by Philip Price
“Blindspotting” is like a poem.
It's often rhythmic. Working in both speech and song. In rhyme and verse. It skips the metaphor, but delivers its meaning through an eloquent, free-flowing structure akin to a stanza. Most importantly, it provokes strong emotions in its beauty, its torment, and its truth.
It's like an effortless verse that has flown out of “Hamilton” breakout Daveed Diggs and his longtime creative partner Rafael Casal as they explore the lifelong friendship of Collin and Miles who each have their own shit to deal with but face new challenges due to the present context they're living in and the changing world around them.
Growing up in Oakland their city has become a state of mind, integral to the identity of both men. As the Oakland they were raised in becomes more gentrified though, the question becomes how they deal with such a large part of their identity disappearing before them. How do they justify who they are or become who they're supposed to be if they can't go back to where they're from? If home as they know it no longer exists? Layer in the rising tension dealing in race relations and not only is "Blindspotting" relevant, but it comes to utilize the art form in its most basic function: sending a message of empathy and hopefully opening a few minds in the process.
We've seen films dig into the weird dynamics of male friendships before and how limited they seem to be in what emotions are allowed in, but with "Blindspotting" Diggs and Casal do a crazy good job of conveying both the tricky waters they encounter when it comes to the assumptions each are slapped with based on their appearance in contrast to who they are as human beings while filtering this conversation through the various tones the film utilizes.
The film is framed by Collin trying to make it through his final three days of probation, but there is little more actual plot to the film outside of what you've seen in the trailers. Collin witnesses the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, but this isn't the catalyst for a series of "wrong place, wrong time" circumstances that follow and serve more as plot devices than anything dealing with the ideas and themes of Diggs and Casal's script. Rather, this inciting incident is a starting point for the conversation the film wants to have. The movie doesn't rely on twists and turns or convoluted plotting to make its point, but rather it invests in its characters and allows each of their arcs to serve as the foundation for the story.
Just like the characters themselves, it would be easy to make assumptions about "Blindspotting" based simply on the appearance of those involved and the position the marketing has taken. It would also be easy to dismiss the movie because it very clearly deals in hot button issues and if it, for one reason or another, seems to conflict with your point of view then it might be difficult for some to knowingly listen to what they believe is an opposing perspective for 90 minutes. That's the thing though, "Blindspotting" isn't trying to argue with you nor does it fall so far to one side that it feels irrational. "Blindspotting" just wants to remind people to be open and to ultimately, be kind. Not everyone is who they appear to be-for better or worse-but the truth we can't seem to fully comprehend is that you don’t really know someone until you know someone. So, just…take the time.
by Philip Price
The older Tom Cruise gets, the less time there is between his ‘Mission: Impossible’ sequels. There was a mere four years between the first and second installments and it seemed that might be the end of things, but six years later when Tom Cruise needed a public face lift it was Ethan Hunt who was called on to come to the rescue. Five years passed, and the series reinvigorated itself with Brad Bird's franchise-best, ‘Ghost Protocol,’ and then four years passed before writer/director Christopher McQuarrie took over and teamed with Cruise to produce the worthy follow-up that was ‘Rogue Nation.’ Now, only three years have passed between the last and what is now the sixth installment in this ever-expanding action franchise. I can only imagine that we'll have another ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie by 2020 at which point Cruise will be 58-years old. It is not only Cruise's age that splinters the race against time these movies will become though, but also the fact the one-time biggest movie star on the planet is hard-pressed to find success elsewhere outside the franchise. This creates questions of what Cruise might do once he's no longer able to jump out of airplanes, scale mountains, or fly helicopters, but these are questions more curious than they are concerning. For now, audiences should simply revel in the fact Cruise can still accomplish what he must bring ‘FALLOUT’ to the biggest screen ever-which is where you should see it. “Mission: Impossible – FALLOUT” is the pinnacle of what it seems this entire series, knowing or unknowingly, has been leading to. It is McQuarrie's “The Dark Knight,” it is Cruise's commitment to celluloid that will define the middle act of his career, and it is by far one of the best action movies ever made. Yes, ‘FALLOUT’ is everything a fan of the previous films could want in that it revolves around a convoluted plot of double crossings and inconspicuous baddies throwing obstacles at our beloved team of core heroes, but what elevates this latest entry above many of the others is the way in which it caps off this trilogy of sorts that began with ‘Ghost Protocol’ where these movies weren't just using Cruise's Hunt as a conduit for action or trying to humanize him, but more discover the person Hunt actually is while detailing his journey to figure out who he truly wants to be. ‘FALLOUT’ is as much a coming to terms and peace with who the character is for Ethan Hunt as it is a clarification on the haze that still tinged who Hunt was over the last few films. How this will affect future installments will remain to be seen, but as the core of ‘FALLOUT’ it only adds substantial weight to a movie that excels in every other facet of the genre it is excited to exist within.
While it has been three years since ‘Rogue Nation’ in real time it has only been two in the lives of IMF agent Hunt and his team who have been tasked with tracking down a sub-group of Solomon Lane's (Sean Harris) Syndicate that call themselves The Apostles and are led by a mystery man named John Lark. It seems the current objective of these "apostles" is to begin nuclear war to reset humans (which has now been the plot of at least two of these movies), but in this instance Hunt, Benji (Simon Pegg), and Luther (Ving Rhames) are attempting to recover three plutonium cores that have been stolen by the terrorist group. It is when Hunt chooses to save Luther's life over securing the plutonium that the entirety of this revealing journey Hunt is about to go on begins. After essentially failing the mission but saving his entire team Hunt is given orders from new IMF director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) that provides insight into how Hunt and his team might retake the plutonium. This is not before Angela Bassett's CIA Director, Erica Sloane, instructs Hunt and Hunley that Special Activities operative August Walker (Henry Cavill), who has a reputation for being something of a blunt instrument, will be shadowing Hunt on the mission. Hunt is naturally reluctant but is given little choice and so he and Walker take off for Paris as they will have to HALO jump into the City of Lights to infiltrate a night club where they are to meet an arms dealer called The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). If you've seen any of the previous ‘Mission: Impossible’ films then you'll know these plans don't always go according to...well, plan. This is what makes each of the set pieces so gleefully exciting and simultaneously nerve-inducing. Not only are they each executed with a craft beyond anything else we're seeing in the movies today, but they consider the fact they're still occurring within a movie and are sure to add little moments of truth and humor; sometimes all it takes is a facial expression from Cruise to remind us of the magnitude. This sense of great wonder combined with white-knuckle tension is prevalent from the word go as the HALO jump is the first of many grand action sequences ‘FALLOUT’ delivers. It's not just the big spectacle stunts that thrill though, as a bathroom brawl involving Hunt, Walker, and a third party the two are trying to intercept before he meets with White Widow that takes place shortly after they drop into Paris is one of the most exhilarating hand to hand combat scenes in recent memory (I know, I need to watch “The Raid”). It is at this point in the narrative that ‘FALLOUT’ takes something of an interesting and rather unexpected turn as it has characters dictate leads and place assumptions in the audiences’ minds that add facets never before considered and while we ultimately know Cruise and Co. will accomplish the mission and be successful that we are made to genuinely question this at all is a true achievement. ‘FALLOUT’ achieves this several times.
