THE EQUALIZER 3
By this point in his career, it goes without saying that Denzel Washington has nothing left to prove as an actor – and wow but I've been enjoying his recent nothing-to-prove performances.
While the stunt was impressive, Washington's tic-laden portrayal of a milquetoast defense attorney in 2017's Roman J. Israel, Esq. ultimately grew tiresome, and his titular rendition in 2021's The Tragedy of Macbeth – both of these performances Oscar-nominated – felt overly intellectualized and rather labored whenever the star wasn't shrieking to the heavens. But earlier that year, in the amusingly grubby serial-killer flick The Little Things, Washington was so joyously relaxed, controlled, and charismatic as a current sheriff's deputy/former detective that he wiped his hard-working, similarly Academy Award-winning co-stars Rami Malek and Jared Leto clear off the screen. Now, in director Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer 3, Washington's role as a current avenging-angel-for-hire/former CIA operative finds him effortlessly stealing scene after scene – practically frame after frame – merely by grinning and marveling at either the goodhearted ingenuousness of his allies or, more pointedly, the abject stupidity of those in his way. At one point, Washington's Robert McCall makes a Mafia godfather's hot-tempered brother an offer he can't refuse. In his idiocy, the kid does refuse. And if smiles were audible, I'm betting the sound in my auditorium would've been deafening when McCall simply shook his head and chuckled – this series' equivalent to a verbalized “Boy, was that the wrong answer.”
For fans of Fuqua's and Washington's first two Equalizers – and for the record, I hated 2014's original and felt no guilt for accidentally-but-not-that-accidentally skipping 2018's followup – it might be news to hear that this entry takes place almost entirely in Italy, given that Robert McCall seemed like a homebody who wouldn't leave Boston under any circumstances. Having missed part two, I can only presume that everyone else in Boston was killed either by Euro-thugs or McCall's own hand, and so traveling overseas was the guy's only remaining option. Whatever the reason (and we do eventually get one), McCall is tending to some seemingly larcenous, typically über-violent business in Sicily when he's felled by a bullet, eventually winding up in the care of a kindly doctor (Rimo Girone) from a remote Italian village. McCall convalesces in the doctor's home; he grows fond of the local customs and scenery and eateries; he befriends the locals, who take to McCall as they would a wounded pet, or E.T. This, thinks our newly contented protagonist, is where I'm Meant to Be.
But oh those darned Italian gangsters! They're everywhere, as they usually are in movies of this ilk, and in addition to this film's particular Camorra sect chumming around with terrorists and drug dealers, they're also bringing their high crimes to McCall's adoptive coastal town of Altamonte. Beyond that, they're beating the hell out of a generous fish merchant (Daniele Perrone) and McCall's carabiniere pal Gio Bonucci (the handsome, empathetic Eugenio Mastrandrea), the latter of whose grade-school daughter is shown sobbing when a gun is pushed against her temple. Yet happily for us, if less happily for the Camorra, Washington's recuperating McCall is never off-duty. That's why, in an intimate bistro where goons are yet again threatening Gio Bonucci and his family, McCall lures the gun-toting Mafiosi to his table and quietly, very quietly, insists that they take their seedy dealings to some other town. Soon enough, there are four corpses littering the streets of Italy. You can bet there'll be others.
In less-confident hands, The Equalizer 3 would be rubbish. Washington's hands are as confident as they come, and it's still largely rubbish. If there's an Italian or Sicilian stereotype in existence that isn't in evidence here, it can only be because it got edited out prior to the final cut. The regions' characters fall into precisely two demographics: loving, salt-of-the-earth figures dedicated to food and family and friendship, and heavily tattooed nightmares who chop the hands off turncoats and throw their elders out of third-story apartment windows. And yes, for those who enjoy keeping track of clichés, Fuqua's second sequel will provide both a Taste of Italy dining tour in a village square and a random parade celebrating an unnamed saint that happens to be intercut with a series of bloody acts of vengeance – just like the christening of Michael Corleone's godchild amidst the execution of all those Five Families dons and that dipstick Moe Green.
A frustratingly hit-or-miss director who helmed both Training Day (which netted Washington his second Oscar) and last winter's slave-thriller abomination Emancipation, Fuqua pulls off a few isolated moments with true finesse, principally the unexpectedly speedy dispatching of McCall's first quartet of victims and a car-bomb explosion that nearly takes the life of the dogged CIA agent (Dakota Fanning) saved only by a conveniently timed phone call. There's also a terrific sequence of the Italian townsfolk momentarily standing up to the Camorra that rekindles fond memories of '40s and '50s Westerns, to say nothing of the emotional climax to Spartacus.
