy’s package leaks and releases CPH4 into her system. It begins expanding her brain functions and she finds herself with greatly enhanced physical capabilities and mental abilities such as telekinesis, telepathy and total control over electronic devices. Due to her now hypergenius status, Lucy realizes she needs the other three packages to continue to expand her capabilities and elevate herself to the next stage of human evolution.

She contacts Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) whose research into higher brain functions may be able to help her. And she enlists the aid of a French policeman, Captain Del Rio (Amr Waked) to find and capture the other mules. In the meantime, Mr. Jang is not far behind as he still wants his merchandise and Lucy’s head as well. And he’s bringing an army to get both.

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Now despite what you may have seen in the trailers, LUCY isn’t as much of an action film as you might think. Oh, sure there are gun fights and car chases but this isn’t start-to-finish-punch-punchy-run-run-kiss-kiss-bang-bang which you certainly have a right to expect from Luc Besson. LUCY actually spends quite a bit of its short running time speculating on neuroscience, biology, evolution, philosophy and metaphysics as Lucy struggles to understand what is happening to her and what she will do with her new found knowledge before she ascends to another level of existence.

It’s a lot of fun watching Scarlett Johansson turn from a giddy party girl into Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen” with a splash of V’ger from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” added for flavor. As her intelligence and her powers increase, she loses more and more of her emotions but Scarlett Johansson still makes us care for this poor girl who certainly didn’t ask for this to happen to her but desperately wants to do the right thing before she becomes too omnipotent to care.

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Morgan Freeman quite frankly made me crack up because I have never before seen an actor who plainly knows that his one and only function in the movie is to provide plot exposition do it which such gusto. For most of the movie, Freeman is explaining to us what’s happening and what’s going happen and damn if he doesn’t do it in an entertaining manner.

LUCY is a movie that thankfully doesn’t take itself seriously and if you go into it with that attitude that it should be Serious Science Fiction then you’ll be robbing yourself of a solidly made, entertaining thriller than is full of enthusiasm and fun. Luc Besson has yet to make a movie that disappoints me and LUCY is no exception.

Rated R

90 minutes

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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2014

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mace Neufeld and David Barron

Screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp

Based on characters created by Tom Clancy

About halfway through JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT I had the same feeling I did the first time I watched “Sneakers.” I felt like I was watching a really good “Mission: Impossible” movie. It’s a scene that involves Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) having to pretend he’s drunk so that he can slip away from the dinner he’s having with Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) a powerful financier who is manipulating Russian and Chinese investments in America to bring about a second Great Depression. Jack has to break into Cherevin’s high tech office to hack his computer and download important evidence. Jack’s boss, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) has a team of expert CIA spies backing Jack up and the plan involves Jack’s girlfriend Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) keeping Cherevin at the dinner table while Harper’s team has to pickpocket Cherevin’s security card, get it to Jack, get him in and out of the office and then return the card to Cherevin all without him knowing.

Sounds a lot like an episode of “Mission: Impossible” right? Jim Phelps and his team used to do stuff like this all the time. And that’s a large part of the problem with JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. A lot of it felt like stuff I had seen before. Not that it’s bad stuff. JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is a well-made movie. It’s just that it’s not all that exciting or shows us anything new we haven’t seen in a dozen other action thrillers.

It also didn’t exactly grab me that this movie isn’t based on any of the Tom Clancy novels about Jack Ryan but an origin story cooked up by screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Why in the world they felt that Jack Ryan needed an origin story is beyond me. When we first met Jack Ryan in 1990’s “The Hunt For Red October” the movie just threw us into the adventure and filled us in on Jack Ryan’s background if and when it was needed. This movie spends a considerable amount of time showing us Jack’s grief upon seeing the 9/11 attack on TV while he’s attending school in London and then his crippling injuries he receives in a helicopter crash while serving as a Marine in Afghanistan. It’s during his extensive rehab he meets the two most important people in his life; Cathy Muller who will be his wife and Thomas Harper who will be his boss and mentor as Jack goes to work for the CIA.

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Jack spends ten years working as a compliance officer on Wall Street but his real job for the CIA is to look for suspicious financial transactions that would indicated the financing of terrorist operations against the U.S. Jack does indeed find something strange about trillions of dollars being manipulated by the companies owned by Cherevin and he’s sent to Russia to check it out and see what’s going on. Harper believes that the missing money is tied into some activity at the UN, including a key vote that the Russian Federation lost.