And so, as less time has passed in the world of the film than in our world and given this coupled with the fact this is the shortest interim between ‘M:I’ films in either the real or fictional world of the movies this also gives way to the fact ‘Rogue Nation’ and ‘FALLOUT’ are the two most connected of the series thus far. This may also have something to do with the fact McQuarrie is the first director to helm more than a single entry in the series as, prior to ‘Rogue Nation,’ each film had somewhat existed as an example of the many ways in which one could construct an action flick as done by a rogues' gallery of notable filmmakers. And while, by nature of the beast, the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series might have come to be more of an inclusive and/or interconnected franchise a la ‘The Fast and the Furious’ anyway it is likely to the benefit of the series that it was ushered into the current cinematic climate via a single visionary. McQuarrie, who came to prominence as a writer on “The Usual Suspects” and first directed Cruise in “Jack Reacher” has figured out not only how to string together large set pieces with expert precision but has also tapped into the reasoning behind it all as well as the layers that exist within the multiple factions always gunning for the same objective. McQuarrie has created more of a shaded world instead of distinctly drawing the line between the good and the bad. He does this most overtly through Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust. Faust is a character who had to play the role of a double agent in ‘Rogue Nation’ and yet Hunt never looked at her as the enemy simply because they stood on two opposing sides of the same target. Rather, this budding relationship served as McQuarrie's way to begin peeling back the layers that were inevitable in a franchise that began in a rather simple and straightforward fashion meaning more as a genre exercise than as an innovative piece of art, but that has continued to grow over the many installments and twenty-two years it's now been around. There would inevitably come a time when the formula of stopping a bad guy from stealing something to do something very bad through the process of outlandish action sequences, party infiltrations, disguises, and motorcycle chases just wasn't going to suffice and ‘FALLOUT’ thrives because McQuarrie still includes all these keystones but builds upon that now present history to explore deeper themes and darker avenues. That and the aforementioned ‘Dark Knight’ comparison isn't to say McQuarrie's film is the dark and gritty version of an ‘M: I’ movie as there are plenty of chuckles to be had in ‘FALLOUT,’ but more to say these movies still take themselves seriously. McQuarrie allows the outcomes of each of the scenarios our characters find themselves in to be driven by the choices the characters make rather than due to that of a certain point the story needs to hit. It's about character and in ‘FALLOUT,’ it's first and foremost about the moral character of Ethan Hunt and how such is both demonstrated and upheld.
“Mission: Impossible – FALLOUT” is the pure definition of entertainment. Besides the heavier stuff that adds the necessary and rewarding dramatic weight there are of course the numerous, terrific set-pieces. Having already mentioned the HALO jump and Parisian bathroom brawl it should be noted that those sequences take place in the first act of the movie and Cruise is only beginning to get warmed up. The set piece following that of the not one, but two hand to hand combat scenes in the night club though quickly differs itself from what has come to pass already by beginning to emphasize that character stance as discussed in the previous paragraph. Whereas the fight scene in the bathroom is completely devoid of a score or soundtrack and more visceral for it due to McQuarrie and his sound designer letting us feel every blow and crunch the following sequence featuring Cruise and Cavill foiling a rescue operation is set completely to that of an orchestral score and has us unknowingly follow the protagonist until it reaches a point that, if revealed to be Hunt, the choice he has to make would be one that would make or break the character for many. McQuarrie isn't squeamish about showing us the victim's face. He wants to highlight how difficult it should be for any given human to take the life of another human and he doesn't let anyone off easy. This cacophony of the symphony, the violence, and the moral dilemmas crescendos with a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris that is as insane and as fast-paced as anything in the entire franchise and we all know how much Cruise loves his motorcycles. The fact all of this is done in as practical a method as possible lends the aesthetic a more chilling dimension as it almost feels as if we're watching it live and in real life and that something could go wrong at any given moment. This is all in preparation for the climactic stunt in the film which includes a helicopter on helicopter chase through treacherous, but breathtaking landscapes, a fire fight in the sky, and some bomb disarming for good measure that is shot completely in IMAX and will literally push you either all the way to the back of your seat or right off the front of it.
McQuarrie's clear direction, some nicely placed humor, and a fantastic ensemble cast all mesh into a dazzling apex of spectacle. Cavill is of special note among the ensemble as his Agent Walker is a wall of brute force and charisma. After having seen Cavill have to play so restrained in his Superman role but shown a strong indication of what he was capable of in 2015's “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” it is refreshing to see the guy have an opportunity to really dig into a juicy role that not only allows him to give a more diverse performance, but also utilizes his god-like physicality to its full potential. The bathroom scene is where Cavill shines brightest as one can feel the sheer power he's exuding come through the screen. It should also be noted that Harris' villain is utilized in different ways than might be expected but is effective in his role in the story and how it weaves together with the overarching needs and desires of the other characters involved. Harris has a classic menace to him that reverberates throughout any scene he chooses to look down upon; leaves an impact on the proceedings and helping to reinforce the grave tone of the film. It's a tricky deal to pull off in films like this where the villain can be the most disposable part when it should be what makes the hero so heroic but having established Lane in ‘Rogue Nation’ as a formidable foe and having consequences of being the kind of man McQuarrie want to emphasize Ethan Hunt is come back around to bite him gives this greater sense of both personal responsibility and peril. Speaking of personal responsibility, the inclusion of Michelle Monaghan's Julia here, a remnant of a series lost in limbo, is handled as well as could be expected creating some potently emotional moments that feel inherently natural to Hunt's story and evolution. This is still very much a Tom Cruise vehicle though, and maybe the most stunning aspect of all ‘FALLOUT’ is the fact that amid everything else going on it is still about who the man at the core of these movies is and why he continues to save the world. In one of the film's more tender moments featuring series veteran Rhames there occurs an exchange of dialogue that might be a little too on the nose for some, but ultimately feels necessary in reminding us that Hunt is a man among men and, regarding our current cinematic landscape, a veritable hero among super heroes.
by Philip Price
Boots Riley is not a fan of the system or "the man" and if he hadn't made that abundantly clear through the music he's made with The Coup then you'll certainly know how the man feels coming out of his directorial debut, "Sorry to Bother You." This assessment of corporate America though and how it addresses labor and capitalism is only one layer of Riley's feature as he's also here to integrate ideas of activism, of art, and of the importance placed on the individual in our society rather than that of what is for the greater good of the people. There's a lot more than this too, I'm sure, but it's difficult to try and narrow down or consolidate one's thoughts on "Sorry to Bother You" because the film itself feels so sporadic and surreal.
Despite that, here we go...
While watching "Sorry to Bother You" I couldn't help but to come to concentrate on what Riley's thesis must have been for this piece. It is beyond evident that the guy has an objective and something to say that he wants to communicate in an effective and aesthetically pleasing way, but when you get down to it and clear away all these facets that give off this impression of being just batshit crazy what is it that Riley really wants to spark a conversation around? By the time the film came to an end it seemed it was this idea as phrased by a line in the movie that goes, "if you're shown a problem and have no idea how to solve it, you just get used to the problem" that really cuts to the heart of it all. Given where "Sorry to Bother You" goes and the actions that occur within this company run by Armie Hammer's coke-snorting maniac Steve Lift known as Worry Free Riley is posing that as crazy as what this corporation is doing seems if our society were to become conditioned to such expectations there wouldn't be a second thought given to it. This crazy ass evolution of the story could also be seen more metaphorically than as a literal way to say America is always sacrificing individuals and/or certain demographics for the sake of profit, but as the movie pretty much admits it seems it's meant to be that of a literal analysis.
