‘The Equalizer 2’ is More of the Same, and That’s Just Fine With Me

The Equalizer 2 movie poster

It’s amazing how Denzel Washington has gone through his career without ever having made a sequel. Then again, do many of his films cry out for one? “Glory” and “Training Day,” didn’t leave much room for follow-ups as the characters he played met a very violent end. Last I checked, William Shakespeare never penned a sequel to “Much Ado About Nothing.” “The Pelican Brief,” “Philadelphia,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Crimson Tide” tell self-contained stories which are perfectly resolved at their conclusions. “Unstoppable” came to a full stop at the end to where a continuation would have insultingly involved another runaway train. As for “Remember the Titans,” we still remember them 18 years later, so there’s no need for a sequel to remind us of what we never forgot about in the first place. And regardless of what its title may imply, “Malcolm X” is not a sequel to anything.

But with “The Equalizer’s” Robert McCall, Washington has found a character whose story can last beyond one movie, and this was made clear in the final scene where he replied to someone’s plea for help over the internet. Now we have “The Equalizer 2” which reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua for another round of brutal retribution against those foolish enough to cross McCall’s path. While not much is different this time out, this sequel still proves to be as entertaining and thrilling as its predecessor.

We catch up with McCall who still resides in Boston, Massachusetts but now works as a driver for Lyft. This particular job allows McCall to befriend people like Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor who is still trying to come to grips with what he has lost. Rubinstein also gives McCall an invaluable piece of advice which rings ever so true:

“Be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.”

Among McCall’s victims this time around are a group of men who have kidnapped a little girl, and a bunch of young men afflicted with white privilege that have taken advantage of a female intern. Once again, these characters think they have McCall figured out and consider him as someone way past his prime, but we all know he is going to leave them in a world of pain because that’s why we paid money to see this sequel. The question is, will he take them out in 15 seconds or 29? Either way, McCall has found a very effective method to obtain a five-star rating from a Lyft passenger. Whether he gets a tip on top of that remains to be seen.

Things, however, get very personal for McCall when he learns his dear friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) has been murdered while on assignment in Brussels, Belgium. The attack on Susan is especially brutal, but it’s nice to see her get a few punches in. With “The Equalizer 2,” Leo gets to remind us how she once portrayed one of television’s most unforgettable female police detectives, Sgt. Kay Howard, on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as she inflicts painful scars on her attackers. While at the press screening I wanted to yell out “Kay Howard lives!” But knowing from the trailers how Susan was going to meet a tragic end left me with anxiety and some despair as her fate was clearly sealed.

As you can expect, McCall goes on a mission of revenge which leads him to meet up and work with a former partner of his from the CIA, Dave York (Pedro Pascal). What he discovers is a complex web of corruption in which loose ends are being tied up to where the perpetrators are higher up the government ladder than he realized. Watching certain characters get eliminated in ways they do not see coming reminded me of what Captain James T. Kirk said in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country:”

“First rule of assassination, kill the assassins.”

Denzel is simply the best, and he return to the role of Robert McCall as if he just made the original film yesterday. Is it even possible for this Oscar-winning actor to disappoint us? Well, anything is possible, but seeing him in the scene where he takes young Miles (Ashton Sanders), an aspiring artist, aside and gives him a strong lecture about the dangers of gang life reminds us why he is one of the best actors working. We have seen this scene of an older man telling a young one not to join a gang many, many times before, but Denzel brings a raw emotional power to this one which makes it feel as visceral as when Laurence Fishburne demanded Cuba Gooding Jr. give him back his gun in “Boyz n the Hood.”

Ashton Sanders proves to be a strong addition to “The Equalizer” franchise as he portrays Miles as someone clearly caught between two worlds and unsure how to navigate either of them. We learn his brother was senselessly murdered, and he looks to be on the hustle when it comes to painting buildings and apartments, something McCall sees right through. Ashton also figures in one of this movie’s most suspenseful scenes when Miles is trapped in McCall’s apartment as a couple of assassins break in. Fuqua wrings all the suspense out of this scene to excellent effect, and it left me pinned to my seat as I began to feel as unsafe as Miles did.

