‘The Equalizer’ Adds Up to Fun and Action ; ‘The Two Faces of January’ a Hitchcockian Adventure

Movie Info

In The Equalizer, Denzel Washington plays McCall, a man who believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when McCall meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can’t stand idly by – he has to help her. Armed with hidden skills that allow him to serve vengeance against anyone who would brutalize the helpless, McCall comes out of his self-imposed retirement and finds his desire for justice reawakened. If someone has a problem, if the odds are stacked against them, if they have nowhere else to turn, McCall will help. He is The Equalizer.

R, 2 hr. 11 min.

Mystery & Suspense
‘The Equalizer’

by Todd McCarthy
Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua reteam for an action film based on the ’80s TV series of the same name

It’s almost as if the good bad old days of the Cold War are here again in The Equalizer, in which Denzel Washington’s former intelligence op kicks more nasty Russian ass than anyone has onscreen since James Bond. The comparison is not an idle one, since this updating of the fondly remembered late-80s TV show is the most exciting, violent and stylish film of its type in a very long while. Viscerally satisfying on a primal level, the star’s reunion with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua looks to be such a commercial success that a sequel, said to be already in the works, should be put on the Sony fast track.

There’s nothing fundamentally new about what Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk (whose work to date has been on lower-end action fare like The Mechanic and The Expendables 2) have put together here: The hotshot government agency man who’s retired for tragic personal reasons, his zen-like attitude borrowed from Asian action films, the thuggish Russian gangsters who run vulgar nightclubs and hookers and even the kind of hyper-vision and instant sizing up of situations that has recently been used to notable effect by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.

Success rests in what you do with such elements and it begins here with how simply and effectively Fuqua and Washington create a mystique around the latter’s Robert McCall character. Middle-aged and shaven-headed, the man calmly and capably holds down his job at a Home Mart mega-store in Boston and lives very simply in a spare, stripped-down apartment. Fastidious and health-conscious, he has trouble sleeping and habitually heads late at night to a corner diner straight out of the 1930s, where he has his own table and quietly reads the great books over tea; the filmmakers no doubt consulted Edward Hopper on the joint’s design. His aura is such that he seems to have an invisible shield around him, so no one bothers him, but he takes an interest in a bedraggled teenaged prostitute, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is eventually hauled off by a pissed-off Russian pimp.

Highly controlled and self-possessed, McCall has a serene aura about him that suggests hidden depth, and when Teri winds up in a hospital after a terrible beating, the man methodically tracks down the headquarters of the “Russian Nights” escort service above a nightclub and politely tries to negotiate for Teri’s freedom with five of the most vile lowlifes the screen has seen in some time.

What follows is a daringly protracted set-piece of Tarantino-esque length, in which a great deal of talk is followed by violence that is richly satisfying entirely because it is so well deserved. Although we don’t yet know McCall’s background, his exceptional ability to size up a situation and deal with it physically proves thrilling in this initial manifestation; from here on, the audience knows it’s in good hands and can collectively settle in for a very full meal.

The disruption of their business so disturbs the Russians that they send in a top fixer to set things right. It’s quickly apparent that this man, with the deceptively benign name of Teddy, will be a formidable opponent; he’s every inch a worthy Bond villain—smart, articulate, ruthless and, when all is revealed, an absolute psychopath. Marton Csokas is dynamite in the part and his scariness is only increased by the fact that, from certain angles and with the right lighting, he bears an eerie resemblance to a better-looking Adolf Hitler. It isn’t often that a fine actor comes along who could be physically convincing in this role, so someone might want to think about writing a script that could take advantage of this rare casting opportunity.

Teddy is so sharp and confident about dispatching McCall without difficulty that his repeated frustrated attempts become all the more pleasurable to behold. Just like the Irish have done for years, the Russians now have Boston cops on their payroll, and McCall gives them a rough time when they try to push around hard-working friends of his. Because of his longtime low profile, however, McCall is like an invisible man in the city, so it takes a while for Teddy and his goons to track him down and, when they do, he’s always one step ahead of them.

It isn’t until the film’s halfway point that McCall’s background is revealed in a scene at a lavish country estate occupied by retired Bush-era intelligence chiefs (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo) where the guest is directed to the very top of the Russian mafia food chain. Secrets about McCall’s past are also revealed that make basic aspects of his talents and lifestyle comprehensible, things that won’t be too surprising to fans of the television Equalizer, which starred Edward Woodward and ran to 88 episodes across four seasons between 1985-89.

The astounding extent to which the Russians have their claws into American businesses is revealed in another major set-piece in which McCall brazenly invades one of their holding facilities, singlehandedly taking it over, dismissing the workers and nailing the corrupt cops. The way the hero always manages to turn long odds and adverse circumstances to his advantage is sheerest make-believe, of course. But the hokey yet beguiling device of McCall’s ability to pre-visualize how violence will go down largely disarms any objections and Washington’s cool but massively charismatic performance becomes a powerful magnet for the projection of viewer fantasies, much the way things work for James Bond.

A final suspense set-piece involving hostages taken at the Home Mart complex tops things off with some pretty gruesome violence involving tools conveniently at hand in the store. The basic conclusion one can take home is that it might take the entire Russian army to defeat the crafty Robert McCall, a character so alluring that a franchise appears mandatory.