As much as "Sorry to Bother You" is about some heavy-handed topics and touts a plethora of big ideas it is also a movie that doesn't hit its audience over the head with just how important these issues are and how serious the audience should take them. Rather, "Sorry to Bother You" is as if a Paul Thomas Anderson film were flushed through a Spike Lee filter and then stitched together by someone like Charlie Kaufman which is to not only say that it's bonkers, but that it is a lot of fun and relentlessly engaging and-maybe most importantly-consistently funny. Lakeith Stanfield is fantastic as our protagonist Cassius Green (cash is green?) as he grounds this surreal reality he exists within in a way that allows we as audience members to have something to grasp onto as we're taken through this unpredictable bit of statement entertainment. Tessa Thompson is electric as Cassius' fiancée Detroit (her father wanted her to have a real American name) who gets her own storyline that mimics Cassius' in a way that doesn't completely alleviate her from her criticisms she tosses at Cassius as he moves up in the telemarketing realm. There is a contradiction of sorts to what Detroit preaches and what she wants to become, and Thompson must allow Detroit to skirt this line without allowing the character to become ironic and therefore someone to be laughed at.
Terry Crews and Omari Hardwick are both strong in smaller, supporting roles and Hardwick is especially good at pulling off his natural swagger while still matching his body language with that of Patton Oswalt's dubbing for his character; or at least he does so in a more natural fashion than Stanfield is able to connect with David Cross' as Cassius is very much still himself for much of the movie without giving into the facade of his "white voice" whereas Hardwick's Mr. ________ has been fully enveloped. Steven Yeun is the face of this activism subplot and while his casting makes sense his character's arc as far as how he becomes entangled in Cassius' personal life feels unnecessary and a little tacked on whereas Cassius' friendship with Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) provides some of the best comedic moments in the film. Be warned, Fowler oozes a presence that will make him a huge comedy star one of these days. Danny Glover, Michael X. Sommers, and Kate Berlant also each show up and leave indelible impressions, but all are to help "Sorry to Bother You" leave the biggest impression possible. It does. There is no question this movie will leave you wanting to discuss it at length, but it also doesn't ever feel focused enough or at least not precise enough to deliver fully the impact it intends to through its methods of deranged diversions.
The movie lives to upend your expectation in any way it can while delivering a comedy-coated homily on expectation versus reality and how if we alter one the other will inevitably follow. "Sorry to Bother You" addresses plenty of topics that don't get their day often enough, but it also attempts to say so much that it might ultimately be too much. Whatever Riley decides to do next I will be there for it.
by Philip Price
Denzel Washington is 63-years old and will be 64 this coming December. I can recall taking note of this fact when writing about the first ‘Equalizer’ film when Washington was about to turn 60 and how impressive it seemed that the guy had no intentions of slowing down. In the interim between that 2014 film and what is the first sequel one of the world's most charismatic actors has agreed to be a part of, Mr. Washington has still shown no signs of slowing down. Since “The Equalizer,” Washington has already paired with director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) again prior to this latest entry with their remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” which I found to be immensely entertaining as well as having adapted, starred in, and directed August Wilson's seminal piece of work in “Fences” for which he was shrouded in awards love. And again, last year, the actor earned another Best Actor nomination for his work in Dan Gilroy's quirky, but largely effective “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (which I probably liked more than you). The point being, each of these gave Washington the chance to continue to do what he loves as he flexed a different muscle regarding each respective project, but the choice to return to the character of Robert McCall among every character Washington has played is a curious one. I enjoyed “The Equalizer” upon initial release and was happy to find it wasn't simply another case of an aging star attempting to cash in on the Liam Neeson-proven method of combining a once valuable name on the poster above a newfangled action-centric conflict. Of course, Washington was never relegated to be a star whose name ever lost any value. Denzel is Denzel and no matter what he does people typically turn out in fair enough numbers to justify his mid-range action projects and awards contenders. In fact, since 2009 (which accounts for Washington's last 10 films), the star has never seen less than a $50 million lifetime gross apart from ‘Israel’ last year with seven of those 10 releases doing over $70 million worth of business during their theatrical runs. Denzel, the man, is typically all the brand recognition that is required and so it feels weird that Washington has been brought into this fold of sequels and franchises. Maybe it's just the first time someone has offered the actor a follow-up to one of his projects or maybe it's just a sign of the times. Whatever the case may be, “The Equalizer 2” isn't exactly what one might hope for in a "first" from Denzel Washington, but more it plays into what the first did more to subvert in not being your by-the-numbers action flick as this sequel, with nowhere else to go, had no choice but to surrender to the trend.
“The Equalizer 2” begins by luring the unknowing audience into what will turn out to be the most interesting mission Washington's Robert McCall goes on in the film. This deals with some Turkish thugs on a train who have kidnapped their ringleader's daughter from the U.S. for no other reason than to be vindictive against the mother who was left with little else when this guy up and left. It's some odd circumstances, granted, but Fuqua shoots the action in a way that Washington never shows his age and better-we completely believe McCall via Washington's physicality, can accomplish what the script lays out for him to accomplish. In short, if “The Equalizer 2” is good for anything it is to say that, for Denzel Washington, age is indeed nothing but a number. From here, the film takes us back to Boston where Fuqua and his editor cobble together a mirage of what seem to be shots of the cityscape as if taken from any one of the many nineties procedurals that no doubt featured these exact same shots as if to make us aware of the exact type of movie we're in for. One might think that after the opening action sequence taking place abroad and then the film returning to Boston to catch us up on the day to day of McCall the film would eventually come to be about the murder of an undercover operative in Belgium as this is what we're given next in the movies sequence of events. It never does. In fact, McCall never again leaves the country despite the opening sequence seeming to imply the type of work the character is now taking on. Rather, McCall resigns to his day job as a Lyft driver (yes, you read that right) only picking his cases from the conflicts of those he meets during these shifts. How does our man in Belgium come back into the picture then, you ask? Well, that would be when McCall's former supervisor and the only other person in the world who knows who he was in his former life, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), comes back into the picture and begins investigating the Belgium incident with the help of McCall's former partner of seven years, Dave York (Pedro Pascal). When Susan and Dave travel to Belgium to investigate the murder of one of their own, but only one of them returns McCall takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of what happened and exact revenge on those who are behind it. There's also several extraneous subplots dealing with an elderly man (Orson Bean) who is searching for his long-lost sister, and a paternal relationship McCall strikes up with a young resident who lives in his building as played by Ashton Sanders.