Fuqua has since proven to be a top-notch action film director as he takes average set pieces in formulaic motion pictures and gives them a jolt of energy and tension. Right from the opening sequence on a train in Istanbul, Fuqua shows once again how he and Denzel mean business, and he gives us a number of thrilling moments throughout like when McCall fights a knife-wielding Lyft passenger while trying to avoid oncoming traffic, or when he faces off against a trio of bad guys whom he promises to terminate with extreme prejudice.

“The Equalizer 2” culminates in an action set piece much like the one in the first film as McCall leads his pursuers into territory he is far more familiar with than they are. Last time it was in a hardware store, and this time it’s at seaside town which is getting battered by severe winds and heavy rainfall. But whereas those Russian gangsters were too late to discover how out of their league they were, McCall now finds himself hunted by those with the same military training. As a result, the odds are even and this makes the sequel’s climax especially thrilling.

Also returning for this sequel is screenwriter Richard Wenk who infuses scenes with subversive jabs I could not ignore. When one military character talks about how he was essentially cut off by the government to where he was forced to do things he never would have done otherwise, I was reminded of how politicians kept telling us to support our troops during wartime and then would later cut their veteran benefits. Wenk is certainly not out to bash us over the head with any political statements, but it is little moments like those which provoke my consciousness to a strong extent.

And Wenk once again has McCall reading a number of classic books among which, quite appropriately, is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Like I said, “The Equalizer 2” is basically more of the same, but I was fine with that as Washington and Fuqua are simply out to give us an action-packed thriller, and they have succeeded once again. If there is to be a third “Equalizer” movie with these two on board, I would certainly welcome it.

Looking back, it’s almost a shame they didn’t make McCall an Uber driver. Just imagine how he would have reacted to his earnings statement as Uber is known for taking a ridiculously high percentage from their drivers. This could have resulted in a terrific climax in which McCall visits the company’s corporate headquarters and tells the CEO, “I understand you pay more attention to your profit motive than to the safety of your drivers.” If there is anyone who could punish Uber for this and make them update their policies for the drivers’ benefit, it would definitely be McCall!

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is Just the Documentary We Need in Divisive Times

Wont You Be My Neighbor poster

I was one of the many who got exposed to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” at a very young age, and I still vividly remember watching its host greeting us with the same song while taking off his coat and changing his shoes. Since then, I have become far more familiar with the show’s parodies, especially the brilliant ones by Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, to where it seems much easier to ridicule someone who encourages us to see the best in humanity instead indulging in its worst qualities. If Fred Rogers were to start his show today, I’m not sure if he would have had the same impact and instead be a subject of endless ridicule and innuendos.

Well, the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows how Fred Rogers’ good intentions never led him in that direction. The doc shows how he came to inspire generations of children to love one another and to see the good in life even when things seem so bleak and scary. While many have since tried to tarnish his legacy and make him look like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Neville reminds us of what a good man he was and of how he never lost sight of the strong values he instilled in others.

We learn Rogers was an ordained minister and about to enter the seminary when he discovered the existence of television. Although he initially hated this invention and described it as being “awful,” he quickly came to see it as something he could use to his advantage. With “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he used television as a way of helping children through what he called “the modulations of life,” and the lessons he imparted were profound as he dealt with topics other children’s programming would never dare touch.

It’s fascinating to watch the beginning of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as it debuted back when everything on TV was in black and white. The production values proved to be very low and, unlike Jim Henson, he was not out to break the bounds of puppetry or technology. Instead, this show was an exercise in simplicity as the use of a simple ordinary neighborhood and a land of make believe was more than enough to draw in a large audience as the show proved to be imaginative enough as he probed the more unsettling issues life has to offer.

