Saturday, September 27, 2014

Movie Reviews: The Equalizer, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Equalizer
directed by Antoine Fuqua
Do not f*** with people you do not know. This goes double if they happen to be Denzel Washington. That's pretty much the only message here. It's a simple enough mantra but one that evidently needed to be hammered home to a few people with leaky brains. Although I enjoyed this film it didn't need to run for over two hours. Washington is effective as McCall. It's hard to believe that the man is almost 60 years old. Given that the original Equalizer hero was also a bit past his prime I guess that's ok. Although this is based on the television series and is in its way an origin story for the McCall character the obvious comparison will be made to Man on Fire. Well in this movie the young lady in peril is not really an angel. She's more of a broken angel while Washington's character is far from despondent, suicidal or alcoholic. Although he may regret some actions he took in a past life they certainly don't force him into self-destructive activities. It is somewhat ironic that Denzel Washington made his debut in Death Wish as an uncredited alley mugger and now all these years later he's playing the secretly dangerous older gentleman with a hidden past. So much of Washington's acting here is wordless. There's a lot that his character lets people know just via his body language, and facial tics or expressions. In the seventies and eighties films it was often the Italian-American Mafia that was portrayed as being the dangerous organized business savvy baddies. Blacks or Hispanics were shown as the street thugs with a surfeit of testosterone and a constant need to show proof of same. In many modern films both roles have been given to the Russian Mafia. In film, these fellows all walk around with muscles on their muscles, slicked back hair, tattoos on just about every conceivable inch of their body and are always looking for a chance to hurt someone. Aggressive masculinity is how they roll. As Charlie Daniels might say they are mean as a snake, sneaky as a cat and belligerent when they speak.

Robert McCall (Washington) is a shift worker/supervisor at a huge hardware box store. Think Home Depot or Lowes. He's circumspect about his past work but is friendly and helpful to everyone he works with, especially Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) an overweight co-worker who dreams of becoming a security guard. McCall encourages Ralphie to eat less and exercise more. He even works out with him on his time off. McCall is a spartan man who avoids sugar, likes everything organized and does not waste time. He uses his stopwatch religiously.

Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a Russian born Boston area prostitute. She infrequently runs into McCall at an all night diner/coffee shop which they both like. Alina, who goes by the street name of Teri, views the place as a brief respite from her job. McCall, in what is likely a hint of a burdened conscience or simple grief, has trouble sleeping. He reads constantly, usually classic books like "The Old Man and The Sea" or "Invisible Man". McCall does not lust after or judge Alina, who wants to escape whoring and become a singer. Alina appreciates being able to talk to a man without sex or violence being involved. These late night chats are often interrupted by Alina's work. Aline occasionally shows up with bruises or welts. One day, enraged by her attitude, her pimps beat her so badly she winds up in the hospital. Armed only with a business card McCall goes to reason with her pimps. He offers them what he considers a fair amount to let Alina leave the business. Well as the Godfather would say you can't reason with some people.  So the pimps and thugs see the other side of McCall's personality. To paraphrase Wolverine, McCall's the best at what he does. But what he does isn't very nice.

These events attract the attention of the primary Russian Mafia troubleshooter Teddy (Martin Csokas) who was perfect for this role. Teddy must find McCall and deal with him painfully, publicly and permanently. Detective Masters (David Harbour) is a corrupt cop assigned to squire Teddy around as he tries to discover who McCall is and where he might be. This movie was quite heavy on the violence but I don't recall there being much in the way of sex or nudity. Although Washington is slightly showing his age, his character's actions remain believable if only because he's constantly out thinking everybody. Once he's committed to an action that's it. It reminded me of the Liam Neeson character in the first Taken. Washington is ice to Neeson's fire but they would make a hell of a team if anyone ever did a crossover/mashup. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo play a married couple from McCall's previous life. I thought they were underused. Basically there won't be a lot of surprises for you here but if you like action movies this is a decent one. You will have to ignore the action film cliches though. Does the hero ever RUN away from an explosion he created? Of course not. He walks away because he's a bad motherf- shut your mouth! Although Fuqua tells more than shows Washington can effectively imply menace just by putting a tool back on the shelf.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Captain America has a long history. I have relatives who could quote you chapter and verse. I don't know all the backstory. But unfamiliarity with Marvel lore won't hinder film enjoyment. I thought the film was too long at about 136 minutes. It tried to wring some pathos from some betrayals I didn't care about. Nevertheless it was consistently entertaining. One pertinent question was how does Captain America or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) adapt to a world in which everything he believed in has changed or disappeared. His peers are all dead or dying. This could leave a man a bit disoriented. This is occasionally played for laughs in regard to gender roles or music, but there's a more serious underpinning. The movie has some important things to say about our world. In the film world as in ours, the US military-industrial complex reigns virtually supreme. It can be difficult to tell who is the good guy or bad guy when the "good guys" claim the right to monitor communications across the planet, make war without Congressional or UN sanction, transfer intelligence and military equipment to other states without Congressional or Presidential approval, murder American citizens without warrant or trial and kidnap and torture "terror suspects" without any judicial oversight.

Captain America is first and foremost a soldier. He likes order and appreciates a clear chain of command. He favors simple direct solutions. He's not overly fond of complexity, secrecy, or lying for the "greater good". He makes very sharp distinctions between what's good and bad. This moral clarity means that he's having increasing difficulty working for S.H.I.E.L.D. , the intelligence/counterinsurgency/law enforcement organization headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury has no such qualms about his work and neither does one of his favorite agents Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Black Widow and Captain America have a friendship that could have been more were she not already pledged to Hawkeye. Romanoff is amused by Rogers' forties' sensibilities. She shares tips about dealing with modern women. Captain America probably shouldn't be working for an organization such as S.H.I.E.L.D. but as I wrote he's a patriot who's used to following orders. Romanoff also believes in following orders but unlike Rogers is not that concerned with questioning or challenging morality. Although the Black Widow is still sexy (she is after all played by Scarlett Johansson) things are toned down. I don't recall a plethora of downblouse shots. 
Although this film is a superhero movie and features the normal genre conventions of explosions,  feats that defy physics and human biology and so on it's much more centered in reality and the modern day than your run of the mill Marvel film. This is brought home when Nick Fury narrowly escapes assassination in a setpiece reminiscent of Sonny Corleone's murder. He flees to Captain America's apartment where he tells Rogers not to trust anyone, that S.H.I.E.L.D has been compromised and that they're all being monitored. And just like that the film takes a welcome and impressive shift into full blown conspiracy theory mode. Fury has been followed by his would be assassins. They succeed in killing him. Rogers chases the sniper only to find that the unknown assailant's speed and strength seemingly matches his own. The new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (although I'm unclear as to whether he was the civilian head all along while Fury was operational chief) is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Pierce is cool, calm, and collected. He thinks that Fury was murdered in order to stop a particular project. Pierce intends to see that the project continues and Fury's killers are captured.  Piece is suspicious of Fury's final visit to Rogers. Redford is really smooth. Redford brings a certain charm and gravitas which grounds the movie in realism.

Rogers and Romanoff continue their investigation into Fury's death. They run afoul of the military-industrial complex and more sinister forces behind it. They attract the attention of an operative known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). They must seek help from another former soldier named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) with his own secrets. This film did a wonderful job of tying up many different conspiracy theories with Rogers' own past. It also walked the fine line between condemning the security state which we increasingly find ourselves living under and conceding that even in a democracy, some secrets must remain. The question is and always has been just how much freedom would you sacrifice in order to maintain your safety and security. I never was much of a Captain America or Superman fan as both characters seemed too impossibly straitlaced but this film showed that even goody two-shoes guys can have internal conflicts and character growth. This film has non-explicit violence. In the movie Kill Bill Volume 2, Pai Mei forces Beatrix Kiddo to learn how to throw a devastating punch from only 2-3 inches away. She doesn't see the point of this technique. Pai Mei dismisses her objections asking her what would she do if her enemy was only a short distance from her. In an elevator scene that IIRC was also in one of the Die Hard films, Captain America illustrates how to fight in close quarters. Other actors featured include Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell, Gary Shandling, Toby Jones,  Emily Van Camp, Maximiliano Hernandez. Marvel godfather Stan Lee makes his customary cameo.
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