All of this mixed bag of events comes to feel like nothing short of an odd combination by the time we reach the conclusion of this two hour actioner that is twenty minutes too long. The movie, from a screenplay by Richard Wenk (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”), is all over the place, but ultimately turns out to be a rather small story. This is one of the reasons it can't help but to feel as if “The Equalizer 2” never takes off. There is this precedent set for something of a globe-trotting adventure and the audience is led to believe that Washington's McCall will be pulled into the Belgium investigation alongside Leo's Plummer as this will somehow undoubtedly connect to one or both of their pasts, but in the single surprise the film is able to offer it also seals its downfall by having to then revert to a generic revenge thriller. If you're curious as to just how generic the movie is then take into consideration the fact that when McCall's living complex is vandalized the tag on the wall literally says, "gang" rather than what could be interpreted as an actual gang name. That's how broad this movie likes to play things. That's how familiar all this feels. It is also in this standard execution of the revenge thriller that Washington and Fuqua run into an inherent issue with their franchise and its central character. ‘The Equalizer’ films, and I don't know if this is true of the television series off which they are based, face a difficult contradiction of tone and moral code. When McCall acts, he is ruthless in as much and yet at the same time he is the most gentleman-like of assassins when not in direct conflict with whoever is in front of him. This type of nature may be more effectively explored in David Lowery's “The Old Man & the Gun” (though I doubt Robert Redford will be decapitating people and throwing them onto rocks), but in Fuqua's follow-up these mentalities clash in a more disagreeable way that didn't rear its head in the first film. The difference in “The Equalizer” and something like “Non-Stop” or “3 Days to Kill” was the fact Washington and Fuqua's film was able to go there; it could play up the vulgar aspects of the job McCall was doing. It could bathe in the gore and the grim perpetuated by all those that existed within this world because that was McCall's world in the wake of his wife's death. He lived and existed in the shadows and thus his actions to bring some balance to the community made sense and were in line with where the character was at mentally. In this sequel though, the mentality with which McCall approaches Sanders' Miles to pull the young man from a life of crime and push him more towards a brighter future that Miles doesn't think is possible just doesn't line up when that same guy says something like, “...then I’m going to kill you all, and my only regret is that I only get to do it once.”
Both Fuqua and his movies are well-oiled machines in that they're relentless, sturdily storied, and well put-together, but often neither to offer the depth they seem so capable of producing. “The Equalizer 2” feels like the epitome of this as Fuqua's films tend to at least have some redeeming entertainment value most of the time. Largely an exercise in going through the motions though, “The Equalizer 2” leaves the audience to wonder what half of the subplots might have to do with the main narrative in which half of those that seemingly have nothing to do with the main story in fact do not while your standard themes of redemption, virtue, and the promise of exploration into good versus evil being too simple an idea to blanket the society of today abound with no real substance. There was a moment in the film where it seemed Wenk might take the opportunity to say something really interesting or at least begin to navigate his way through tricky terrain that dealt in the difficulties of trying to leave a gang without any lasting repercussions, but while this moment in the movie where McCall rescues Miles from what is essentially preparation for his initiation into a gang hints at as much it seems McCall's actions were enough to convince the gang that Miles wasn't worth the trouble. Fair enough given how much McCall roughed up a couple of the guys, but rather than utilizing this strand to say something more profound Wenk instead only utilizes Miles as a plot device the antagonist can use against McCall in the final act. Speaking of that antagonist, I suppose it's a spoiler to say who it is exactly despite the fact it's terribly telegraphed early on. I'll just say that if you've seen “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” you might get a sense of where this is going before it does. As for the supporting players Leo is fine, Bill Pullman is wasted as is Sakina Jaffrey, while it seems uncertain at this point what it is Pascal can bring to the table that a handful of other aspiring actors couldn't. His interpretation of the co-lead here is bland and completely deprived of any humanity as it shows him in a picturesque setting with his family in one scene and then passively gunning down a seemingly innocent individual in another. And if you were at least hoping for a climactic action sequence that matched if not exceeded the warehouse set piece in the first film you'll be sorely disappointed to find out “The Equalizer 2” spends intermittent moments of its running time telling us a storm is brewing for no other reason than to set its climax in an evacuated town where McCall and those who oppose him run amok and the main antagonist remains perched atop a building. Of note is the fact this is one of the uglier looking Fuqua films I think I've ever seen, but there is one shot of Washington, wearing all black, as he runs in between buildings and through the rain and wind in that climactic action set piece where for a moment he almost looks like the caped crusader. It lends a fleeting sense of what could have been. I understand Washington wanting to have his own super hero alter ego and God knows he deserves it at this point in his career, but early in the film his McCall talks about there being two types of pain in this world: the pain that hurts and the pain that alters. “The Equalizer 2” is largely painful to watch and most of the time it just hurts.
by Philip Price
There have been a lot of documentaries around a lot of tragic celebrity figures recently and it would be easy to lump "Whitney" into this category where it's not hard to predict the beats and insights we can expect to get out of it-I certainly assumed a fair amount prior to walking into the film. That said, and I'm a sucker for music docs and music biopics, "Whitney" is a fascinating look into the life of a global superstar who everyone assumes they know because of this iconic status. The key word there obviously being "assumes" as director Kevin Macdonald smartly presents the story of Houston's life as we thought we knew it and then brings the audience around to the possible truths of the matter as those being interviewed (mostly Houston's close friends and relatives) came to realize certain truths themselves. In doing so, Macdonald essentially comes to pose a theory by way of what is revealed and how these revelations fueled the demons that it always seemed Whitney Houston never possessed.
What is referred to as a "double consciousness" is something that seeps its way into every facet of Houston's being and is rather captivating given her life trajectory. Houston was raised in the church, but saw her mother have an affair (with the preacher, no less). She was raised in East Orange, N.J. - a middle-class suburb - and went to a private all-girls Catholic school, but had roots in Newark. She was bullied in school, but found solace in a single female friend, Robyn Crawford. There was who she was, who she wanted to be, and who she was supposed to be. This only carried into Houston's pop career when she was ultimately bullied by the black community for diverting from her Gospel routes with her troubled relationship and eventual marriage to Bobby Brown seeming more a direct rebuttal to these criticisms than anything else. This is without even going into the topics of her sexuality, her drug use, her role as a mother, her relationship with her father, and how her outlook on each of these aspects of life were influenced from the very beginning. Fortunately, the documentary weaves each of these strands together in expert fashion into a single, complete picture painting a portrait of Houston we've never seen before, but that makes so much more sense and makes her story even more tragic.
There are a handful of quotes given by family members throughout the doc and one by her brother, Gary Garland, that is especially poignant that I won't repeat here as you can hear it in the trailer, but the one that stuck with me most went something along the lines of, "If you don't know yourself, you don't know what can save you." It's hard to believe that in her core, in her soul, Whitney Houston didn't have a solid idea of who she was, but through this portrait Macdonald paints it seems he's landed firmly in the camp that believes Houston was always chasing who she thought she was supposed to be until she didn't care anymore and instead of simply being who she truly was rebelled against that image of who people expected her to be to the point it killed her.
Other elements of note are that of how piercing the montage set to "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" comes to be given the reflective nature it is set within and how promising and buoyant young Houston seemed to be. Macdonald also consistently cuts to world events going on at the time of the events the doc is chronicling in the life of Houston as if to lend both a sense of perspective and understanding of the circumstances of that time; most prominently is that of the fact Houston and her brother, Michael, didn't think of marijuana or cocaine as bad words coming into the ‘80s ... it was just something everyone was doing. Macdonald also acknowledges the tragedy of Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and that poor, poor baby's incomprehensible childhood and the eventual hardships and misfortunes it bred.
Finally, I've seen Houston's Star-Spangled Banner performance a handful of times, but when this film touches on what made her rendition of it so powerful (which in and of itself is really interesting and insightful) I still got chills...twice.
by Philip Price
So, you know Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, right? Of course, you do. Remember his movie from three months ago? “Rampage”? The one about The Rock stopping a giant gorilla from destroying Chicago? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t (that could be due either to the fact you didn’t see it or because it’s forgettable, but I digress). Regardless one of the news stories that broke around the time of that movie’s release was the fact Johnson had the screenwriters re-write the climax of the film that had the genetically modified George die. The way this was re-written was that George instead faked his death to play a trick on Johnson’s character. Classic, huh? Johnson wanted this done so that the audience wouldn’t go home on a dour note as they came to the movies and to that type of movie specially to enjoy light-hearted entertainment and not to see a CGI gorilla die. Well, that same guy who mandated the monkey didn’t die in his last movie opens his new movie with a flashback scene that features a suicide bomber blowing himself up and murdering his own wife and kids along with him so, happy movie-going! If you consider this a spoiler, I apologize, but this plot point isn’t brought up to spoil, but rather to open the conversation about how from the word go “Skyscraper” essentially misses the mark it should have been shooting for the whole time. Why did it need to begin in this fashion? How was that decision going to be justified? I kept asking myself these questions as the film continued to march on even though in the first few expository scenes following that opening it became very clear as to why Johnson’s character was witness to and injured in the murder/suicide spurred by a father that included the unnecessary deaths of his wife and two young children-one boy and one girl. The movie quickly jumps forward a decade and establishes that Johnson’s Will Sawyer has since married the surgeon that saved his life that fateful night, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and that they’ve had a set of twins together-one boy and one girl. It is clear Sawyer will once again come face to face with the same predicament he faced in the opening sequence and will have to once again choose his actions very carefully in a scenario that could just as easily swing in one direction as it could another. I get it and I think most movie-goers who see more than three movies a year or have at least seen an action movie in their lifetime will get it, but the foreshadowing isn’t the issue as in all actuality the script, from writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (“We’re the Millers” is especially symmetrical and pays off each of its set-ups quite nicely. More, the issue with opening your supposed summer popcorn movie among summer popcorn movies with such a scene is the tone it implies and the precedent it sets for the rest of your movie. Due to this decision, “Skyscraper” never recovers from being this bleak and bloody actioner with an unnecessarily high body count when all it really had to be was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stopping a giant fire from destroying his family as well as the world’s newest and tallest building.
I know what you’re thinking. Just because a movie doesn’t turn out to be what you thought or hoped it would be doesn’t automatically, or in this case-immediately, make it a bad movie. Of course it doesn’t and to be honest with you I was rather intrigued that a movie that had been marketed as this boilerplate blockbuster among boilerplate blockbusters would actually have the cajones to open in such a dark fashion, but while there was always a sense of expectation to “Skyscraper” there was always a more prominent hope towards that whatever it ultimately turned out to be in whatever fashion it was told or whatever package it was delivered that it was-above everything else-an entertaining thrill ride. It’s difficult to describe exactly where in the balancing of the hearty action thriller and the bleak action drama that “Skyscraper” fails to even out, but it unfortunately does. The entire premise leans towards the hearty action thriller as the movie is both an homage to “Die Hard” while never developing a villain as memorable as the incomparable Alan Rickman and his Hans Gruber yet, at other times such as those detailed in the opening paragraph, it tends to be more the bleak action thriller in the vein of something Peter Berg might shoot today if not as stealthy. Comparisons have obviously been made to 1974’s “The Towering Inferno” as well, but I haven’t seen more than the trailer for that movie and can’t speak to how it compares tonally or to how it goes about accomplishing the thrills set-up by the similar premise. And so, while bleak and bloody isn’t necessarily what I was hoping for out of “Skyscraper” it was vital to take a step back and try and evaluate if what the movie did provide in place of what I wanted it to be; was it an equally entertaining piece of popcorn fare or did it instead turn out to be something more substantial and affecting than I initially was prepared to give it credit for. In short, it comes back to that balance as it does a little bit of both, but never becomes of a single mentality that can both have characters that walk into a room and mow people over with semi-automatics as well as characters that are referred to as “Oz” who have built themselves a city in the sky out of nothing more than the fact they were able to do so. It is spectacle versus grim and Thurber’s film seems to constantly be in contest with itself over which field it wants to fall more in line with. What doesn’t help is that the plot itself is so thin that there is little more to engage with here other than the characters who aren’t all that engaging in the first place.
The plot is as simple as it seems it would be: former military, FBI, and all-around badass soldier/agent Will Sawyer is now an independent security consultant and was recommended by old friend Ben (Pablo Schreiber) to assess the world’s now tallest building in Hong Kong, The Pearl, as built by tech billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). And so, naturally, when Sawyer and his family are at the building one of Zhao’s enemies decides it to be the perfect time to exact revenge by burning down as much of this man-made marvel as they can until Zhao hands over the MacGuffin they want. It’s up to Sawyer to save his family as well as the day. From that, what are we left with? Other than Johnson playing another version of Hobbs or his character from Rampage or his character from San Andreas there isn’t much to differentiate Sawyer other than the fact he has a disability by way of having lost a leg in that opening sequence. He now has a prosthetic leg that is thankfully not used as a plot point as often as it so easily could have-only getting the character out of one jam and not a cavalcade of tense situations. Sawyer is not a man who feels sorry for himself because of this disability nor does the film paint him as someone who resents this fact or feels less capable because of said disability, but more this detail serves as little more than just that: a detail. Typically, when a character in a movie is disabled that disability is the subject of the entire film, but here-if there is any reason for this character detail other than the fact the character simply lost his leg in an unfortunate operation-it seems it is to serve as q reminder of this turning point in Sawyer’s life and not only for the lessons he learned in that experience, but what he gained from it. Sure, there are a few moments of tension pulled from this detail, but never does it feel exploitative. This is not lost on Johnson’s performance and the guy is so inherently likable there is no reason to not be engaged with the character and his plight, but to what extent it matters I couldn’t have told you the character’s name in the middle of the movie if you pressed me. I simply thought of it as watching The Rock do his thing. Schreiber is slowly becoming a more welcome presence, but his character motivation here is terrible and he’s ultimately given very little to do. I would have much rather seen Schreiber play the role of the main antagonist (and why this isn’t the case, I’m not sure), but for one reason or another Roland Møller gets this title and does absolutely nothing with an absolutely nothing character. The villain here is the definition of bland and while it’s evident there isn’t much on the page here it seems Schreiber, given his performance in “Den of Thieves” earlier this year, might have at least tried to infuse something into this archetype named Kores Botha rather than simply playing along for the paycheck. On the flip side of this coin is Campbell whose Sarah is never the damsel in distress, but rather a military surgeon who’s served multiple tours in Iraq and minored in several world languages. Sarah is given plenty to do in most of the major action set pieces with the collaboration between she and Johnson’s character and their efforts to rescue their children being a highlight of the picture overall.