Rogers didn’t hesitate to deal with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, nor did he try to ignore the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle when it exploded. The way he approached these events and issues was almost subversive as he dealt with them in a way which wasn’t necessarily direct, but which acknowledged the trauma many around the world felt. As always, he encouraged us to find ways to channel our anger, despair and sadness into something positive, and his words always rang true.

With people like Fred Rogers, I keep waiting for the seams to show in this documentary as no human being can ever be this perfect. We are all flawed in one way or another, and he certainly is no exception. In an interview with Francois Clemmons, the African-American actor and singer who played Officer Clemmons on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Clemmons talks about when Rogers confronted him over his visiting a gay bar and asked him never to go there again. Rogers’ fear was one of the program’s sponsors, Johnson & Johnson, would pull their advertising away if they realized one of the stars was a gay man. I figured this would lead to the exposure of Rogers’ bigotry, but Clemmons says while Rogers advised him to keep his sexuality in the closet, Rogers never judged him over it even if his religion may have, and that he showed his love to him in such a way no one had before.

Looking at the scenes shown here from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reminded me of how the lessons Rogers gave us proved to be as profound as they were subversive. To protest the treatment of African-Americans being thrown out of “white-only” swimming pools, he is shown in one episode with his feet in a tub of water, and he invites Officer Clemmons to put his feet in as well when he drops by. When the show aired in 1968, the Vietnam War was being fought overseas and he dealt with it in his land of make believe where King Friday XIII kept fighting against change and peace. In fact, Neville reminds us how this show dealt with topics like war, divorce and even the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Does any of today’s children’s programming do this? If so, please tell me because I can’t think of any single show which does.

Neville touches on Rogers’ own childhood very lightly to where only so much is said about it. We learn how he grew up in a household where he was never allowed to be angry as a kid, and of how he spent a good portion of his life feeling like he didn’t fit in anywhere. Indeed, these struggles made for intelligent fodder on his show as he talked about different ways to deal with anger, and one of the most heart-rending moments in this documentary comes when Henrietta Pussycat asks if she was a mistake. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” didn’t just deal with world and personal issues in an intelligent way, but in a brave one as well.

Few, if any, people can ever lay claim to being too good to be true, and Fred Rogers is shown without a doubt to be good and very true. So, it is painful to see others attempt to rewrite his legacy in an effort to change the narrative of history, and we see this in a FOX News segment in which commentators accuse Rogers of destroying the childhood of many by telling kids they were all special as if it were the equivalent of child abuse. These days, most people will not allow themselves to believe any person could be so well-meaning and thoughtful as they always suspect a do-gooder of being up to something devious.

There is a scene where we see Rogers in a solitary state as if the cruelty of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Were he alive today, I wonder how he would feel about the current political havoc we are suffering under as many of the things he fought against like racism and bigotry have made an unwelcome comeback as they serve as a cruel reminder of how history repeats itself. I would like to think Rogers would have given us ways to overcome this endless stream of negativity, but we see his faith being tested constantly to where he must have been constantly exhausted by all the terrible things he was forced to endure.

While watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I was reminded of what an English teacher in my freshman year of college once said:

“This is a generation which has been robbed of its innocence. We have all been mediatized.”

Keep in mind, she said this back in the mid-1990’s before the internet and cell phones became the things they are today, so the damage was already being done. These days we are led to believe more in the worst of people instead of the best, and we are more fascinated with the skeletons in a closet than in good deeds. One of my childhood heroes, Bill Cosby, a man who made us laugh endlessly and gave us life lessons we never forgot, has since been revealed to be a misogynist, a sociopath and a sexual predator who will soon be sent to prison for his crimes. His legacy is now forever tarnished to where much of what he taught us will be permanently lost to future generations.

This all makes “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” an especially important document of a man who left an indelible mark on our lives. While many of our heroes let us down in thoughtless and horrible ways, Fred Rogers never did. He stayed true to himself, and he never lost sight of how children have very deep feelings and needed guidance in a world which can be very complicated to say the least. This is a life worth celebrating, and Neville gives us many reasons to celebrate Rogers’ life as the lessons he taught us, however dated they may seem today, are ones we need to pass on to others.