Yet Fuqua can't make screenwriter Richard Wenk's moldy plotting play as remotely believable, and certainly not inventive, and despite his star's considerable gifts, he can't turn Robert McCall into anything but a one-dimensional archetype. McCall himself may think otherwise, but in Equalizer 3, the dude is unquestionably on the side of the righteous and good, and the first film's hints about the man's possible sociopathy are left wholly unexplored. (I offer a mea culpa if they were ironed out – or at least addressed – in Fuqua's 2018 entry.) Still, I mostly enjoyed this derivative, formulaic, unashamedly manipulative thriller. Given what Washington brings to the table, it would be nearly impossible not to.
For all of his brutal-action bona fides, Fuqua, over the course of two decades-plus, has generally been a reliably strong director of actors (those in Emancipation excepted), and there isn't a single performance in this latest Equalizer that feels undernourished. They may be playing little more than ambulatory advertisements either for or against vacationing abroad, but everyone here shines, including the thus-far-unmentioned Andrea Scarduzio and Andrea Dodero as Camorra psychos and Gaia Scodellaro as a flirtatious waitress and McCall's blessedly unrealized love interest. A bearded, unassumingly winning David Denman shows up as a stalwart CIA agent, and Fanning gets her best role since Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as a neophyte agent under McCall's cagey tutelage; you can picture Fanning's plucky, inquisitive Emma headlining her own Silence of the Lambs in two years' time.
In their few scenes that don't find the actors on opposite ends of phone calls, Washington appears to be having a ball opposite Fanning: she trying (and sweetly failing) to match his cocky swagger; he incredulous, in a paternally loving way, that anyone this naive could ever have risen so high in the CIA ranks. Yet whether he's fastidiously arranging the presentation of his morning tea or hideously garotting a goon so that the gangster's head will topple off if lightly poked, Washington's Robert McCall is madly entertaining in The Equalizer 3. And while the famously expressive actor doesn't actively need co-stars to be eminently watchable in his intensely watchful role, it's better for everyone, Washington included, when they're around. Even if, as often happens in this franchise, they're not around for long.
Written by Emmy Seligman, who also directs, and Rachel Sennott, who also co-stars, the violent, feminist, violently feminist comedy Bottoms has been hailed by a number of reviewers as a masterpiece of subversion, and maybe it is – depending on your definition of “subversion.”
Its basic plot is certainly capitalized Out There. Lifelong besties PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edeberi) are entering their senior year of high school confident in their queer identities, but less assured in their lack of sexual conquests and combined status as the institution's official “ugly, untalented lesbians.” (This isn't conjecture: A PA announcement asks for the “ugly, untalented lesbians” to please report to the principal's office, and there's no question regarding whom the announcement is aimed at.) As sex with one another would be an act resembling incest, the pair decide that the fastest, easiest way to get laid before going to college is to establish and lead a high-school self-defense class – essentially a teen fight club – through which their prowess will seduce unsuspecting cheerleaders, principally PJ's longtime crush Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Josie's fantasy Isabel (Havana Rose Liu).
This is one of those high-concept slapstick scenarios that would never, in a gazillion years, be attempted with male protagonists, at least over the decades since the unfortunate early-'80s heyday of Porky's. (And even then, no way on earth would the leads be allowed to focus their rapey gaze on fellow males.) Consequently, “subversive” is adequately covered in Bottoms' very setup, and is in many ways augmented by the practice combat itself, which is so bloody and bone-crackingly brutal that my laughter at the conceit quickly devolved into mere wincing. Like those willing participants in David Fincher's Fight Club, the participants here thrive under their torture, and later smile at one another, bruised and battered, as signs of respect and solidarity. But this was bullshit then and it's bullshit now, even if no one in Fincher's film necessarily wanted to f--- one of the other club members. (Though let's be honest: They did.)