“Skyscraper” is what it needs to be where it counts as the climactic action scene sees our hero wielding a samurai sword in what is essentially a fun house of mirrors. If that doesn’t intrigue you then odds are you won’t enjoy much else in the movie as this final confrontation is kind of what “Skyscraper” needed to be all along. What might have lent the movie to delivering a better overall impression in the slightest of ways is that of the aesthetic. This improvement might have at least made the environments in which these characters are existing and experiencing these harrowing situations in more frightening and tense for the audience. As it is, The Pearl is very obviously a special effect and while no one expects for Universal to build an actual “Skyscraper” on their lot it might have been worth the effort to test out some practical effects using models as the spectacle of it all feels cheapened by the lack of any kind of tangibility. Thurber has never been a particularly notable director, especially in his visual direction, but he’s always been able to overcome his generic looking movies due to the fact he builds up the dynamics, objectives, and personalities of his characters so well that we look past the passable looks and become either entrenched or entertained by the shenanigans at the heart of the movie. As Thurber moves more toward bigger action spectacles where the shenanigans of the movie center around large visual elements he will need to improve the grasp he has on aesthetic for despite needing to feel broad and all-encompassing “Skyscraper” in fact feels rather small and contained. There is a subplot concerning the local police force as highlighted by Inspector Wu (Byron Mann) and Sergeant Han (Elfina Luk) who are sitting outside The Pearl in a police van attempting to deduce the full scope of what is occurring within the building and just outside their van are crowds of people gathering to watch these events around Will Sawyer unfold as well and despite the fact they’re standing right in front of this titular building they are also given huge news screens that seem to essentially be playing the same footage we’re watching in the movie. While this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before in movies this feels especially pointed in that it is meant to give a certain kind of sweeping sense to the film it in turn only make these events feel like they’re happening in that much more of a vacuum. It’s all about feeling after all. This goes back to the inability to nail down a tone. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why the movie doesn’t square well with either tone it seems to be going for, but more it is this inherent feeling, this gut reaction to what’s on screen that never gels in the way it should. The same for the visual prowess of the film-we know it should feel big and bombastic in ways that give those with a fear of heights an even greater fear of that reality, but it never elicits such a reaction due to the fact it all feels so staged. “Skyscraper” is about as deep as a birdbath, but we engage with the characters just enough and have just enough fun with the action sequences for the ride to be worth the trip.
by Philip Price
I heard a bug hit the windshield on my way home from the theater after seeing “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and genuinely felt bad about it. If that tells you anything about how well this movie will hit you. That isn't to say this superior sequel to 2015's “Ant-Man” is something of an emotional roller coaster that evokes real sympathy for characters that get minor in the most minor of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, but in some ways...it kind of does. In its earnest portrayal of these characters we come to easily invest in each of their plight's largely (isn't that ironic?) because they are dealing in stakes that are so personal and thus small when compared to that of the end of the world. Is it kind of ingenious? Yeah, a little bit considering Doctor Strange goes to another dimension to stop a blob called Dormammu from engulfing the earth and all things considered that should terrify me far more than if Paul Rudd's Scott Lang survives his last few days under house arrest, but it didn’t, and I would rather watch “Ant-Man and the Wasp” a hundred times over than sit through “Doctor Strange” again. The best part of that? “Doctor Strange” isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, Strange is simply a generic and forgettable one in the scheme of the last decade of MCU films whereas director Peyton Reed and writers Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari, as well as Rudd himself lend their movie a more memorable signature by allowing it to indulge in its inherent goofiness while simultaneously proving this isn't as cheesy an affair as it must be. I mean, the basis of a super hero being a super hero because he shrinks down to the size of an insect and can then communicate with said insect is a premise wholly owed to whatever drug-induced haze Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby were in at the time (1962 to be exact) which isn't a bold claim considering Lee's cameo here hints at how crazy the ‘60s were, but the fact is despite their powers being corny and their abilities being used more so for their own agendas than maybe any other heroes in the MCU Reed is still able to execute and exhibit these technologies and the capabilities they enable in ways that are effective and dare I say it...even kind of cool. There are less than a handful of big action sequences here, but that doesn't matter because everything about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is enjoyable, but more each of those few action sequences are crafted in ways where it feels every facet of who these characters are and the world they exist within is being utilized in creative and fun ways. This kind of passion for the material also assists with the level of compassion we, the audience, feels toward the characters and thus the level of investment we pledge to what is admittedly a less vital piece of the MCU puzzle. That “Ant-Man and the Wasp” challenges this precedent set by the first film is enough to solidify its worthiness among the ranks as well as its quality outside of them.
Paul Rudd is a genius. I'm just going to flat-out say it. The man, who had a breakout role at 26, but didn't really see his career take off in a leading man kind of way until over a decade later and only then-after another decade of going through the broad comedy circus-realized and decided the shtick was up in so many words decided to slyly change directions without changing much about his approach; Rudd's last theatrically released comedy in which he was the leading man was 2013's “Admission” co-starring Tina Fey and that only grossed a domestic and worldwide total of just over $18 million on a budget of $13 million. Sure, the guy was in “Anchorman 2” a few months later and that was a huge success, but if you're wondering why you haven't seen America's favorite comedic actor on the poster of any upcoming movies at the multiplex that's because movies like “They Came Together” and “The Fundamentals of Caring” don't make money anymore even when someone with as likable a face as Rudd's is on the poster. And so, how does one continue to do what they love as well as what they're exceedingly good at while still turning a profit in a cultural landscape that is more selective than ever about what they're willing to fork over their hard-earned cash on at the theater? Well, that would seemingly be to pick the goofiest super hero Marvel Studios was willing to place a bet on, get a guarantee you could put your own polish on the screenplay, and turn in the same kind of performance you would were you making a movie about a cat burglar trying to turn his life around for his daughter while at the same time falling for the daughter of your new boss. In short, Rudd has taken what he does best in his best out and out comedies like “Role Models” and “I Love You, Man” and applied that to the only profitable game in town: super hero movies. On top of this, Rudd is in fact a comedic genius, so that doesn't hurt either and in fact allows both its predecessor and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to possess this playful, quite sincere tone that is often too far removed from being the main objective of these tentpole, super hero flicks. In “Ant-Man and the Wasp” it would be easy to mistake the emotional crux of the movie for that of the overriding quest to rescue Hank Pym's (Michael Douglas) wife and Hope Van Dyne's (Evangeline Lilly) long lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), and you wouldn't be far off given it is this objective that spurs much of the action and that sends our protagonists spiraling into a bevy of undesirable circumstances, but you'd also be fooling yourself if you said the thing you weren't most concerned about throughout the entirety of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” was that of whether or not Lang would successfully complete his house arrest stint and be able to return to life as usual with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). This is all I could concentrate on the longer Lang was pulled away from where he should have been, and it is this connection, this feeling of concern that speaks to how well Rudd is able to convey what he chooses to convey-especially when he knows it will be given an audience to connect with.
