A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES / THE EQUALIZER

A Walk Among The Tombstones

By R. David

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (September 19, 2014) – Liam Neeson once again plays a man with a specific set of skills that just so happen to make him the perfect badass to call when a couple of sociopaths start brutally murdering the loved ones of New York-area drug dealers circa 1999.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is based on Lawrence Bock’s series of mystery bestsellers featuring ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder (Neeson).  The film begins in 1991 with Scudder then on the force and on the sauce.  The events of a bar shoot-out lead him to retire.  Fast-forward eight years, he now “helps people solve problems in exchange for gifts”, as he puts it.  A member of his AA group convinces him to investigate the abduction and murder of his drug-trafficking brother’s wife.  This puts Scudder on the trailer of a pair of kidnappers/homicidal maniacs who may or may not have DEA ties.

“Tombstones” distinguishes itself from the more cartoony action films in Neeson’s cannon as of late with a gritty, neo-noir look and style.  Writer/director Scott Frank is shooting for a lurid, atmospheric, serious thriller here.  He mostly succeeds.  Setting the film in 1999 with subtle reminders of the time (cab-top ads for home-readying Y2K services, shots of the World Trade Centers, all the cell phones flip, phone booths are still readily available) add to the surreal, noirish feel; as do the chilly days and rainy nights.  Neeson, while always stoic, is more pensive and measured here than in his recent, more overtly heroic roles.  Only near the film’s climax does he start doling out the coolly intimidating threats – over the phone no less – that have become his stock in trade.

The problem with “Tombstones”, though, is that for all of its lofty ambition to create a strong sense of time and place, it couldn’t feel more generic from a storytelling perspective.  Structurally, this is a conventional detective story and all of its paces and characters feel shopworn and perfunctory (there’s even a smart-but-underprivileged kid – with sickle cell anemia no less! – who wants to be Scudder’s partner) -which is surprising because Frank is the scribe of crackling, memorable scripts for the film adaptations of “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight”, among others.  Maybe those Elmore Leonard books simply gave him a stronger template than Bock’s novel.

Despite a few ferocious and grisly sequences (most of them involving women) “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is the kind of thriller you’ll confuse with 10 other movies a few years from now.  The performances are good and Frank’s direction is stellar, but he lets himself down with his movie-of-the-week-style script and pacing.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

1201213 - The Equalizer

THE EQUALIZER (September 26, 2014) – Denzel Washington also plays a man with a very specific set of skills in “The Equalizer”, a far more energetic, action-oriented thriller than “A Walk Among the Tombstones”; but it is also much sillier and lacks any high-minded ambition where directing is concerned.  This one is helmed by Antoine Fuqua and stars Washington in a more Liam Neeson-ready role than Neeson’s part in “Tombstones”.  I guess the “taciturn, loner, middle-aged badass” has officially become a cottage industry in Hollywood.  That’s not a complaint; just an observation.  Better Neeson and Washington putting down cinematic scum than Channing Tatum or Scarlett Johansson.

Washington plays McCall, a widowed home improvement store worker living a quiet, solitary existence in a modest apartment.  He doesn’t sleep much, so he goes to the local diner in the middle of the night to drink tea (which he brings from home) and read old novels (he’s gradually making his way through a list of ‘100 novels everyone should read before they die’, a task his wife was determined to accomplish but never completed). It’s at the diner he befriends a teenage Russian escort named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) who, naturally, answers to an abusive pimp who just happens to be a major player in the Russian mafia.  After Teri is severely beaten, McCall pays the pimp a visit and ends up killing him and four of his henchmen with a precision and deadly skill that suggests there just might be more to this guy than a guiet, lonely department store employee.  The pimp’s higher-ups in Russia send a hit squad after McCall which causes him to reveal his true identity as a former CIA assassin.

“The Equalizer” starts out batshit silly and only gets goofier as it goes along.  But it’s hardly asking you to swallow anything more ludicrous than you’ve seen in any number of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or – for that matter- Neeson flicks.  It works in the same way “Taken” or “The Expendables” films do:  In its best moments, “The Equalizer” is a refreshing throwback to the heyday of one-man-army actioners.  But unlike most of those films, there’s a turgid self-importance running through this film, as if it is trying to position itself as being more dramatic and more complex than it really is.  Washington brings his usual gravitas to the role, but that almost seems out of place here.  He’s trying so hard to convey a depth of character and emotion in a film that neither deserves nor calls for it.  We’re supposed to be having fun watching him take guys apart with corkscrews and nail guns, but he doesn’t seem to be having any fun doing it.  You won’t hear many people say they long for the Steven Seagal days of action cinema, but it’s during morose, would-be enjoyable shoot-‘em-ups like this that I do.

