Back for more: Two sequels go against expectations
By: Matt Brunson
Much has been made of the fact that Denzel Washington, who’s been appearing in movies since 1981, has never starred in a sequel. In an industry that gets high off the fumes of highly lucrative follow-ups, that’s an incredible — and impressive — fact, and while it’s hard to see sequels to, say, Malcolm X or Flight, other Denzel vehicles are certainly more franchise-friendly (personally, I would have enjoyed seeing his detective from Spike Lee’s Inside Man tackle more criminal capers, but a proposed sequel was ultimately canceled).
The Equalizer 2 (two out of four stars), therefore, represents the first time that the actor returns to the screen essaying the same character — in this case, it’s Robert McCall, a former CIA operative who employs his particular set of skills to aid the helpless and hopeless among us. Believed to be dead by everyone save for his CIA pal Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) and her husband Brian (Bill Pullman), McCall is thus able to slip beneath society’s radar in order to perform his good deeds.
Released in 2014, The Equalizer (itself based on the popular 1980s T.V. series starring Edward Woodward) was a satisfying action yarn in which McCall protected a battered teen prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) against a gang of murderous, misogynistic Russians (or, as they will now alternately be known to me until the end of time, Trump’s overlords and BFFs). Watching McCall deal with all manner of evildoers (not just Trump’s buddies but also corrupt cops and petty crooks) over the course of the film was a cathartic experience, but the movie also worked because of its kinetic action scenes as well as a gradual reveal of the layers of Washington’s character.
The Equalizer 2 offers no such pleasures. This is a particularly dreary movie, one which makes no attempt to freshen up or even disguise its rote storyline. The film gets off to a vigorous start, as McCall tackles some kidnappers in Turkey and then, while serving as a Lyft driver in Boston (in the previous picture, he worked at Home Mart), beats the living hell out of a hotel room full of Men’s Rights Activists. But then the picture turns stupid and stuporific. As in many an unimaginative sequel, This Time It’s Personal™, meaning that (modest Spoiler alert, though it is in the trailer) Susan gets killed once she gets too close to the truth regarding a faked murder/suicide (that truth is so fleetingly and haphazardly explained that it scarcely matters; Susan might as well have been slain for trying to steal a neighbor’s cherished pie recipe).
There’s a betrayal that identically mirrors the one from the recent Skyscraper, meaning that it’s equally easy to sniff out the villainy right from this particular character’s introduction. A subplot involving McCall’s mentoring relationship with a young kid (Ashton Sanders) seems to have been imported from a lesser ABC Afterschool Special from the 1970s. And while The Equalizer was excessively brutal because the plot demanded it (after all, we can brook no interference from Trump’s Russian pals in this country!), The Equalizer 2 is excessively brutal because the filmmakers demanded it. It all culminates with a lengthy battle royale in which McCall faces down the baddies while a storm rages all around them. It’s laughably absurd, and just one more reason why The Equalizer 2 is less than the sum of its slickly oiled parts.
THE OVERLAPPING SECTION in the Venn diagram that represents Kurt Cobain and me is probably pretty small, but that sliver of shaded area definitely contains the tidbit that both of us are fans of ABBA. We’ll of course never know what the Nirvana headman would have thought of the 2008 screen adaptation of the smash stage musical Mamma Mia!, but I for one was devastated with what turned out to be a major disappointment.
Leadenly directed by Phyllida Lloyd (see also the gruesome The Iron Lady), Mamma Mia! featured a bright performance by Meryl Streep as Donna but was crippled by off-key singing, clumsy choreography, and editing that appears to have been attempted with a particularly dull butter knife. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård ably handled acting duties as the three men in Donna’s life, one of whom was the father of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), but their singing left much to be desired. (I expect it was Wikipedia’s employment of this quote from my review that led to my receiving a heavy volume of negative feedback from the film’s fans: “Brosnan looks physically pained choking out the lyrics, as if he’s being subjected to a prostate exam just outside of the camera’s eye.”)
Still, Mamma Mia! made an astounding $615 million worldwide (in the UK, it was second only to Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time, since falling to No. 11), meaning that a wholly unnecessary sequel was eventually going to hit the screen. So the shock is that the unavoidable Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (three out of four stars) is actually a worthy follow-up, and perhaps the biggest out-of-left-field-stealth-missile surprise of this summer. It outshines the original in virtually every department, with better singing, better dancing, and better humor.
While much of the new film centers on the attempts of Sophie to open a hotel on the Greek Island of Kalokairi in honor of her mom, the focus is on flashback sequences that reveal how a young Donna (Lily James) not only came to Kalokairi but also how she became involved with the three men who would each capture a part of her heart. It’s difficult for any actress to “play” Meryl Streep — even her own daughter Mamie Gummer came up short in 2007’s Evening — but James proves to be splendid in the role. Best known as Branagh’s Cinderella and Baby Driver’s girlfriend, James may not look like Streep but manages to nail the joie de vivre spirit that flows through Donna at every point of her life. It’s a delightful performance, yet she would be acting in a vacuum were it not for the equally engaging turns by the guys playing the young Brosnan (Jeremy Irvine), the young Firth (Hugh Skinner) and especially the young Skarsgård (Josh Dylan).
The generosity of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again extends even to the small parts, with the matronly keeper of a Greek bar and a local customs officer granted their own moments to amuse. And if the late arrival of Cher as Donna’s mom isn’t the socko finale we had desired (Bette Midler would have been a better choice for this part), it’s sturdy enough to put the finishing touches on this summer’s most raucous party.