So, why is Lang on house arrest in the first place you ask? Well, that would be due to the events of “Captain America: Civil War” where they seemed to write off Lang's character as much as Kevin Feige writes off the ‘Ant-Man’ movies. Lang was credited as being a man always on the opposite side of the law and so, why would he have any hesitation in supporting Captain America despite the fact his entire first solo movie was about him doing whatever it took to be able to be a part of his daughter's life. Luckily, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is here to undo all that confusion as Lang's two-year house arrest is the result of a deal with the government that conveniently places the San Francisco-based super hero out of the picture for the past five Marvel movies. This also explains why we didn't see Ant-Man join in on the action a little over two months ago when Thanos finally came to earth in ‘Infinity War,’ but I digress. If you've seen the latest ‘Avengers’ film, and I'm assuming most of you have if you're reading this review or interested in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” in any capacity, you'll no doubt be wondering whether or not this latest MCU feature takes place before or after the events of that pivotal entry to which the answer is an easily presumed before. As disappointing as this may be to some given the more interesting dynamics that could have come into play were this sequel to take place amid the chaos Thanos brought to the universe it might then be something of a relief or rather a surprise to learn that the events depicted in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” unravel over the course of a mere 72 hours. With three days left on his sentence Rudd's Lang is keen on doing whatever it takes to remain right where he needs to be as he is getting regular visits from Cassie and is on good terms with ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale). Lang has also struck up a seemingly solid small business with pals Luis (the hilarious Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (Tip 'T.I.' Harris) as the former thieves now design and install professional security systems. While things are going well in most aspects of Scott's life aside from being confined to a confining premise he is not on good terms with either Hank nor Hope who are on the run due to Scott's involvement with the Avengers squabble over the Sokovia Accords and the fact he used their tech in the fight. Hank seems most angry over the fact Scott would so carelessly use his tech in a fight they had no business being near whereas Hope seems more disappointed in the fact she wasn't invited to the party. Things between the estranged parties must be resolved quickly though, as Scott begins experiencing strange connections with the thought to be long-lost Janet after Hank and Hope open a new portal to the Quantum Realm with a tunnel device they've been working on in hopes of rescuing their wife and mother. Add into this equation Walton Goggins' Sonny Burch, a man who deals in black market tech with ties to the FBI, and Hannah John-Kamen's Ghost/Ava who can phase through just about anything and is after the same tech Hank and Hope are desperately in need of that Burch just so happens to be withholding and what one has is a lot of balls in the air that somehow turn into more points than they do failed attempts.
Speaking to the cultural landscape in which “Ant-Man and the Wasp” has been born into, it is a time when we take for granted the fact sequels are now often improvements over what came before them rather than only being opportunities to pull a little more cash out of a property that was more successful than anticipated the first time around. With this cinematic universe mentality as honed by Feige and his minions there is vision to where these different series of movies could potentially go, and Reed, Rudd, and their writers room seem to have taken the most advantage of this in recent MCU memory as they implement a few different ideas that seemed to be little more than intentions for the world they were building in the first film. For example, the line continues to blur between strictly good and strictly bad and while John-Kamen's Ghost isn't nearly as memorable as some of the more recent MCU villains she isn't exactly the villain of the piece one might expect her to be either. In this way, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” veers away from formula in favor of something a little more layered and complex. The MCU has done a fine job of doing this in a number of their films lately, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the first to come to mind, but in the confrontations with Ghost Hank, Hope, and Scott find themselves fighting over a piece of equipment not for nefarious reasons of taking over the world or blowing up a something for the purposes of making a statement, but rather both parties have personal investments in how this tech might assist them in accomplishing the goals for those aforementioned personal agendas. We not only feel a sympathy for Ava as we come to peel back the layers of who she is beyond her abilities, but we hope for a resolution that sees her become as successful in her mission as our heroes are in theirs. It's a weird line to walk, but one that will ultimately be to the benefit of the universe as a whole given the biggest issue with the first two phases of the MCU was its lack of compelling antagonists.
All things considered, there are certainly shortcomings with the film such as the Pfeiffer's storyline being underdeveloped and Goggins being as wasted here as he was in “Tomb Raider” earlier this year, but the function his character serves in the plot as that of a point of all-around maliciousness helps balance the scale and ease the transition to grayer pastures. And while this installment feels more substantial than its predecessor it seems the ‘Ant-Man’ films will by default always feel a little slighter than everything else in the MCU; of course, this also likely has much to do with the fact it is following the bleakest entry in the MCU to date. To this extent and to the extent I should mention Laurence Fishburne is in this movie it should be noted that Hank does in fact seem to have made many enemies in his time with S.H.I.E.L.D. and as CEO of PYM Technologies. This may or may not inform future sequels, but one thing that certainly will is the evolving relationship between Scott and Hope as Lilly celebrates her coming out party as the titular Wasp in a fashion that can only be summed up as gloriously fulfilling. This is a big deal and one that should probably have a bigger word count dedicated to it than it's getting, but the biggest compliment one can pay the inclusion of Wasp this time around is that it feels like a completely natural and logical next step never mind the fact it is a vital one for equal representation of powerful women in the super hero cinematic landscape. As mentioned earlier, there are less than a handful of large action set-pieces here, but Reed makes the most of each by meticulously detailing how both Ant-Man's and The Wasp's powers might best be utilized and effectively conveyed by using the environment they find themselves getting small in; an early scene where Lilly's Hope is fighting a bunch of cronies in a restaurant kitchen is a perfect example of such as the casual environment quickly becomes a death trap. This is also a scene that exemplifies how effortlessly badass and how much more capable the Wasp is as a super hero than her counterpart. There is a lot to love about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” as it underpins all its top-notch action and comedy (thanks again, Mr. Peña) with a heart that is best exemplified by the love between a father and a daughter (and in contrast, a mother and daughter). It also somehow ends up being more kid and family-friendly than “Incredibles II” which is of note even if it will require multiple viewings to figure out how exactly they pulled that one off. There is a fair amount of talk about misdirection in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” too, which is to say that while this venture may in fact itself be a form of deception in which to focus our attention away from what we just witnessed unfold in the far graver ‘Infinity War’ it's hard to imagine a more entertaining or satisfying sleight of hand that Marvel could have pulled.
by Philip Price
Stefano Sollima is not Denis Villeneuve, but that doesn't mean the Italian-born director can't make an entertaining if not necessarily worthy follow-up to Villeneuve's 2015 thriller. To be fair, my memories may serve a bias against any “Sicario” sequel not directed by Villeneuve or one that doesn't include Emily Blunt's Kate Macer as it was the first film I saw at my first ever Toronto International Film Festival. That said, I haven't re-visited that now first film since it was released on Blu-ray and so, while I remember being overcome by the tension of the piece and the fact its ideas were more prominent than its story it would seem my actual memory of the film as opposed to my fondness for the experience surrounding the film is something that shouldn't allow me to hold that film in as high regard as I did going into this sequel. ‘Day of the Soldado’ or what should have simply been titled "Soldado" is what might be referred to as a "fine enough" follow-up in that it does the best it can with the tools it was handed to create such a follow-up. Where “Sicario” was an examination of the complexities of these people who were trapped in a world convoluted beyond their ability to be able to rectify it as everything around them only continued to spin in vicious circles this sequel struggles to find anything to add to this statement. With ‘Soldado,’ Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) returned to pen the screenplay, but it seems he didn't have much more to say as ‘Soldado’ addresses the same themes and ideas as its predecessor while exploring them through the (much different) perspective of Benicio Del Toro's Alejandro who was an intentionally vague supporting character the first time around. Granted, Del Toro's performance as Alejandro was one of the most distinctive and memorable factors of that first film to the point the attention is not only warranted, but desired to a certain extent. And though Sheridan's script along with Sollima's direction and Dariusz Wolski's cinematography (though it's hard to beat Roger Deakins) all contribute to delivering an entertaining and tension-filled actioner the main issue is the shifting of perspectives as doing so makes these men who were once shrouded in mystery and their moral compasses even more unclear less so and therefore nowhere near as interesting. It might also be that given the real-world environment ‘Soldado’ has been released into that a movie with such content should be required to not be as careless with the complicated Mexico/U.S. relationship, but ‘Soldado’ is ultimately too generic to leave any lasting scars.