Another thing I was reminded of was the “Hate Crimes” episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” in which Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss investigate the murder of a man they are led to believe was homosexual. By the end of the episode, it is revealed the man was not gay, and they both discuss the effect this case has had on them:

Pembleton: “I broke the first rule of being a detective. I assumed that Zeke Lafeld was homosexual.”

Bayliss: “Well, it’s what people do, Frank. It’s human nature.”

Pembleton: “Yes, it is human nature to kill someone simply because their sexual orientation is different.”

Bayliss: “People get afraid. Threatened.”

Pembleton: “People? That’s you and me, Tim. Grown-ups. Why is it that children don’t care about such things?”

Bayliss: “As adults we get socialized. We learn to behave.”

Pembleton: “No, no, no. We learn to hate.”

Indeed, Pembleton’s last line above speaks to an inescapable truth. However, looking at Rogers’ life through this amazing documentary and of the infinitely positive effect he had on so many makes me believe he never learned to hate, ever. If he did have any negative emotions inside of him, he certainly found creative ways to rid himself of them, and he shared them with his audience in the hopes they would focus more on the positive instead of the negative. Maybe he was different than most people but thank goodness for that. Thank goodness we got to meet Fred Rogers and be his neighbor, and thank goodness we have this documentary which pays loving tribute to his memory.

I think it’s only fair to end this review with one of Rogers’ most famous quotes as it still resonates deeply today:

“From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving. So, on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let’s just take a minute of silence to think about those people now…”

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘Chappaquiddick’ Revisits a Tragedy No Kennedy Can Escape

Chappaquiddick movie poster

“They eat their wounded upstairs.”

Lieutenant Al Giardello tells Detective Frank Pembleton this on an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to describe the politicians who have invited Pembleton to help them out on a delicate matter involving a congressman. So eager he is to impress his bosses, Pembleton suggests letting a police report get buried, covered up, and the Deputy Commissioner orders him to do so. But when this matter is made public to where a scandal erupts in the news, the Commissioner denies his own involvement and lets Pembleton take the fall. Pembleton has become one of the wounded as the higher ups in the department hang him out to dry, and we see what politicians will do to keep their political currency protected at all costs.

I kept thinking about this exchange while watching “Chappaquiddick” which takes us back to the year 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident. While attempting to cross the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, his car went off the side and plunged into the water. Ted was able to free himself, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped inside and eventually drowned. Ted failed to report this incident to the police until 10 hours after it happened, and we watch as his closest advisers look for ways to spin the story to their advantage as the scandal threatens to derail Ted’s political career and forever tarnish the image of the Kennedy family.

The car accident is presented in bits and pieces throughout because, as anyone who has been in an accident can tell you, no one remembers everything in a linear fashion. After the initial accident, the story jumps ahead to a soggy Ted Kennedy walking slowly back to the house where he, his advisers and secretaries were having a party. When his close friend Joe Gargan sees him shivering in the back of a car, Ted simply says, “I’m not going to be President.” From there, everyone goes into damage control mode as they try to get a hold of the narrative and manipulate it to where Ted will come out of this accident in one piece. But there is still a dead body in the center of this tragedy, and some in the inner circle are not about to let this fact go away.

It’s fascinating to watch the political spin machine at work in “Chappaquiddick” as this kind of press manipulation is a regular thing these days, but even back in 1969 the truth was not so easy to bend as the truth still found a way to the surface. Still, we feel the pressure of the press as Ted and company scramble to come up with an answer which will exonerate the Senator in the eyes of his constituents and America at large. There are scenes where his advisers come up with ridiculous scenarios to explain Ted’s actions, like getting a physician to explain how Ted suffered a concussion in the accident even though he isn’t given a chance to examine the senator. Then there’s the story about how Ted was put on sedatives because of his concussion, but a reporter points out how taking sedatives in this condition could easily kill him. And let’s not forget the neck brace fiasco which Ted didn’t even bother rehearsing. There was no Facebook or social media back then, but there was still enough attention paid to where Ted could not walk away from this tragedy unscathed.