Yawning yet? I wouldn’t blame you if you were. We’re not talking James Bond type of spying here or even Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt. The movie so far is essentially about bankers looking for money that other bankers are hiding. There’s nothing remotely exciting about Chris Pine repeatedly pointing at a computer screen and yelling excitedly; “There, there! See that?” and it’s a bunch of stock quotes.

In fact, there’s an assassination attempt on Jack’s life that makes no sense and I’m convinced was thrown in there simply because something has to happen to keep the audience interested in the plot. As is the terrorist attack thrown into the last twenty minutes of the movie in order that we have a car/motorcycle chase and a desperate race against time.

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Chris Pine is a very likeable actor and works his moneymaker off trying to bring Jack Ryan to life but he just can’t do it. I’ve always thought that the financial success of the two Jack Ryan movies starring Harrison Ford was due more to Harrison Ford being the world’s number one action movie star at that time than audiences wanting to see a new Jack Ryan adventure because Jack Ryan really isn’t all that interesting a character. He’s a desk jockey who crunches numbers. There’s a brief scene on a plane late in the movie where the script tries to impress us with how Jack can see complex patterns where others can’t while Cathy and Harper just stare at him in amazement but it comes far too late to make a real impact.

And it really is kind of a stretch for Jack, who has been working at a desk for ten years and by his own admission has had only three weeks of operational training can not only barehanded kill trained assassins but drive cars in high speed chases like Goggles Pisano. I mean, I can throw my suspension of disbelief out the window if needs be but I’ve got a problem with a screenplay that tries to have it both way. You either give me a Jack Ryan who’s just getting his feet wet in the world in international espionage and learning the skills he’ll need to do so or give me one who is a seasoned pro and knows what he’s doing. Jack switches back and forth between the two personas when the script needs him to be one or the other.

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Movies of this type are successful largely on the bad guy and in this, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT fails miserably. Kenneth Branagh’s Cherevin is no Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld which is what the character really needed to be and what the movie needed. Cherevin is a poor excuse for a movie villain and Branagh goes through the movie with that “Moose Und Skwirl” Russian accent I simply can’t take seriously.

What else? Keira Knightley looks gorgeous, as usual, but is wasted as Cathy spends most of her screen time nagging at Jack for no reason at all and she’s only in the story because there needs to be a damsel in distress. Kevin Costner does his usual professional job and looks as if he’s actually enjoying himself. Kenneth Branagh does double duty as director as again, he disappoints. I’ve seen “Thor” so I know that Branagh knows how to direct action scenes but here it looks as if he was trying to copy the fight scenes from the Jason Bourne movies directed by Paul Greengrass and that wasn’t a good stylistic choice at all.

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I guess by now you get the point that I didn’t like JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. It’s not so much I didn’t like it as I was disappointed. I always am when I see so much good talent used in such a lackluster movie that does not thrill me or make me glad I went to see it. Wait for this one to show up on Netflix.

105 Minutes

PG-13

 

Alex Cross

2012

James Patterson Entertainment/Summit Entertainment

Directed by Rob Cohen

Produced by James Patterson and Leopoldo Gout

Screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson

Based on the novel “Cross” by James Patterson

Depending on who you talk to, get ready to either get kissed on the lips or kicked in the ass when you bring up the subject of Tyler Perry. Seriously. I’m not joking. He’s a topic of conversation that has no in between. Most people I know either love his work or detest it. His career began with stage productions he wrote and directed, mostly focusing on dysfunctional families in stories that were just as much tragedies as they were comedies. Touring the country with these productions on the Urban Theater Circuit, also known as “The Chitlin’ Circuit” developed Tyler Perry’s enormous success with black audiences that are devoted to him.

And when he put on a dress and starred in movies as his signature character, Mabel ‘Madea’ Simmons he really struck pay dirt. The profane, loud-talking, pistol-packing massive elderly woman who can still open a can of Whoopass at the drop of a cigarette has been a source of much controversy. Spike Lee has said that Tyler Perry’s Madea movies are nothing but modern-day minstrel shows while Perry counters that they are simply entertainment and not to be taken seriously. Professional movie critics gave Perry’s movies such a smacking around that he stopped screening them for the press, saying that he made his movies for his audience and not for critics.

Whatever you want to say about him, there’s no doubt that he’s a powerhouse in both film and on television as he produces three sitcoms for TBS and has entered into an agreement with Oprah Winfrey to produce content for her OWN network. And his films have grossed a half billion dollars worldwide. So why then would he now decide to jump into a completely different genre, one he’s never so much as shown an interest in and take on the role of homicide detective/psychologist ALEX CROSS in an action/crime thriller?