In a nice little twist, ‘Soldado’ doesn't necessarily have to be a sequel as the events depicted in the film could have taken place either before or after the original film. In fact, the big issue with there being no moral compass in this one to counter the Del Toro and Josh Brolin characters as Blunt's Macer did in the first might allow ‘Soldado’ to feel a tad bit more justified. In “Sicario” both Brolin's Matt Graver and Del Toro's Alejandro felt more ruthless, more unflinching, and meaner even and that is saying something as both exhibit some strong indicators of those traits here as well. Though both have seemingly been through the ringer time and time again there are moments in the mission executed in ‘Soldado’ that allow for these characters to show vulnerabilities they never would have allowed to seep into their facade in “Sicario.” Is it these events that harden them for good and turn them into these unscrupulous characters not fazed by a lack of compassion or lack of value for human life as we saw them in “Sicario” or is it the opposite and did meeting someone as starry-eyed as Macer illustrate how it might be healthy to allow a slight amount of compassion into their lives? In all honesty, this might make just as much sense given Alejandro had no issues dispensing with people no matter their age in “Sicario” while the crux of ‘Soldado’ deals in the fact he can't wipe clean a slate that includes the 16-year old daughter of a cartel leader that is responsible for the deaths of his wife and child. Moreover, Brolin is unable to immediately own up to the commands of his superior officer (an exhausted Catherine Keener) that require him to not only wipe the 16-year old clean, but his right-hand man in Alejandro as well. Yes, this is somewhat different in the case of Graver as the man has clearly invested a lot of time and energy in training and developing the machine that Alejandro has become, but while it's hard to tell if Grazer is having trouble following orders due to compassion or if it is more out of frustration at the thought of having to find and train a new operative it doesn't matter-the fact is, the air of dark majesty and mystery that surrounded these characters has largely dissipated as the two have been placed within the confines of a procedural that humanizes these heroes/anti-heroes in a way it seems they were never intended to be. The spirit of Alejandro and Graver are mostly kept intact thanks to the solid performances and genuine badass chemistry between Del Toro and Brolin, but what remains in name and face is lost in the soul that possessed the first film. It was a bleak soul, no doubt, but one that expertly illustrated the central theme and conflict of clashing ideologies whereas what ‘Soldado’ is attempting to convey is questionable down to the final scene where it's made clear the characters are no longer present to be examined or to illustrate a point, but rather to spin a franchise.
There is a line given by a team member as Graver and Alejandro escort young Isabel Reyes (Isabel Moner) back across the border that goes something along the lines of, "Beautiful day! Blue skies and large caliber weapons," and it is in both the sentiment and reading of this dialogue that we find the attitude of these characters and largely, of the movie itself. There is a revelry to the way in which these guys bask in their ability to so quickly and effortlessly dispense of human life that feels icky even if there is no actual malice intended (there is true conviction in being able to trust they are ridding the world of some bad dudes) and the line is more about boasting a sense of security in what feels like the coolest, most acceptable way possible rather than celebrating the ability to kill. This is all symbolic of ‘Soldado’ though given it didn't need to be said at all, but even as the sentiment is proposed in the best way it can it still feels ugly and loathsome. The attitude it perpetuates and the point of view on which it operates are drastically different. Sheridan largely writes from the perspective of male characters who desire to take no shit and can handle themselves without question no matter the circumstances. If you're a Taylor Sheridan character and especially a main one you can essentially count on being one of the smartest people in the room at any given time. This is what has been appealing about so many of Sheridan's character's in the past despite their bigger pictures-the brothers of “Hell or High Water” come to mind as does Jeremy Renner's character in “Wind River” - but while Alejandro and Graver certainly live up to these set expectations there is something off about how far Sheridan takes it this time. This time, and there were telling aspects of “Wind River” as well, it feels as if the culture the white man is observing should be the ones telling the story. And sure, Del Toro's Alejandro is a Hispanic character and essentially the lead of the film, but this should be the rule and not the exception in a film where Mexico is a main component. What about Moner's Isabel you ask? This might be a valid point were Moner given anything to do, but while the young actress provides a compelling performance that shifts from a cocky and confident spoiled brat to one of someone who loses control of and is in constant fear for their life there isn't much else left on the page other than to play the victim. It's also problematic from a story standpoint that to try and "start a war" between two Mexican drug cartels that the U.S. is willing to forever traumatize an otherwise innocent 16-year old girl in the process. Maybe this is only a symptom of telling a story that deals in people doing ugly things for what is intended to be the greater good. It's an interesting extension of what the first film was dealing in when exploring the clashing of new and the jaded ideals, but ‘Soldado’ keeps things too much on one side of the line.
All of that taken into consideration, ‘Soldado’ is still an entertaining and largely tense experience that keeps enough in line visually and tonally with its superior predecessor to leave one feeling satisfied when leaving the theater. Speaking to how this sequel compares to the original though, there is a sequence in which Graver, Alejandro, and their team-including Jeffrey Donovan-escort the young Reyes back across the border into Mexico that is as tense if not as well executed as any of the sequences in Villeneuve's film. There is also a subplot with a teenage boy named Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who is shown very early on as coming from what appears to be a good, honest home if not necessarily a middle-class one. Miguel desires for more and quickly becomes entangled in some bad business as an older cousin, Hector (David Castañeda), baits him with the promise of making more money in a single day than his father makes in a year. It seems Miguel and his family live just inside the U.S. and therefore Miguel, who has a U.S. Passport is just the type of person Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) is looking for in his business of transporting immigrants across the border. Sheridan expertly intertwines this storyline with that of the main narrative as both tend to support one another in terms of the audience understanding the dynamics of the world we're existing within while only crossing over in key moments to provide a certain amount of tension in the final act when they inevitably collide. It is in this final resolution though, that we find some of the biggest qualms with ‘Soldado’ as it doesn’t fully commit in its actions as it feels it should. If it wanted to keep in line with the rest of the movie it seems ‘Soldado’ would have committed to a few choices that truly illustrate the gritty nature and grisly events it so excitedly documents, but instead of doing so Sheridan takes advantage of the fact these characters are in a movie and takes things one step too far to the point we, the viewers, now understand these guys we're watching are in a movie as well when before and with the first film there was such a sting of authenticity to everything that it all stung a little harder than expected. I'm not necessarily complaining as I'll be damned if I don't want to see where things go from here, but here's to hoping that when Sheridan and Del Toro...and maybe even Brolin return for the third film in this unexpected franchise that Sheridan deals better in the content he's crafting by further exploring why the hope is ultimately that the need to live a dignified life outweighs humanity's need and greed for money and power. Here's to hoping the third “Sicario” picture also comes out at a time when, especially given the overall generic quality of the film, that the film isn't lost to current events. Still, if you're looking for little more than a shoot 'em up action picture that is well-acted, photographed, and scored one could do much worse than ‘Soldado’ it's simply hard to look at the movie as little more than that given the changes in our political climate from when this was produced to the time it has now been released.