(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) It’s always interesting to see what actors with strong screen personas choose to take on when they direct a movie. Here we have Denzel Washington, of the old-school stoic tough-love tradition, picking the historical drama play Fences as his inspiration for his third outing as director. As we may guess, it’s a strong actor-driven project exploring themes of black experiences in urban America, facing prejudice and individual failings along the way. Washington himself gets to play a hard-headed patriarch—but certainly not a perfect one. Actors such as Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo have good roles here, with family conflict building up as a dramatic force throughout the film. While Fences is not particularly strong on sheer cinematic qualities, the acting is, as one expects, very good—with many of the players, including Washington and Davis, reprising award-winning performances from a 2010 theatrical revival. It’s not a spectacular nor overly memorable film, but it’s solid, thematically successful and a wonderful capture of a play, a time and place and a certain hard-fought working-class attitude. It certainly does much to bolster Washington’s credentials as a surprisingly effective voice for a certain segment of the African-American community, not only by what he chooses to play, but also what to bring to the screens.
(Video On-Demand, February 2018) I’ve heard Roman J. Israel, Esq. discussed as a fascinating character study wrapped in an underwhelming story, and that certainly has some merit as a description. The best thing about the film is Roman J. Israel, Esq. as played by the ever-capable Denzel Washington, a genius-level lawyer with substantial social interaction problems. Comfortable in his role as the rarely seen brainy half of a two-man small legal outfit, Israel starts having problems once his partner dies, leaving him to fend off in a hostile environment. Getting hired is difficult enough that he’s got to accept a few favours, but staying employed is even more difficult when his personality clashes with just about everyone in a top legal firm. Issues of romance, class, crime and legal ethics come to complicate this already challenging situation, but even with all its flourishes (and occasional action sequences), Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems to deflate as it nears a conclusion. I suspect that the film would have been more successful with a more upbeat ending. In the meantime, we are free to admire Washington’s portrayal, or its nuanced look at the life of an idealistic lawyer. Both Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo continue their streak of good supporting performances. Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn’t meet the considerable expectations set by his debut feature Nightcrawler, but his follow-up remains a watchable effort and a decent showcase for Washington.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) If you’ve been longing for more machine guns and explosions in your western classics, then this Magnificent Seven remake is just for you! I kid, but not much: Rather entertainingly updating the 1960 classic for contemporary audiences, this remake crams a lot of gunplay, explosions and heavy gunfire in the result. Under the veteran eye of director Antoine Fuqua, this Magnificent Seven sports lush cinematography, vivid action sequences, a pleasantly diverse cast and a tighter script. To its credit, it doesn’t try to ape the original as much as play around with its basic structure and characters. Our lead character now had a personal connection to the antagonist that works rather well, Denzel Washington makes the role his own rather than try to ape Yul Brynner, and Chris Pratt doesn’t even try to be Steve MacQueen in a similar role. The images are more spectacular, the action is far more intense (at times, bodies drop like flies to a degree that feels excessive) and the script is cleaner. While The Magnificent Seven remake will never become a classic, it’s a decent enough reinterpretation and an entertaining shoot’em-up western in its own right.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) Blending a war movie with judicious social progressivism seems almost de rigueur these days, but I gather that it wasn’t as obvious in 1989, when Glory came out with a relatively groundbreaking depiction of an African-American battalion during the Civil War. As you’d expect from this kind of hybridization, Glory spends its time either indulging in the usual plot mechanics of a military training story, in-between describing the plight of its heroes on social issues. Nearly thirty years later, it’s not quite so innovative, but it’s made well enough to remain mildly interesting. (I suspect that, like all movies specifically dedicated to American social history, it’s going to be more relevant to American viewers.) Matthew Broderick stars as the military commander of the group, but the film’s most interesting performance goes to Denzel Washington, as a surly but ultimately honourable black soldier; Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher are also featured prominently. The familiarity of the film can lull viewers in a comfortable daze, but the finale of the film does much to elevate it—spent in sand rather than the usual open field battlegrounds of Civil War movies, it’s also unusually bleak in how it adheres to historical fact. Glory may not be fun or fresh especially today, but it’s solid and respectable.