Maybe he’s bored with what he’s been doing. I know I saw an interview with him once where he said that he wanted to do a movie where he kills Madea off so he doesn’t have to get into that dress one more time. I dunno. I applaud him for stepping waaaaayyyy out of his comfort zone to attack this role with such gusto. I don’t believe that he’s going to be treated fairly and that’s a shame because even though I wasn’t jumping up and down in my seat with excitement I also didn’t feel that my time was wasted watching him play action hero.

Detroit homicide detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) is summoned in the middle of the night by his superior Captain Brookwell (John C. McGinley) to report with his team to a murder scene. Cross gathers up his partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) who is having a hot and heavy relationship with his teammate Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols) and the two of them report to a mansion that is full of dead bodies, one of them gruesomely tortured. Due to a bizarre drawing left at the scene, Tommy nicknames the killer Picasso and it sticks.

Picasso (Matthew Fox) is one of those serial killers that movies loves. He’s hyper-intelligent and apparently psychic since he can extrapolate any and every move the police are going to do days before they themselves even think of it. He’s in Detroit to murder a number of businessmen and he goes about it in the way that only assassins in movies can do seemingly by magic; tapping into and bypassing security systems with ridiculous ease and slipping by squads of armed men as if invisible. And naturally he kills everything he aims at with one shot while dodging blizzards of automatic fire thrown his way.

It’s during the pursuit of Picasso that Alex Cross and his team are soon turned from hunters to the hunted as Picasso seeks to revenge himself on them for their interference in one of his carefully planned assassinations and it’s here that the movie kicks it up a notch. The intellectually composed Alex Cross gives into his dark side and forsakes all in the quest for vengeance. But as his beloved Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson) asks him “If you do this, how will you face your children?”

Okay, let’s get to where the rubber meets the road: you want to know if Tyler Perry nailed it to the wall or did he stink like a houseguest that don’t know when to leave. I’ll give you the opinion of my wife Patricia to answer that. Patricia is the Alex Cross expert in our house having read most of the books or listened to them on audio. She felt that Perry wasn’t sexy enough to be Alex Cross but she freely admits there there is no man alive as sexy as the Alex Cross in her imagination. She did like to see a movie where a black man was presented as a family man enjoying a healthy relationship with his wife, children and colleagues as well as being a respected professional and not the sidekick to the hero. The movie didn’t live up to her expectations but if there’s a sequel made, she’s all for it.

ALEX CROSS is pretty much an origin story to explain his background to those who have never read one of James Patterson’s novels and as such, it works. Tyler Perry does a honest job as action hero and he certainly has the physicality for such a role but he just couldn’t convince me this Alex Cross on the screen has the same formidable intellectual power and laser-beam psychological insight the Alex Cross of the books I have read has. He takes what he’s doing seriously and he respects the character and I do think that in many ways he did capture the spirit of the character.

Fortunately he’s backed up by some truly solid supporting players. Cicely Tyson, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno, Giancarlo Esposito and Edward Burns do their jobs admirably and are generous in stepping aside and giving Tyler Perry his moments to do his thing when the script calls for it. There are no outstanding performances from any of them but I do so enjoy seeing professional work from actors where they do what they do and make it look easy. Matthew Fox is plainly having a ball playing the brilliantly deranged Picasso and I really hope he gets a chance to play another villain as he really didn’t have a chance to build a satisfying character in this one.

So should you see ALEX CROSS? There are some of you reading this who wouldn’t go see a Tyler Perry movie if you were paid to do so. And there are some of you reading this who probably already have seen it and will probably see it again. For those of you who are undecided, I’ll have to leave it up to your conscience. I myself didn’t feel that ALEX CROSS wasted my time but neither was it a superior movie in this genre. It’s way better and far more faithful to the character than the two Alex Cross movies made in the 1990’s starring Morgan Freeman but not as good as I feel it could have been. The fight sequences were a letdown for me as Rob Cohen succumbed to using that fargin’ shaky-cam again and as a result the fight scenes are a blur of arms and legs where it’s difficult to tell who’s hitting who.

Bottom line: it’s an interesting acting experiment for Tyler Perry. If you don’t want to spend your money on a DVD or Blu-ray for an experiment but are still curious, wait for it to show up on Netflix.

101 minutes

PG-13