At the center of “Chappaquiddick” is Jason Clarke who portrays Ted Kennedy. Many actors could have easily fallen victim to simply playing the late senator as the icon we all see him as and saddle themselves with an accent which makes them sound like Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons.” Clarke never falls into any of those traps and instead makes Ted as human as anybody else, full of flaws and passions which at times get the best of him. It’s a wonderfully complex performance as Clarke shows how Ted worked to control how the news of this tragedy coming out while wrestling with a conscience that will not let him escape the guilt he feels. Just watch Clarke as he phones Mary’s parents to inform them of her death. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and not an easy one to pull off.

Special mention goes to Kate Mara who plays Mary Jo Kopechne. It’s a small role, but Mara makes the most of her time onscreen as she forces us to see Mary as much more than a mere historical footnote. We learn Mary was a devoted supporter of Bobby Kennedy and his values, and she desperately wants to believe Ted can deliver on the same promises Bobby made before he was killed. This makes her final onscreen moments where Kate is desperately keeping her head above water as she hopes for a miracle which never comes. Whether or not you knew of Mary Jo’s existence before this movie, Mara’s performance ensures we never forget her once we leave the theater.

Indeed, the entire cast of “Chappaquiddick” is well chosen as each actor inhabits their role with a lot of passion and energy which makes this more than the average biopic. Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan get to break free of their comic roles here as Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, two of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisers who are desperate for him to get his story straight before he does even more damage to his image. Helms is especially worth singling out here as he makes Joe the conscience Ted desperately needs to pay attention to, and whether or not Ted does is not worth revealing here as you have to look into Helms’ eyes to see what the answer is.

One truly brilliant performance worth singling out here comes from Bruce Dern who gives an almost wordless performance as Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of this famous family. When we meet Joe, he has long since become hobbled by a stroke and aphasia, and this makes Dern’s work all the more challenging as he has to express things to the audience without the use of words. The final scene he has with Clarke is brutal as the frustrations and disappointments these two have with one another come to their breaking point.

It’s great to see Clancy Brown here as the no-nonsense Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he cuts through the bull to make sure the narrative runs as smoothly as possible for the incumbent senator. From the first moment he appears onscreen, the “Highlander” actor shows the audience he means business as McNamara moves quickly into damage control mode and freaks when the most thoughtless of mistakes are made by subordinates.

Olivia Thirlby also shows up here as Rachel Schiff, another loyal Kennedy secretary and close friend to Mary. It’s fascinating to watch Thirlby here as she takes Rachel from being totally devastated upon learning of her friend’s death to racing into damage control mode. Whatever you may think of her actions, Thirlby shows how devoted she is to the Kennedy family as she feels the country cannot suffer over one person’s mistake.

Also worth mentioning is Vince Tycer, a noted theater director in Connecticut, who plays David Burke, an individual known as a aide to powerful men. It’s fascinating to watch Tycer in “Chappaquiddick” as he hovers in the shadows next to Ted Kennedy and looks ready to defend the senator’s honor in any possible way. This is another character who could have been played in too broad a fashion, but Tycer plays David in a thoughtfully subtle way as this is a character who is more than willing to set aside his own thoughts and desires for something he considers to be the greater good.

“Chappaquiddick” was directed by John Curran who previously helmed such movies as “The Painted Veil” and “Tracks,” and he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winterbottom’s highly controversial “The Killer Inside Me.” Curran gives this film an underplayed feel as he wants us to see these characters not as historical figures forever defined by their public images, but as people like you and me. The more we see ourselves in these characters’ shoes, the more we get sucked into the story to where this becomes more than your average biopic or just another movie which is (sigh) “based on a true story.”

The only real problem I had with this movie was it felt a little too underdone to where an infusion of energy could have come in handy. I kind of wish Curran had livened up the proceedings at times, especially when it came to watching the walls close in on Ted. There is passion on display here, but that passion could have been stronger in retrospect.

