Antoine Fuqua

The Guilty

01/10/21

Netflix

Director Antoine Fuqua has previous form with cop movies. 2001 ‘s Training Day brought Denzel Washington a well-deserved Oscar, while End of Watch (2012), starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was also a memorable addition to the genre. Gyllenhaal returns in this riveting slice of drama, a remake of a Danish movie of the same name. Here he’s Joe Baylor, currently relieved of his usual duties as an L.A. street cop – for reasons that will eventually be revealed – and demoted to handing emergency calls in the midst of a catastrophic wildfire, which is straining emergency services to the limit.

Baylor is edgy and unpredictable. He’s suffering from asthma and going through the throes of a painful separation from his wife and young daughter. He’s also nervous about an important court appearance he’ll be making the following morning. But, for now, he has an important job to do and, when he receives a panicked call from Emily (voiced by Riley Keogh), he goes straight into protective mode, trying to find a way to get her away from her husband, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), who has her locked in the back of a speeding van. In the process of his enquiries, Baylor also discovers that the couple have two young children left alone at home…

The Guilty is essentially a one-hander, with Gyllenhaal onscreen throughout. Though the hard scrabble bustle of the emergency room is fully realised, his supporting actors are relegated to background roles or appear simply as disembodied voices on phone lines. Given this approach, it’s remarkable that the film manages to generate almost unbearable levels of suspense as Fuqua steadily racks up the peril and the potential repercussions of Baylor’s actions. It’s not until the halfway point that we start to fully appreciate something worrying. Baylor may not be handling the situation as well as he could. Perhaps he’s letting his instincts overrule his common sense.

Gyllenhaal submits a stellar performance here, making us fully appreciate the complexities of this flawed character and pulling us further and further into his troubled world. Ultimately, the only thing that lets The Guilty down is the film’s conclusion, which seems unwilling to embrace the full enormity of what lies behind Baylor’s impending court case – and there’s an unlikely late development that slightly defuses the film’s power. Screenwriter Nic Pizolatto should have had the guts to step up to an unpalatable truth, which would make this story more hard-hitting.

That said, The Guilty is one of those rare creatures (along with Buried and Locke), a filmed monologue that fully deserves its place on the big screen. Though of course, as a Netflix film, the size of the screen will depend on whatever you have to view it on.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

The Equaliser 2

13/08/20

Netflix

Lost in the shuffle on its theatrical release two years ago, The Equaliser 2, like so many other middle-range thrillers, is now available to watch on Netflix. The franchise, of course, has quite a history. It started way back in 1985 on the small screen, when Edward Woodward played Robert McCall , a retired CIA operative with a penchant for wreaking violence on those villains reckless enough to disrespect his friends and neighbours.

In 2014, Denzel Washington stepped into McCall’s loafers and, under the direction of Antoine Fuqua, delivered a palpable hit, grossing 192 million dollars at the box office – proof if ever it were needed that there’s money to be made from mayhem. In this iteration of the character, McCall brought almost the entire stock of a DIY store into play during his violent altercation with some major league bad guys.

Several years later, and officially ‘deceased,’ McCall is still living a quiet life, reading quality literature, driving a Lyft taxi to make ends meet and occasionally breaking off to inflict major injuries on those who cross him or, more specifically, his friends. He also bonds with Miles (Ashton Sanders), a young local teenager with artistic ambitions who is being tempted into the world of drug dealing by some local hoodlums.

But when McCall’s old associate, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), is brutally murdered, McCall enlists the help of another former colleague, Dave York (Pedro Pascal), to seek out those responsible and unleash some Biblical level violence upon them.

In an illustrious movie career that stretches all the way back to 1979, it’s interesting to note that this is the first sequel that Washington has attached his name to and, to give it its due, it’s far from the stripped-down action-fest I was expecting. While there are obvious problems with any story that attempts to present a vigilante as somebody we should all be rooting for, Washington does manage to give the character a surprising degree of depth – though finally imbuing him with attributes that wouldn’t look out of place on a saint might be over-egging things. And I can’t help wondering how he manages to live such a comfortable existence on the money he makes from driving a taxi… he can’t be living on a generous pension, because… well, he’s dead, right?

