Saturday, March 28, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Dumbstruck

Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua teamed up for the tense corrupt cop caper Training Day in 2001 and earned Washington an Oscar. Their 2014 return, The Equalizer, was based on the 1980s TV series that starred Edward Woodward as a former secret agent helping people out of jams by using his particular set of skills.

Part of the appeal of the Woodward series was the way his clipped British diction and impeccable attire helped create the aura of restrained fury in Robert McCall, the secret agent turned knight errant in late-80s New York City. Washington, who is probably one of the most dignified major movie stars working today, is one of the few who can pull off a similar dichotomy and use it to communicate the same kind of righteous crusading vengeance.

The setting is Boston instead of New York, and Washington's retired operative has taken a job at a big-box home repair store. He sleeps poorly and makes friends with some other regulars at an all-night diner, including Teri (Chloƫ Grace Moretz). She dreams of being a singer but is caught up in an organized crime sex-trafficking ring. A vicious beating by her pimp brings McCall out of the shadows as he first attempts to negotiate her way from the life and then simply declares war on the mob behind the operation. The main mobster sends his best enforcer -- a brilliant and vicious man calling himself Teddy (Martin Csokas) -- to track down their new opponent and make an example, but that will not be nearly as easily done as said. Along the way McCall uses that particular set of skills to help others as well.

As mentioned above, Washington is one of the few actors and perhaps alone among American movie stars working today in his ability to combine ferocity and reserved dignity. Fuqua gives the movie a lot of nice noir touches to match the bleakness McCall seems to feel at the outset of the story. But the story itself takes a number of dumb-as-dirt turns that make it strictly paint-by-numbers, and not very big numbers at that. Teddy locates a friend of Teri's and discovers she lied about seeing her. Aha, we think, because we are capable of adding the proverbial pair of twos to arrive at four. He will be able to use her to contact Teri and lure her out of hiding. Nah. He will break her neck in an arty film-school sequence and deprive himself of his one proven channel of information. The roles that will be played out by McCall's co-workers and other folks are as predictable as a two-step, and about as complex.

In the end, Richard Wenk's dumb and dumber story wastes both Washington's performance and Fuqua's style as it takes people who are supposed to be brilliant chessmasters playing a particularly violent game of strategy against one another and makes them a couple of folks who would lose at Hollywood Squares. To each other. In the same game.
Ritchie Archer made a lot of money on the wrong side of the law in London's East End, but he's retired now and spending his money in the hot spots of Europe. His brother Charlie stayed in the old neighborhood, and his fight with some new gangsters of the area proves fatal. Ritchie returns and recruits some old comrades to look into the murder and take care of business himself, believing the police won't be able to do anything given the constraints on their methods. Being allowed counsel, having the right to refuse to answer questions, being free from search without a warrant -- Ritchie's crew will not have to care about any of those things in 2014's gangster vendetta drama We Still Kill the Old Way.

Ian Ogilvy gives Ritchie plenty of charm and swagger as he returns to his old haunts and spends a little time reminiscing about the old days with surviving members of his crew. People who still live in the neighborhood remember them too, saying that the new gang of criminals have no respect for people and spend most of their time bullying the weak and the old. They have no class and are all the more dangerous because of their near feral nature.

From one side, it's satisfying to watch the old-timers begin to work their way on the arrogant twerps who now infest their streets. We really want to see Aaron (Danny-Boy Hatchard) and his cruelty, his grating clotted East End speech and his gangsta wannabe persona exit the stage, but only after a suitable amount of torment and mockery from the smarter, better, classier Ritchie and company.

But on the other side, Aaron and his gang exist because of Ritchie and his. Ritchie and company decided that the law wouldn't be a barrier to running extortion, protection rackets, gambling and other vices in order to make some money. Even though they lived outside the law, though, they paid respect to a rough code of honorable behavior that rendered older people and others not a part of the life off-limits. Now Aaron and his generation have decided to transgress that boundary and simply prey on the weak because they can. And why shouldn't they? Their spiritual forefathers, the criminals of Ritchie's day, disdained the law as an obstacle to their business, so why shouldn't the younger thugs disdain the code by which the older men lived?

We Still Kill the Old Way never addresses this problem and so it winds up as a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy about someone bigger and stronger coming along to bully the bullies. It shares at least this much with The Equalizer; it generates quite a bit of goodwill from the charisma of its cast and lead, as well as some stylish flair, but then wastes almost all of that on a story that never challenges convention and proves unsatisfying in the end.


Todd Bergman said...

Well, that saved me an hour and a half. Thanks!

Friar said...

Depends on which one -- if you're talking Equalizer, I saved you two hours...

Todd Bergman said...

Then you saved me 2 hours. I was a fan of the original series. I didn't know they were doing a movie until it was out in theaters. I was waiting for it to hit Netflix, but I think I'll dig up some episodes of the show instead. Walmart has them on DVD now.

Friar said...

I watched the first half of the first season at school but then I think I wound up with a class in the winter. It was an early example of a seasonal arc kind of thing, or at least a common thread through several episodes. I always liked it.

Washington's movie isn't all that bad, it's just that you can see where it's going before you get there and at least for me, it didn't make the trip worth the destination.