You may recall Washington won an Oscar under Fuqua’s direction for “Training Day” back in 2001.  Washington needn’t worry about that happening again here.  But “The Equalizer” is far from worthless where the action and performances are concerned.  Undiscriminating action fans – the same ones who made “Taken” such a huge hit despite its massive implausibility and unoriginality – will likely be elated again here. But the film is simply too familiar and too tone-deaf to warrant a blanket recommendation.  Oh, and if you’re wondering; no, you needn’t be familiar with the 1986 TV series this in-name-only remake is based on.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

 

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

A Million Ways

By R. David

Viewed May 30, 2014

A talented cast and high-concept comedy ambition come together in “A Million Ways to Die In the West”, Seth MacFarlane’s affectionate send-up of Western genre tropes.  It’s a bold and curious film in that one can’t help but wonder just what the audience is for a film like this.  Moviegoers in their golden years who may actually have fond memories of the films MacFarlane is paying homage to aren’t likely to be sold by the its vulgar and violent trailer; while younger audiences whose funny bone might be tickled by the bawdy bathroom humor and graphic sight gags aren’t likely to grasp or fully appreciate the overall concept.  But MacFarlane would be nowhere if not for taking risks on odd and potentially off-putting premises (see “Family Guy” and “Ted”).  And funny is funny regardless of the box it’s placed in.  If MacFarlane can find the hilarity in a film about a walking, talking, pot-smoking teddy bear, surely he can find it in a Wild West farce, right?

The answer, it turns out, is a bit complicated.  On the one hand, “A Million Ways…” gets just about everything right on a technical level.  The production design, cinematography and score especially recall the sprawling, dusty oaters of Hollywood yore.  The cast is game and seems to be having a great time with such farcical material (typically serious actors like Liam Neeson and Charlize Therone in particular seem to be enjoying themselves).  As fans of “Family Guy” know, MacFarlane knows how to milk a sight gag and the film, written by MacFarlane with his frequent collaborator Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, has a good amount of clever lines and observational humor, both raunchy and cartoonishly violent.  But “A Million Ways…” is never quite as funny as you’d like it to be.  I smiled a lot, but the big laughs are few and far between, and the film also has trouble sustaining momentum.  Going back in time initially feels like a breath of fresh air for a comedy, but after a while, returning to the same jokes about the Wild West starts to wear thin.  The film simply doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to remain compelling and funny for its entire running time.  As a result, it feels padded and overly long.

Part of the problem is the thin plot, which is too shopworn to inspire much audience investment.  MacFarlane plays Albert, a worrywart sheep-farmer who detests the dangers of the primitive Wild West.  His girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the local mustache groomer (Neil Patrick Harris), and Albert contemplates leaving town.  But when he accidentally saves the life of a beautiful stranger named Anna (Therone) and the two seem to be a perfect match, he thinks he’s finally found happiness.  What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is married to one of the most feared gunslingers in the West (Neeson), and he’s coming to town to find his wife.

As I said, pretty standard stuff.  While any send-up is bound to be representative of its target’s conventions, whoever is doing the sending-up still needs to fashion a compelling narrative; but the plot here feels completely beside the point, as if MacFarlanbe just needed the most basic of stories to attach all his wacky little gags to.  If he had more of them – or more of them worked – this might have been OK; but again, the writers simply don’t have the comedy gold they think they do.  Though, some of it works very well.  The overall gimmick of the dangers that run rampant in the Wild West – with characters being killed randomly and in a bevy of ridiculous and often hilariously extreme ways – is presented with the sort of surprising, giddy, cut-away precision MacFarlane relies so heavily on in “Family Guy”.  The other commentary on the Old West – men’s manliness is judged by the size of their mustache, nobody smiles in photographs, the slightest offense results in bar fights and shootouts, Albert’s self-awareness of the ridiculous science and social expectations of the time – is also generally funny stuff,.  But MacFarlane returns to all of these jokes again and again.  The first few times a gag is repeated, the repetition itself gets a laugh.  After a while though, the constant call backs just start to feel tired.  For instance, Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who claims to be a good Christian so she won’t have sex with her daffy fiancé (Giovanni Ribisi) until they’re married; but she has no problem with her occupation or graphically discussing the details of her work.  Initially, this is the sort of ridiculous, vulgar joke MacFarlane excels at.  But spend too much time with these characters making the same joke over and over again and it loses its luster.

Through all the unevenness here though, “A Million Ways to Die In the West” has three things keeping it watchable and entertaining despite its flaws.  First, it is often undeniably funny.  Even though it spins its wheels considerably, there is usually a clever sight gag or surprising cutaway not far ahead. Second, as mentioned, the look, tone, photography and music are all simply exquisite – not just an ace parody, but a wonderfully made film on a technical level by any measure.  Third, and perhaps most beneficial, is the cast.  MacFarlane (who also directs) has the face of a 20-something despite being in his 40s and the voice of a radio announcer.  He might not make for a genius comedic performer or a captivating leading man, but he is rather perfect as the sarcastic, exasperated voice of logic and reason amongst all the insanity.  He and Therone are tasked with playing straight-man to all the over the top buffoonery surrounding them and they have clear comedic chemistry even if their romantic chemistry is lacking.  There are moments where it is clear he is legitimately cracking her up, and she’s not just acting.  To that end, there is also obvious improve work to much of the dialog which lends some scenes a bit of edge and energy.  Also, who better to ring-up to play a smarmy, show tune-singing, mustache-twirling ham than Niel Patrick Harris; and who better to riff on the alpha male badass than Liam Neeson?