Regardless, “Chappaquiddick” proves to be a fascinating look into the broad scope of political power and at the life of a man born into privilege who uses it to escape a harsh punishment with his career mostly intact. Ted did go on to become the “Lion of the Senate” as he fought long and hard for social justice and universal health care, but I left this movie wondering if his actions were taken to atone for his part in Mary Jo’s death. In the eyes of many Americans, he earned his forgiveness, but a closeup of Clarke’s eyes in this movie’s final moments suggests Ted never fully forgave himself. Did he truly earn a redemption in the years following this accident? We may never truly know, and this makes “Chappaquiddick” especially haunting.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Salt’ Has Angelina Jolie Doing More Than Tomb Raiding

Salt movie poster

Looking back, the summer 2010 movie season was truly the summer of the preposterous action movie. We got the big screen version of “The A-Team” which had four guys trying to steer a parachuting tank with its turret by firing rounds out of it, then there was Tom Cruise who could do just about anything except take the time to go to the bathroom in “Knight and Day” (Jack Bauer had that problem too), and even the brilliant “Inception” employed a concept which is not at all possible (unless the military is trying to keep it a secret). And then there was “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie which runs very rapidly through a river of plot holes and leaps in logic, and it’s just as much fun as the films I just mentioned. Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”) who keeps things moving at such a fast pace, there’s not much time to sit back and count all the inconsistencies. All we can do is hang on to the edge of our seats and revel in the slam bang action brought to us without an overuse of CGI effects.

Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is just about to head on home to her loving husband Mike (August Diehl) who loves to study spiders when she and her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) suddenly get the opportunity to interrogate a Russian defector. During this interrogation, the defector reveals that a highly trained Russian agent will assassinate the Russian President when he visits the United States. He the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt, and the chase is on from there. Immediately thrown under a veil of heavy suspicion, Evelyn desperately rushes out of the office to find her husband before he disappears from her life forever. Never mind abiding the law or taking the time to explain herself, she wants her husband now! When a woman gets pissed, it is in your best interest not to argue with her, especially if she is a CIA agent!

Evelyn Salt is a mixture of both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and this is especially the case in how she manages to evade capture or break free from highly trained agents and officers on more than one occasion. The movie really plays on Jolie’s strengths throughout, and of the kind of person the media has perceived her to be. I say this because over the years she has been treated like some seriously deranged human being who would have sex with her bother instead of a regular person which she is if anyone actually bothered to notice. Jolie plays on these perceptions throughout “Salt” as we watch her relentlessly pursue those who wish to capture and question her, and also when she changes her appearance to get closer to her objective.

I also liked how by the time she comes to meet the man who will soon become her husband, you can believe she has been fully trained to all she can do. A lot of movies would have you believe these characters were born with these skills and have perfected them since they were toddlers. With Jolie, you never doubt her even as the movie becomes more ridiculous by the minute.

There are so many twists and turns throughout “Salt” to where it shamelessly flaunts its illogic plot developments throughout to where we give up trying to figure it all out. Compared to many of Noyce’s other movies, this is easily the most kinetic action movie he has made to date even when compared to “Dead Calm” which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world. You could complain about how things don’t add up, but Noyce never lets the pace of the movie lag for a second, and we never find the time to sort through the plot and characters while we are watching. For other movies this would be a major hindrance, but for “Salt” it works to its advantage. You’re too thoroughly entertained to even care if this film is messing with our head one time too many.

In addition to the talents of Ms. Jolie, you also have Liev Schreiber as her partner and friend Ted Winter. Many consider Schreiber to be this stone-faced actor who wears the same expression in each and every movie he does, but this is probably because they have never seen him act onstage where he gives one brilliantly inspired performance after another. Schreiber holds his own opposite the formidable Jolie as he desperately works to protect his friend from those who would make her disappear, and you root for him as he gets closer and closer to getting a full idea of who she really is.

