(On Cable TV, September 2019) From the ever-dependable director Norman Jewison (Canadian!), here comes A Soldier’s Story, a canny examination of racism in the 1944 US Army. The story begins as an officer, a black man, is sent to investigate a murder on a southern military base. Structured as an old-fashioned whodunit, A Soldier’s Story does have the propulsive plot element of a murder mystery, but in doing so does manage to touch upon an impressive number of themes revolving around the black experience. Here we have characters with profound differences of opinions pushed to their limits, in a setting not exactly renowned for its embrace of diversity. A Soldier’s Story remains interesting both as a genre thriller and as a social commentary (echoing Jewison’s earlier epochal In The Heat of the Night), making it a solid film recommendation. Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it has aged quite well. While Denzel Washington has one of his earliest roles here, much of the film’s attention deservedly goes to Howard E. Rollins Jr. as the protagonist investigator and Adolph Caesar as the victim seen in flashbacks. The theatrical origins of the story don’t restrict the film from being feeling free to go where it pleases, keeping the quality of the dialogues intact. Often forgotten in favour of more spectacular fare from the era, A Soldier’s Story remains a solid criminal thriller and a good entertaining time with additional social value.
(In French, On Cable TV, June 2019) I suspect that both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe would consider Virtuosity to be one of their early shames. At times, the film does stink of mid-1990s funk and silliness, what with its then-spectacular-now-terrible computer graphics, fascination for virtual reality and careless overuse of such SF tropes as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. At its heart, it’s nothing more than a cop-versus-criminal-nemesis chase dressed up in near-future plot refinements—it should work better as a crime thriller than a serious extrapolative work, except that what keeps it interesting are the SF plot devices, as half-heartedly developed as they are. (Circa-2019 viewers will be struck as how many of Virtuosity’s plot devices would also be covered in Westworld’s first two seasons, including a solid-state storage device for artificial intelligences and recreating virtual simulation to interrogate said AIs.) Of course, what was gosh-wow for mainstream viewers back in 1995 is old hat to a far more technologically savvy 2010s audience. Still, there’s a certain inadvertent charm to see how the era then portrayed the future—shared with such Virtuosity contemporaries at The Net and Hackers, or to director Brett Leonard’s own The Lawnmower Man. Extrapolation aside, the film itself is an uneven suspense thriller—director Leonard occasionally finds ways to keep his action sequences moving, most notably through the use of helicopters in the rooftop finale. Still, perhaps the thing that most will remember from the film is the acting—Washington’s stoicism returns full force after a bit of an unusual prologue, while Crowe snacks on the scenery as an exuberant villain-of-villains with superpowers—and a (badly executed) musical fixation that partially explains the film’s title. In the background, William Fichtner is instantly recognizable, whereas only committed Kaley Cuoco fans will identify her in a child role performance. The ending has the unfortunate distinction of dragging on for an added ten minutes after the climax between the two protagonists—a more skillful screenwriter (or a film more resistant to the lead actor’s script tampering, as documented in an interview with Kelly Lynch) would have restructured that last half-hour to end on a higher note and effectively rearrange its best ideas. Virtuosity is not really a good movie, but let’s not try to pretend that it’s now without some interest even in the ways it now looks ridiculous. (After all: you needed to explain emoticons in 1995 because it was still obscure to older people. You still need to explain it in 2019 is because it’s obscure to younger people raised on emojis.)
(On Cable TV, April 2019) I’m not sure that anyone but the producers of The Equalizer were asking for a sequel, but I can understand the undeniable attraction of seeing people get beaten up for righteous reasons, and Denzel Washington’s possible insistence to set up a sufficient college fund for his kids. This sequel coasts a very long time on Washington’s natural charm and presence. It takes a while to get going, although it does make up for lost time by a rather remarkable climactic sequence set in a hurricane-swept coastal town. The climax does feature a terrific sense of geography, meticulously established through some careful scene-setting by Washington acolyte director Antoine Fuqua. The way to get there is a bit more laborious. It’s fun to be in Boston, fun to have a showdown in suburbia, fun to see a Malibu being used for car-smashing mayhem, fun to spend a bit more time with an unusually stoic hero even by Washington’s standards. This is a first sequel for the actor (and the director) but there’s nothing essential to it—at best, it allows viewers to revisit an easy character to put in action scenes, and if the point of the movie seems to be the action scenes (as they’re the best sequences of the film) then it’s a vehicle to an end. The subplots do get intrusive, especially when they slow down a film that should be all about leanness (in keeping with its spartan character) and forward propulsive pacing. Still, The Equalizer 2 gets a pass from me—I think I’m going to remember those set-pieces a while longer than the first film which, to be honest, only had the Home Depot sequence going for itself.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) In retrospect, it does make sense that a straightforward crowd-pleasing novelist like John Grisham would lead to a handful of straightforward crowd-pleasing movie adaptations. I’m not complaining! In fact, I miss those solid, medium-budget standalone thrillers. Take The Pelican Brief, for instance—an average but competent thriller in which a young woman stumbles upon a conspiracy by linking the death of Supreme Court justices to land development shenanigans. If the film has a stroke of good luck, it’s in being able to depend on a few capable actors (Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, obviously, but also John Lithgow, Tony Goldwyn and Stanley Tucci in a rare role as a terrorist) as helmed by veteran director Alan J. Pakula—who clearly knows how to wring every drop of suspense out of a given sequence. The early-1990s atmosphere of The Pelican Brief is getting quainter and more charming by the day as it reminds us of how difficult it was at the time to get any kind of information without the Internet: the movie would be about an hour shorter if they just had access to Google. But then again, maybe that’s the way they’re going to go with a remake: have a blogger spew a joke conspiracy theory that happens to be true, rather than have a law student speculate as in this film. Ah well—I’m not really asking for a remake. This one is good enough.
(In French, On TV, January 2019) As I’ve mentioned before, I do have one significant failing as a reviewer for some movies: As a Francophone, Shakespearian English (especially when heard rather than read) breaks my brain. Short bursts of it are fine, but I usually can’t maintain my focus very long on classical English, and it eventually exhausts me. This is why you’re unlikely to find very detailed or meaningful reviews of Shakespearian adaptations unless they update the language or offer a strong visual element to go with the dialogue. Or so I thought before doing something very unusual and watching a French-dubbed version of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. (When it comes to dubs, I’m an original-version purist.) Suddenly, the language is simply delicious to listen to; the lines are funnier, and I can enjoy it to the end. Of course, it helps that the play, and its filmed adaptation, ranks among the frothiest and funniest of the Bard’s plays. It takes place in a gorgeous Italian estate, where Emma Thompson is cute, a young Kate Beckinsale is cute—in fact, everyone is cute. It’s amusing to see actors such as Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves go for classical comedy, and that makes it even funnier in turn. The cinematography is good, the directing is clearly focused on the actors, and the soliloquies—even in dubbed French—are very well done. I’m not enough of a scholar to determine if the French dialogues are original to this adaptation or rely on an older canonical translation (and this is not the kind of information easily obtained), but I suspect that they are original to this dub and they sound good. If I sound unusually enthusiastic about Much Ado about Nothing, it’s largely because it challenges my presumption that Shakespeare is hermetic. I had a good time watching it, and that exceeded all of my expectations.
(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 Wahlberg 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?