(On DVD, October 2016) Denzel Washington and Spike Lee are a good match, and He Got Game is a great use of their combined talents. Washington is spectacular as the convict asked to convince his estranged basketball-prodigy son to sign up for a particular college. His usual mixture of swagger, danger, charm and grumpiness work well here, and I’m hardly the first critic to note the comforting blend of traditional traits that make up his persona’s masculinity. But even his character’s power as a man quickly reaches its limits when his estranged son rebuffs him, and how his example has to rival with the trappings of fame, sex and money. He may not even be the main character in the story, given how much of the film slowly slides over to his son’s character and the choice he has to make as the film progresses. Lee’s impressionistic directing flourishes work well in this context, and add a depth of complexity to the characters’ inner struggles. Good supporting performances by Ray Allen (an athlete playing the son), Rosario Dawson and Milla Jovovich also help, as does a good sense of street-level New York. It wraps up in a good conclusion, and leaves viewers satisfied—although finding out what happened to those character five, ten years later would be interesting.
(On TV, November 2015) Some movies feel as if they were executed almost entirely on autopilot, making use of familiar elements to make entirely unobjectionable moral points in ways that are undistinguishable from countless other similar movies. So it is that I hadn’t seen Remember the Titans, but it felt as if I already had: Using football as a way to discuss racial integration, it’s a film that plays exactly like many other such movies, with underdog victories, enemies making nice, a community forgetting their racial divide through sportsmanship and the entire laundry list of such wishful thinking. It’s not necessarily bad (with Denzel Washington starring, there’s at least one good performance worth watching), but it’s intensely familiar. It’s also, to be savagely truthful, the kind of movies so specific to the American Midwest experience (football and racism!) that it becomes an anthropological artifact to non-American viewers: Whatever strings the films pull aren’t as effective for foreign viewers and the result feels intensely mechanical as a result. Even Washington plays pretty much the same role as he ever has. Despite its subject matter, Remember the Titans is consciously meant to be nice and uncontroversial: a family movie after which everyone can feel better about their non-obvious racism. It plays without big surprises, but also crucially without any ambiguity than a look at the historical facts would reveal. Well-done but familiar, It’s a hard film to dislike but an easy one to dismiss.
(In French, On TV, June 2015) In some ways, The Bone Collector plays like a collection of crime clichés that drive me insane: The evil serial killer setting up extensive traps and clues, the disabled detective figuring everything from the comfort of his apartment, the standard-issue plot structure in which one-two-three murders set up the final confrontation between hero and villain. There are few surprises here, and yet I was surprised to find myself enjoying the film’s slickness, Denzel Washington’s performance as the quadriplegic detective, Angelina Jolie’s turn as the action-heroine policewoman, New York as a backdrop and, frankly, the unapologetic crime-thriller energy of the entire film. Director Phillip Noyce has done his job: The Bone Collector may be filled with clichés, but they happen to be clichés I hadn’t seen in a while and may have been missing just a little bit. Part of me was annoyed at the film’s far-fetched plot mechanics, while a larger part sort-of-enjoyed the same ride again. There may be some truth to the old saw that “they don’t make them like that anymore” given how big-budget nineties-style crime thriller (without fantastic elements) seem to have vanished from the modern Cineplex: If that’s the case, then there are still older examples of the form to fall back up, and fifteen years later, even The Bone Collector can start to look good.
(In French, On TV, June 2015) What annoys me the most about earnest, well-made, socially-conscious films is the lousy feeling I get when I’m less than entirely positive about them. There’s little actually wrong about The Hurricane, the story of a black boxer, Rubin Carter, imprisoned for a triple murder he is said not to have committed. (The historical record, outside the film, is considerably less affirmative.) That story picks up decades later when a young black man decides to take up the cause of the imprisoned Carter, eventually becoming a lawyer and freeing him. It’s a technically accomplished film, with veteran Canadian director Norman Jewison at the helm (it’s a bit of a nationalistic thrill seeing the Toronto waterfront being presented as-is) and it couldn’t wish for a better performance from Denzel Washington as Carter. And yet, as I watched the film, I just couldn’t get into it –the emotional beats seemed not only blatant, but overused; the do-gooders a bit too saintly; the narrative a bit too neat and predictable. It’s also interminable, especially if you don’t entirely commit to the subject matter. I’m not dismissing the film –I’m simply reporting on my reaction. The Hurricane is successful at what it attempts, but as far as I’m concerned it falls flat. I hope your own reaction differs.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) I don’t think you could come up with a more generic thriller premise than The Equalizer if you tried: A retired special-ops specialist takes revenge on mobsters for putting a young friend in the hospital. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Do you really have any doubt that our protagonist will achieve his ultimate revenge? Faced with such a generic plot, The Equalizer can only distinguish itself through competent execution. Fortunately, it can depend on Denzel Washington to bring his usual intensity to the role, and on director Antoine Fuqua to deliver a dollop of style along the way. The Equalizer may be strikingly unoriginal, entirely linear and far too violent, but after a slow first act, it escalates the tension steadily, showcases Washington’s steely resolve and delivers the bloody vengeance as expected. The last act (set within a home-improvement store) seems far too long if you’re not entirely invested in the kind of carnography in which a dozen opponents get dispatched in various ways. But it’s not sloppy, slapdash or accidental: The Equalizer is exactly the kind of movie it wants to be, and it ought to satisfy those who are looking for exactly that.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Sometimes, subtlety or originality be damned, simple and straightforward is the way to do it. So it is that 2 Guns doesn’t need much more than a premise re-using familiar genre elements (in this case, two undercover agents teaming up against drug cartels after accidentally stealing far more than they expected and discovering that the other is not a hardened criminal) and two solid actors doing what they know best. Mark Whalberg is up to his usual average-blue-collar-guy persona as a Navy agent caught hanging in the breeze, while Denzel Washington is all effortless charm as a DEA agent close to going rogue. Both actors work differently, but here they get a good chance to play off each other, and the result feels more than entertaining. They really don’t stretch their persona, but 2 Guns is a breezy film that doesn’t requires brave performances. (Case in point: Paula Patton looking good and Bill Paxton acting bad, stretching a bit but not too much.) Director Baltasar Kormákur ably follows-up on his previous Contraband by delivering an average but competent criminal action thriller with clean set-pieces and straightforward narrative rhythm. It’s hard to say much more about 2 Guns: Who needs a new classic when the same-old can be done so well?
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Flight is the kind of film, once popular, that is now rarely seen as a Hollywood wide-release: A character study of a flawed anti-hero, along with a decidedly un-heroic look at an ethical conundrum. Denzel Washington truly stars as a constantly-intoxicated pilot who manages to save a flight from certain doom after a freak accident: he exploits his screen personae to the fullest in delivering as unpleasant a character as he has managed since Training Day. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as the post-accident investigation process circles around his own failings as a cause of the crash. There are some harrowing thrills as Flight graphically portrays a terrible airplane ride (director Robert Zemekis is nothing if not a technically competent director), but most of the film is just solid drama, all leading up to a climactic scene in which the story can go either way. The result is surprisingly satisfying; the kind of solid film-making that survives on a good old-fashioned script and strong performances. It’s certainly worth a look, especially for Washington’s performance.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) When I say that What to Expect When You’re Expecting (the book) was one of my constant references in late 2011, I’m not just recommending the book, but also announcing that as a new parent I’m far more sympathetic to the film than other reviewers (or myself at an earlier age) could be. Ensemble comedies with multiple plot-lines are a tricky bet: not all plotlines are equally interesting, not all characters get enough screen time to be fully defined, and not all subplots intersect in meaningful ways. What to Expect does a heroic job at fashioning a comic narrative out of a reference work, and generally manages to avoid the pitfalls of ensemble comedies: All five pregnancy subplots are developed with sufficient detail, the characters are endearing in their own ways, and the interplay between them is often amusing. It’s not all meaningless fluff throughout: the subplot involving Anna Kendrick remains a bit of a downer for much of the film, whereas the film’s biggest emotional punch unexpectedly comes from an adoption sequence (perhaps because, unlike the delivery scenes, it doesn’t cover very familiar ground) featuring a Jennifer Lopez fresh off the similarly-themed The Backup Plan. Otherwise, there’s plenty of good character work here, from Elizabeth Banks’ frustration-filled (yet most realistic) journey to Dennis Quaid’s happiest role to date. But the standout performance title goes to Chris Rock, who elevates the film every time the hilarious “Dude’s Group” is featured onscreen. Is What to Expect a formula-scripted film? Of course. Are the comic beats broad and obvious? Most of the time. Could it have been better? Probably. But will it appeal to anyone in its target demographic? Well, that’s the whole point of the film.