Ramping up his style to a more dynamic and elegant level than he’s achieved previously, Fuqua socks over the suspense and action but also takes the time for some quiet, even spare moments to emphasize the hero’s calm and apartness. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has a rugged beauty and all other behind-the-scenes artisans contribute strongly to a cohesive whole.


2 faces of jan

Movie Info

Screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove, Drive) makes a stylish directing debut with this sleek thriller set in Greece and Istanbul, 1962, and adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Intrigue begins at the Parthenon when wealthy American tourists Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife Collete (Kirsten Dunst) meet American expat Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a scammer working as a tour guide. Instead of becoming his latest marks, the two befriend him, but a murder at the couple’s hotel puts all three on the run together and creates a precarious bond between them as the trio’s allegiance is put to the test.
PG-13, 1 hr. 36 min.

Mystery & Suspense, Drama
Film Review: ‘The Two Faces of January’

The ‘Drive’ screenwriter expertly blends touches of Hitchcock and Highsmith in this seductive, southern Europe-set suspenser.
Peter Debruge
Chief International Film Critic@AskDebruge

Patricia Highsmith provides the plot and writer-director Hossein Amini supplies the culture in “The Two Faces of January,” a gripping old-school suspenser starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac that plays like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” minus the sultry sexual chemistry among its three leads. While the love-triangle dynamic lacks spark, this tony adaptation should have no trouble seducing Hitchcock fans and smarthouse types with its golden-hued tour of southeast Europe. What better way to see Turkey and Greece than in the company of such beautiful law-breakers as they try to stay two steps ahead of the local authorities?

Originally developed through “Ripley” director Anthony Minghella’s Mirage shingle, this lesser-known Highsmith novel has been smoldering on Amini’s to-do list for nearly 15 years. Best known as the screenwriter of such subtext-rich adaptations as “The Wings of the Dove” and “Drive,” Amini excels at conveying the subtle, unspoken tensions between characters, selecting a tightrope-risky example with which to make his directorial debut and orchestrating it with aplomb.

Opening on the steps of the Acropolis, the thriller introduces two seemingly opposite Americans: Rich and relaxed, Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) radiates wealth, leading his much-younger blonde bride, Colette (Dunst), through the Grecian ruins. Looking swarthy and olive-skinned enough to pass for a local, Isaac’s Rydal is just as attentive to the giggling debutantes who employ him as a guide. At Colette’s insistence, the couple hires Rydal for a tour, inviting this potentially dangerous stranger into their inner circle.

It’s easy to spot Rydal’s con, skimming from the ladies as he exchanges their dollars for drachmas, but his deception is no match for Chester’s. Though he carries himself like old money, the fashionable gentleman made his wealth selling shares in imaginary oil fields — a situation that becomes complicated soon enough when a private detective turns up and unwisely threatens Chester with a gun. After killing the P.I. in the ensuing struggle, Chester has no one but Rydal to trust for fresh passports and friendly support, mistakenly convincing himself that the kid’s only motive is the money.

While the exotic backdrops entice and natty costumes ease us back to 1962, “The Two Faces of January’s” true pleasures lie in the way Amini sets up and then subverts snap character judgments, revealing the slippery Rydal to be capable of profound loyalty, whereas the seemingly proper Chester turns out to be monstrously amoral. Colette isn’t quite so easy to read, and through some oversight of either writing or direction, her own ambitions (which, in the novel at least, involve longing for something more than Chester can give her) never quite come into focus.

The film seems to lack some key scene in which she gives Rydal — and more importantly, the audience — reason to fall in love with her. Instead, Amini emphasizes a deeper Freudian connection between Rydal and the MacFarlands, suggesting that Chester reminds the expat guide of his own father, whose disapproval may have driven him to Europe in the first place, and whose funeral wasn’t reason enough for Rydal to return home. Interacting with Chester gives him a chance re-create — and potentially to repair — the strained dynamic with his dad, while inviting a forbidden Oedipal temptation in the form of Colette.

Highsmith has always been a goldmine for such complex interpersonal dynamics, and Amini exploits the father-son thing to the fullest, overstepping the pic’s admirable subtlety somewhat in a final act of contrition between the two characters. But as any student of Hitchcock can tell you, the thematic potential of sexual repression and mother issues runs far deeper, and despite paying homage to the Master of Suspense in so many other respects — from a tense score that takes its cues from Bernard Herrmann to the vicarious tour of European locales that accompanies the action — Amini chooses to emphasize the story’s male-male bond over anything to do with Colette. Instead of being the film’s point of fixation, she feels like a third wheel, an innocent schoolgirl type caught up in so much men’s business.

Although the result is still far more accomplished than the vast majority of directorial debuts, there’s one other key Hitchcockism that might have boosted it to greatness: If a director wants audiences to identify with characters on the lam, it helps if they are innocent of the crime in question, but guilty of some deeper transgression that might be even more damning. While that’s true of Rydal (an accomplice to the murder but not responsible for it per se, drawn in by his desire to woo Colette away from her husband), the film doesn’t necessarily privilege his point of view.

Instead, Amini prefers to observe this humid menage from the outside, where Danish d.p. Marcel Zyskind (a veteran of the grubby, handheld Dogma 95 school) finally has the chance to indulge his most picturesque impulses. Had “The Two Faces of January” pushed further inside Rydal’s head, however, audiences might have more deeply felt the anxiety of being on the run for someone else’s crimes, coupled with the seismic disappointment that comes in recognizing a father figure’s fallibility.


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