There is much to admire about “A Million Ways to Die In the West”; it’s just a shame it’s not a bit tighter and more inspired.  It’s the kind of movie that feels like they came up with a concept and cast, but tried to throw together a script as they went along.  But that it’s as enjoyable as it is is a testament to the winsome cast and MacFarlane’s considerable gift for mining (if over-milking) scatological humor.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

NON-STOP

Non-Stop-Movie-585x329

By R. David

Viewed February 28, 2014

Just one week after Kevin Costner went all badass-CIA-assassin on a bunch of French terrorists in “3 Days to Kill”, Liam Neeson grabs the grizzled, middle-aged action hero torch – a late-career persona remake he has now, for better or worse, comfortably settled in to – and takes it to 40,000 feet in “Non-Stop”.  The trailers already have audiences calling it “Taken On a Plane”, what with Neeson being taunted by a mysterious madman on the phone and he being the only man who can save the abductees:  this time the hundred or so passengers on a Transatlantic flight to London.

Neeson is Bill Marks, an Air Marshall who we meet sitting in his car staring at a photo of his toddler daughter in between belts of booze pre-flight.  He makes his way through the terminal, the alcohol not diluting his watchful, suspicious eye for detail.  And just like that “Non-Stop” has firmly established itself as yet another film about a rugged, alcoholic cop, brooding over personal tragedy, but still the best at what he does.  Some of the details may have been tweaked, but the basics remain the same.  Neeson’s Marks could be John McClane in “Die Hard” or Denzel Washington’s pilot in “Flight”, or any of the several hundred variations on that nearly identical character in between.  It’s a tired but reliably effective action-film trope.  How many times, for instance, has Bruce Willis played the same sort of steely-eyed, hung-over, and tormented, yet courageous and righteous hero?  (I can think of at least a half a dozen just off the top of my head.)

Once aboard the flight, Marks begins receiving cryptic text messages on his supposedly secure cell phone stating that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into an electronic bank account.  Naturally, Marks sets out to find the assailant, who claims to be aboard the flight.  The film goes about establishing its cast of characters essentially by introducing all the possible suspects.  Could it be Marks’ shifty partner (Anson Mount, superb on TV’s “Hell On Wheels”, but in a thankless role here and unrecognizable without his salt and peppered beard)?  His awkward seat-mate (Julliane Moore)? A hothead NYPD officer (Cory Stoll)?  The quiet Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally)?  Or any number of the other dozen or so character ‘types’ who may as well all have a flashing neon sign above them that reads “Possible Suspect”. 

There is a twist of sorts that is spoiled by the film’s trailer, but on the off chance you haven’t seen it or have already forgotten what I’m talking about, I’ll simply say that that plot thickens when Marks’ credibility and professionalism are called into question and the pilots and NSA agents on the ground order him to stand down, which naturally only makes Marks that much more hell-bent on finding the terrorists. 

This is one of those movies where the audience ostensibly assumes they should be paying attention to all the little clues the film drops in order to identify a potential suspect, but like so many movies of this type, in its efforts to be twisty and surprising, logic often goes out the window. I guess we can live with unrealistic liberties like cell phone reception 40,000 feet above the Atlantic, but clichés and casualties of logic start to pile up as quickly as the dead bodies, rendering the reveal of who is behind this elaborate charade and their motivations fairly unsatisfying. 

Still, like I said, “Non-Stop” indulges a tried and true premise that needs only a few clever ideas and good performances to work at least somewhat effectively.  Confining the action to a single, mobile location builds claustrophobic tension and makes for some innovative action sequences.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (who directed Neeson in the similarly convoluted, genre-worn mystery “Unknown” a few years ago) most memorable directorial flourish here has the text messages Marks sends and receives popping up on the screen like dialog balloons in a comic book.  Technically, “House of Cards” has been doing this for its past two seasons, and no doubt some other cellphone-centric thriller has thought to do this before, but it still feels like a novel approach to the typical procedural action in this sort of film.  And Neeson is about as reliably sturdy a taciturn and intimidating everyman hero as we have in movies today.  He may be playing a variation on the same character with each of these similarly convoluted, lowbrow thrillers he churns out, but he is undeniably their main asset.

Less discriminating audiences will no doubt find enough value here in all of the above to rate this film more highly than I am.  But we’ve all simply seen too much of this before, and the film loses major points for its disappointing climax that – like most of the other labored sentimentality sprinkled throughout the film – seems to be going for something profound but instead earns only an arched eyebrow and a shrug.  “Non-Stop” is polished and fluid, and Neeson and the film’s sure-fire central mystery carry it as far as it goes.  But “Non-Stop” can’t sidestep its illogical plotting and, ultimately, it succumbs to its own rampant foolishness.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)