You also have Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, an agent above Winter who pursues Salt relentlessly. He’s the character you want to shake around and slap in the face so he can see how wrong he is about her (or how wrong we think he is). Chiwetel has done great work over the years, most notably in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” and he makes Peabody more than your average one-dimensional government official who would foolishly believe a Russian defector over a loyal agent from the CIA.

We also have to give Noyce a lot of credit for not relying on a plethora of CGI effects in “Salt.” When you see Jolie clinging for dear life on her apartment building 12 stories up from the ground, that was really her (get ready for some serious vertigo). It all reminded me of how good “Live Free or Die Hard” was as it tried to make the effects as real as possible as the filmmakers came to realize the typical film going audience would no longer be easily fooled by CGI effects. Sometimes they are not even better than the real thing.

If there is one seriously massive complaint I have against “Salt,” it’s in regards to Andre Braugher’s role as the Secretary of Defense. Those of you who know me are fully aware of what a die-hard fan I am of the NBC cop show from the 1990’s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Braugher’s work on the show was beyond brilliant, and not many other actors can manipulate people through such theatrically volcanic explosions of anger. Furthermore, let us not forget his work in movies like “Glory” where he made the first of many memorable impressions. But in “Salt,” he is relegated to a role where he barely has any lines and is given far too little to do. What gives?! You want to cast Braugher in a movie, then you give him a role which is in tune with his well-known talents. Stop giving him roles which could be played by anyone.

Maybe “Salt” is more fun than it deserves credit for. But along with a pulsating music score by James Newton Howard and some tight film editing by John Gilroy and the well-regarded Stuart Baird, the movie gives you a good dose of adrenalin pumping fun which we don’t always get on the silver screen. Nitpick all you want about the events in “Salt,” it’ll still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Only the Brave’ Celebrates the Lives of Those who Risk Everything to Keep Others Safe

Only the Brave movie poster

While watching “Only the Brave,” I kept thinking of what Mike Kellerman said in an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street:” “Fire is a living thing. It eats, it breathes air, it can be killed. Something about that power draws people in.” This dialogue played in my head while Josh Brolin stares at a wildfire off in the distance, wondering which direction it will spread in. From this, we can tell he doesn’t just see fire as simply something to be put out, but as a force to be fought with on its own term. The term fight fire with fire takes on a special meaning here, and it is shown to be more than just the title of a Metallica song.

“Only the Brave” is, yes, based on a true story. In this case, it is about an elite crew of firefighters who came to be known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and who risked their lives on a regular basis to stop wildfires in their tracks. In June 2013, 19 of their members died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and it remains one of the deadliest incidents involving United States firefighters outside of the September 11th attacks. I figured the movie would be all about this fire and of who survived it and who didn’t. However, it is really about these group of men who come together to form a brotherhood of sorts as they come to depend on one another as their work is always very dangerous. In the process, we also see the bonds they have with their families and loved ones, and of the constant balance they have to work at between work and family life.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who is eager to build a team of firefighters which will not simply serve as background performers while other elite firefighters push them to the side. You would think firefighters from different places would be quick to band together in the face of mother nature’s havoc, but each individual firefighting group is shown to be a competitive bunch as they want to claim the glory of being a hero before anyone else. After dealing with conflicts and money problems inherent in the realm of politics, Eric gets the funding he needs to begin training men who are infinitely eager to fight fire with fire.

Now a movie like this typically employs a number of stereotypical characters like the ladies’ man, the fearless leader, the trusted second-in-command the one who looks as if he is in the wrong place, and “Only the Brave” does traffic a bit in this area to where I thought this might become “Top Gun” but with firefighters instead of pilots. But thanks to an excellent cast which includes Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze, Alex Russell and Ben Hardy, we get to be intimately involved in the exploits of these firefighters to where we have to admire their selflessness in what they do.