Still, there are enough surprises in the plot to keep me guessing till the end and an extended climactic confrontation is given an extra layer of jeopardy when it takes place in the midst of a hurricane.

All in all, this makes for decent viewing in these impoverished times – but Denzel, mate, maybe don’t go for the hat trick, huh?

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

The Magnificent Seven

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26/09/16

This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Southpaw

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06/08/15

Jake Gyllenhaal is always an interesting actor and, in Southpaw, he’s pulled off yet another transformation, piling on the muscle and jettisoning his good looks to play light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope; indeed, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who gave us the creepy, emaciated ambulance-chaser he portrayed so brilliantly in Nightcrawler. We first meet Billy as he grimly holds on to his title belt in a bruising, bloody confrontation with a much younger fighter. The boxing sequences don’t really compare with the mesmerising, almost dreamlike sequences in Scorcese’s Raging Bull, but they’re nonetheless realistic enough to make the more sensitive viewers wince. But fate is waiting in the wings for Billy. When his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is accidentally shot dead in a fracas at a charity event, Billy finds himself on a slippery slope downhill as, in quick succession, he loses his licence to fight, his home is repossessed and his daughter, Leila (a winning performance from Oona Lawrence) is taken by child protective services. This is all harrowing stuff and director Antoine Fuqua mines it expertly for maximum distress; at several points I find myself tearing up. Can Billy ever find redemption and rebuild his career? Hey, is the Pope a Catholic?

It has to be said that from this bleak first third, the film enters a very familiar trajectory as Billy teams up with washed-up-boxer- turned-trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who quietly guides his protégée back to the top of his game. (Anyone who’s seen Rocky, will know the form. In that film, Burgess Meredith did pretty much the same with Rocky Balboa.) Whitaker manages the role with his customary skill and there’s a surprisingly decent turn from 50 Cents as a mercenary boxing promoter (who ironically declared his own ‘strategic’ bankruptcy recently – is this where he got the idea?).

Maybe Billy’s fall from grace is a little over the top – could anybody as successful as Hope fall quite so fast and quite so hard? And maybe his path back to championship fitness in just six weeks is a little too easy, encapsulated as it is in a perfunctory training montage. But nevertheless, the final confrontation is compelling enough to keep you on the edge of your seat till the final count.

All in all, this is decent entertainment with a distinctly gloomy edge.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Equalizer

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05/10/14

Older readers may have fond memories of a TV series featuring Edward Woodward as McCall, a retired MI6 operative who operates as an avenging angel for hire by anyone who finds themselves oppressed by villains. This film shares the basic plot and the character’s surname but, after that, all similarities end. Denzel Washington plays the American McCall, a quiet, seemingly mild-mannered chap who likes nothing more than a good book and a cup of herbal tea. He works at his local DIY superstore and often enjoys late night chats with a young call girl, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is employed by a gang of Russian mafiosi. When Teri gets beaten up by them, McCall swings smoothly into action, unleashing a maelstrom of bone-crunching violence and we begin to realise that he’s not quite as mild-mannered as we might have thought. The plot thickens (and the body count rises) when top Russian hit man, Teddy (Martin Csokas looking like Kevin Spacey’s evil twin) arrives from mother Russia to take care of business.

Director Atoine Fuqua has directed Washington before, notably to Oscar glory in Training Day, but trust me, this film isn’t going to win any Oscars. It’s something of a mixed bag. Early action sequences are stylishly handled and Washington exudes a gravitas that carries much of the rather lightweight material, but the extended climactic shootout may as well have been titled 101 Ways To Die In B & Q, as Denzel unleashes every power tool in the shop in order to take out the veritable army of Russian thugs that has come to kill him. And how many times must we watch the same tired trope of the good man avenging the helpless female victim? (Washington has done that better in Man On Fire for Tony Scott.) Having said that, there is a kind of guilty pleasure to be had by watching the action unfold.

It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts, but more often indigestible.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney