The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

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Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out

The Equalizer


Martin Csokas looks forward to his next movie  My Dinner with Denzel.

Martin Csokas looks forward to his next movie My Dinner with Denzel.

(2014) Action (Columbia) Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, E. Roger Mitchell, James Wilcox, Mike O’Dea, Anastasia Mousis, Allen Maldonado, Chris Lemieux, Matt Lasky, Shawn Fitzgibbon, Luz Sanchez. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

We go through our lives essentially just hoping to mind our own business. We don’t want to get involved nor do we get involved with anybody else. However, sometimes there comes a time when a situation demands our action.

Robert McCall (Washington) lives a quiet life as a clerk at a home improvement store (think Home Depot with a different color scheme). He is helping his buddy Ralphie (Skourtis) lose weight and prepare to apply for a security guard job, a definite upgrade in pay.

But he is reluctant to talk about what he used to do. He has insomnia and spends a lot of nights at an all-night diner, drinking tea from tea bags he brings himself and reading novels off the list of 100 books you must read before you die (he’s up to 91). He compulsively rearranges the silverware on the table and always sits at the same one – yes, he’s OCD.

He also strikes up a conversation with Teri (Moretz), a prostitute from Russia who aspires to greater things. He encourages her and provides a welcome breath of fresh air from all the men who just want to use her for sex – or profit by her. He witnesses her pimp Slavi (Meunier) slapping her around but doesn’t intervene when she asks him not to. Slavi’s muscle (Veadov) gives McCall a card so that he can come and collect a more amenable girl.

When Teri ends up in the hospital, McCall pays Slavi a visit. You see, McCall isn’t just a guy that works at a hardware store. He’s got skills. Some big bad ones. And he puts them to good use. This doesn’t sit well with Slavi’s bosses who happen to be the Russian mob and they send a fixer of their own (Csokas) to deal with him and quite frankly, he’s got mad skills himself.

The film is based on an 80s TV show that some critics characterize as forgotten although I remember it quite well – if for nothing else for its catchy Stewart Copeland theme song which sadly isn’t in the movie. There are those who will remember that English actor Edward Woodward starred in the title role as a former British spy who turns his talents to helping the powerless surmount impossible odds. It also reunites Fuqua and Denzel who teamed together so well for Training Day.

This is a good fit for Denzel, who has the best dead eye look in Hollywood. He has mastered the technique of using his good looks as a facade, hiding something deeper – sometimes sorrow or pain, sometimes rage or evil. McCall has plenty of history behind him and it shows in Denzel’s eyes – but there is also a coldness there when Denzel switches it on, the coldness of a trained killer.

He will be 60 later this year and joins the trend of sexagenarians invigorating their careers and becoming action stars (see Neeson, Liam) and let’s be frank; he looks damn good doing it. A couple more roles like this and Sly Stallone is going to be putting him on speed dial for The Expendables 6. The fight scene in Slavi’s office is as good as many action film climaxes and the climax here in the Home Depot clone is frankly incredible. While McCall leaves a few traps, mostly he uses the various power (and non-power) tools to great effect so this doesn’t sink into a Home Alone parody. No, the scene is gritty, violent and occasionally gory.

This is essentially entertainment for its own sake. There are really no deeper meanings here – everything is visceral. You don’t have to interpret different levels, just sit back, turn off your mind and enjoy the carnage. While I enjoyed the action sequences themselves, they don’t really blaze any new trails but they take existing ones and pretty them up a bit. If you’re looking for mindless fun, this is your ride.

REASONS TO GO: Denzel still has it. Terrific climax.
REASONS TO STAY: Kinda formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence, some of it rather bloody. Also plenty of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With almost no backstory for the character of McCall, Washington came up with some of the items including the character’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The A-Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: This is Where I Leave You