An actor worth noting in particular is Teller who has given excellent performances in “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller plays Brendan McDonough who, at the movie’s start, is a hopeless drug addict. From the character’s first appearance, I figured Brendan would be the one to start the Yarnell Hill Fire as he carelessly is shown smoking crystal meth to where he is barely conscious, and I kept waiting for him to drop a match in a field without even realizing it. Brendan comes to discover his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and he reacts to this news flippantly as it only increases his capacity for self-destruction. But upon seeing his baby for the first time, he suddenly begins to turn his life around and looks to get employed on Eric’s firefighting team.

Teller’s performance is superb as he doesn’t make Brendan into the typical cinematic addict, but instead a person who goes from being lost in life to one who finds a purpose as he seeks to give his child the life his father never gave him. The interview scene he has with Brolin is superb as Teller never overdoes it as Brendan knows full well he can’t fool Eric since he sees right through his addiction. I kept waiting for Brendan to relapse as this is usually the case for addicts in a movie, but Teller makes his character’s hard-fought battle towards sobriety noble and believable. This is also the second movie he’s been in these past few years where he plays a man determined not to take painkillers even though they certainly would help (the other is “Bleed for This”).

Brolin is an ace at playing blue collar workers, and he never has to do much to convince us how believable he can be in portraying a firefighter. Through his expressions and actions, we quickly see this is someone who can tame the nastiest fires he and his team come into contact with. The “No Country for Old Men” actor shares a lot of great scenes with his male-costars, but his best moments come between him and the always terrific Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is a strong one, but it takes on an increasing strain when Amanda wants kids, something Eric is not quick to agree on. From this description, it sounds like the average marital conflict we see in every other movie, but Brolin and Connelly bring a lot of raw emotion to their roles to where they inhabit their characters more than anything else. This could have felt clunky, but the actors keep this from happening, and this is especially the case when Amanda reminds Eric what she goes through every day when he walks out the door to go to work.

“Only the Brave” was directed by Joseph Kosinski whose previous films were “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” This one takes place in the real world instead of in the realm of science fiction, and yet he still brings a strong visual flair to each scene as we watch the fires lay waste to the land with an unforgiving power, and we fear for the deer running through the fields even as a wildfire gets closer and closer. At the same time, he also puts much of his attention on these men as this movie is about the job they did, not the fire which killed many of them. Kosinski makes us share in the friendships they build with one another and of the joyous moments they spend with their families to where we feel we are a part of their lives. Nobody involved with this motion picture should need to convince anyone of the emotional investment they put into this material, and this makes its tragic climax all the more devastating to witness.

Even though I knew how things would end for this group of firefighters, it didn’t make it any easier to sit through. These men had the best training and were constantly being drilled on how to protect themselves in the event of being trapped in a fire, but like other natural disaster, a fire is indiscriminate in who and what it attacks as it seeks to breathe for as long as it can. What everyone is left with are a tremendous amount of grief and survivor’s guilt, both of which deserve a movie of their own to explore.

I walked out of “Only the Brave” in tears as the filmmakers paid special tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotspots, those who lived and those who died. Even the best of preparations could not spare them from the destructive flames they perished in, but it still never took away from the bravery the showed us, and this movie gives them a well-deserved memorial to their selfless efforts. While we mourn the loss of life, we celebrate the lives these men led as they deserve much more than being just a footnote in history.

“Only the Brave” marks a big leap forward for Kosinski as he shows there is more to him than directing big science-fiction films with awesome music scores. It is also worth noting how the movie’s credits are shown at the beginning as opposed to at the end like in “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Not only that, but the credits are presented in a surprisingly subtle fashion as Kosinski must have realized his talents could not and should not upstage the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

As I write this review, wildfires have been doing tremendous damage in Northern California near where my brother lives with his family. Seeing this film makes me think about what his family and others are enduring right now as the damage left in the fires’ wake is just awful. I also find myself thinking of those firefighters up north and wonder if they are getting the respect, not to mention the funding, they deserve. Whereas “Backdraft” felt more like a Hollywood take on the lives of firefighters, “Only the Brave” feels like the real deal, and it makes me want to go up to those who are working tirelessly to keep wildfires from spreading and shake their hands. This movie is proof of how much they deserve our respect.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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