(In theaters, March 2012) Good casting is about finding actors able to fulfill the demands of a particular role; good typecasting is about using the actors’ existing screen persona to flesh out characters. In this case, seeing Ryan Reynolds face off against Denzel Washington and Brendan Geeson, we can already guess a few things about their dramatic arc: Reynolds is a young hot-shot who will learn much; Washington is an honorable rogue who never shows a moment of weakness and Geeson, well, [spoilers]. This kind of ready-made characterization plays right in the hands of Safe House, a routine spy thriller that goes through the motions and delivers at least most of the thrills we expect from a film of its sort. The colorful Cape Town location adds a dash of interest (we see downtown, the stadium, the slums and the neighboring countryside), but much of the film is deeply stepped into the thriller conventions of the espionage business. The premise isn’t bad (young agent sees turncoat show up at his safe house; mayhem ensues) and the development has its moments (say, during the inevitable car chase, or the twists and turns of the stadium sequence) but it leads somewhere very familiar, with plot developments that can safely be predicted by looking at the casting. The direction is an added irritant, as it indulges in pseudo-realistic drab shaky-cam cinematography and mumbled dialogue: it’s exactly the wrong choice of aesthetics for a film that doesn’t really adhere to our version of reality nor has anything crucial to say about the state of the world. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and the lead actors all deliver good performances in typical roles. Fans of Reynolds and Washington will get their fixes, as well as any indulgent thriller buff.
(In theaters, December 2010) Railroad nerds better steel themselves, because Tony Scott’s latest thriller is a feature-length paean to American rolling steel, from lovely shots of moving locomotives to numerous behind-the-scenes explanations of how this stuff actually works. While it’s true that Unstoppable eventually becomes a competently-executed action thriller, it’s the film’s unusual focus on railroad mechanics that fascinate until the action truly starts. Loosely adapted from a true story (Search “CSX 8888” for the details), Unstoppable is about a runaway train and what needs to be done in order to bring it to a stop without causing massive damage. Denzel Washington is as good as usual as a grizzled engineer, Rosario Dawson does well in a role requiring no sex-appeal whatsoever and Chris Pine (stuck with a stock blue-collar character) solidifies his moderate credentials as an action hero. Meanwhile, Tony Scott deploys but does not indulge in the kind of hyperactive style he’s been using for a decade: his shots of rolling trains can become a bit too frantic to be properly appreciated, but he’s able to keep his worst excesses under control. Fittingly for its subject matter, the action scenes have the physical heft of colliding metal, the CGI gracefully bowing to physical effects. Structurally, the narrative is a predictable succession of failed attempts until our heroes step in to save the day: it’s a bit of a bother when some plans are so obviously underdeveloped that we know they’re doomed from the get-go. The “adapted from real events” presumably doesn’t extend to a few scenes milked for maximum suspense. Unstoppable is not a particularly refined film, but it delivers on its promise, and the result is a fine replacement for Runaway Train as the film most people will consider to be the definitive railroad movie.
(In theatres, January 2010) Genre-hopping movies are fun if the genres mesh together, which is why no one will bat an eye when The Book of Eli crosses back and forth between action and post-apocalyptic science-fiction, reminding viewers of Mad Max and The Road along the way. But (spoilers!) when the movie takes a sharp turn toward evangelical apologia in its third act, it’s as if the rules of the picture change abruptly: the invincible hero has divine protection, the lousy world-building becomes an intentional sop to a certain audience and you can hear an audible crack as individual suspensions of disbelief break down. It’s not helped by a sepia-tinged self-important tone (complete with persecution complex) that makes it impossible to claim special camp-craziness dispensation. Aw well; it’s not as if The Book of Eli is a complete loss: As crazy as the last act turns out to be, much of the film has a few qualities worth noticing, from capable direction by the Hugues brothers to a handful of well-presented action sequences, to a capable performance by Denzel Washington. It’s a shame, then, that Denzel (who also co-produced the film) should use The Book of Eli to reveal his evangelical complex to the world at large. It could have been a far better film without the last-minute slide in fantasy.