What keeps Bottoms from being truly subversive, however, isn't the familiarity – gender-swapped though it is – of the conceit or the reminders of dozens of other losing-our-V-card comedies from ages ago. It's that Seligman and Sennott have gone out of their way to make this thing not just unrealistic, but anti-realistic. Beginning with the casting of its now-27-year-old leads (with Edebiri already seen as a working woman, this year alone, in The Bear, Abbott Elementary, Black Mirror, Theater Camp … ), we're clearly not meant to “believe” Sennott and Edebiri as 17-year-olds, just as we weren't asked to wholly accept Stockard Channing in Grease or Ben Platt in the film version of Dear Evan Hansen. For Pete's sake, this movie's hateful high-school quarterback is a grinning-goofus crybaby played by Nicholas Galitzine, the 28-year-old who co-stars as the British prince in Prime's gay rom-com Red, White, & Royal Blue. But those actors were at least in semi-recognizable milieus. From Bottoms' first PA address stating that, because the recent shooting made mincemeat of the school library's books, reading would again be canceled this year, we're not in any kind of real world. Don't get me wrong: This fake world boasts definite pleasures. But to my mind, a movie doesn't deserve to be labeled “subversive” if nothing surrounding it is real enough to subvert.
As a result, Seligman's and Sennott's collaboration struck me as a film of random pleasures that never became an overall pleasure. The leads' comic timing and rapport can't be faulted, even if it was more than a little dispiriting when the narrative's inherent danger and mania led to completely predictable sentimentality with the BFFs momentarily breaking up to a sappy, acoustic, non-ironic musical cue. (2019's Booksmart did this bit way better.) There are enjoyable turns by Ruby Cruz as a romantic ideal no one initially sees and former Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch as a tangent-happy fight-club advisor, and it was nice seeing underused Succession regular Dammara Domińczyk as a horny MILF, even if I have no earthly idea why she was there. Plus, a lot of the dialogue has legitimate dark-comedy bite, and Seligman and Sennott provide more than enough scenarios to make you giggle while cowering, such as PJ's demand that every club member raise their hands if they've ever been raped. Seeing no hands raised, she adds that “gray-area” stuff counts, and everyone's hands go up.
But because we're obviously in abjectly make-believe territory in Bottoms, even its occasionally sensational flourishes feel inherently phony. So by the time we learned that the football team's rivals were literal murderers planning on unprecedented mayhem during the Big Game, the event and its aftermath still paled next to the climax of, say, 1989's Heathers, where the annihilation of an entire school gymnasium and everyone inside felt like an absolutely genuine possibility. Although the viscera may fly in Bottoms' final minutes, the effect is about as horrifying as the ultra-violence in animator Chuck Jones' “Rabbit Season! Duck Season!” short. It's impossible to be affected by blood and guts when you have no reason to think that the characters involved have blood and guts to begin with.
No movie that opens with the infectious pop catchiness of a Sparks tune – in this case, “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us” – can be entirely bad. I was consequently less surprised than shocked by how director Peter Lepeniotis' family-friendly horror comedy Zombie Town attempted to make a lie of that truism.
Just how terrible is this thing? So terrible that screenwriters Lepeniotis, Michael Samonek, and Michael Schwartz, whose names are all dutifully listed on the movie's Internet Movie Database page, somehow found a way to keep their names off the movie's Wikipedia page, which only references the release as an adaptation of a 2012 novel by Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine. If you need added proof, consider that Zombie Town features, among its cast, original Saturday Night Live co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, and Kids in the Hall co-stars Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson, and I'm betting you still didn't know it existed, let alone was playing at a Davenport cineplex near you. The end credits also reveal that R.L. Stine himself showed up – and even though I miraculously stayed awake during the whole movie and we get a screen shot of the author in his apparent cameo, I'll be damned if I could recall his appearance. Maybe it was edited out. If only my attendance had been edited out.
Because this understandably juvenile tale of a town beset by zombies due to the unleashing of a magical whoozit is destined to leave the area within minutes, I see no need to pile on in terms of this Canadian production's objective awfulness. Instead, let me instead offer a few words of praise. Ummm … .
Oh yeah! Henry Czerny is kind of funny when loping about in his laughable undead makeup, as is Brenda Coates as a librarian named Ms. Bonnard whom the high-schoolers call Ms. Boneyard. (Ha ha ha … heh heh … hmmm … .) And did I mention Aykroyd and Chase and McCulloch and Thompson? Granted, none of them ever appears in the same scene together – not in any comedic combo – and in the case of the SNL castmates, this caused me to wonder if they were even on speaking terms anymore. Happily, though, Zombie Town has likely been long-forgotten by its participants, and will probably be forgotten by its few viewers soon … with the possible exception of the only two others who attended my Thursday screening. I exited the auditorium ahead of the presumed teens, and overheard one say to the other, “That was the worst movie I've ever seen!” Her companion countered, “I know, right?!” Those sweet kids had no idea. Liam Neeson's Retribution was playing on a screen right next door.