Washington’s character summons past skills in ‘The Equalizer’

It was pretty cool having movies starring Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington released on successive weekends. These two men have a commanding screen presence, and in Neeson’s case, his work carried an otherwise slow-paced and murky “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Washington, on the other hand, while being the major force in “The Equalizer,” had some solid backing, starting with the director, Antoine Fuqua, who teamed up with Washington on the superb “Training Day,” along with a coolly lethal foe in Teddy (Marton Csokas).

The title character is Washington’s Robert McCall. a former government operative now living a quiet life working in one of those giant hardware/home maintenance super stores. An insomniac, he spends his off hours in an all-night diner, drinking hot tea and, in a tribute to his late wife, reading classic novels.

He also is the kind of person who is giving. He is helping one of his co-workers, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) drop weight and train so he can apply for a security guard position.

Another regular customer at the diner is a young lady, Teri — whose real name is Alina — (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is employed at an escort service run by ruthless Russian gangsters. McCall and Teri strike up a friendly acquaintance, with McCall giving the young woman encouragement to pursue her dream of a singing career. He is very aware of her current status, and it is a tribute to Washington’s acting skills that you can detect in his eyes the conflict he feels in whether or not to help Teri break away from this horrible work. He knows that if he does, it will require him to summon again the deadly skills he had used in his earlier life.

But when Teri is so badly beaten by her handler that she is hospitalized, McCall no longer can stand by. McCall pays a visit to this man, Slavi (David Meunier) and his crew and tries to give them a peaceful way out. But his gesture is rudely dismissed, so he extracts a bloody revenge that leaves five men dead.

This action has implications reaching all the way to Moscow, where the head of the Russian syndicate sends his best “cleaner,” Teddy, to the U.S. to find out what happened.

It takes a little while for all of this to set up, but it is worth it. Once Teddy zeroes in on McCall, the movie becomes an intriguing game of cat and mouse between two men who are at the top of their game. Csokas is mesmerizing as Teddy, so terrifyingly soft-spoken but brilliant and calculating, and when he explodes in violence, is it truly jarring.

McCall also is quiet, and always gives his adversaries a chance at redemption, the result usually being a verbal spit in the face. That is when McCall issues his form of justice — swiftly and efficiently.

The interplay between Csokas and Washington is brilliantly executed. McCall detests Teddy but clearly respects the man’s intelligence and dedication. And Csokas, an excellent character actor, aptly conveys that Teddy, under his veneer of cool confidence, is harboring an uneasiness about going up against McCall, and maybe even grudgingly respects him.

Fuqua, as shown in “Training Day,” does not hold back on the violence. It is brutal and the film is very worthy of its R-rating. He presents a graphic movie that pits one man with a steadfast conscience against a powerful machine driven only by profit, at whatever means. It’s a match-up that can keep the audience riveted.

Neeson again a flawed hero in slow-moving ‘Tombstones’

Back in the day when John Wayne was a box-office giant, the knock on him was that, in his Westerns at least, he played variations of the same character, usually a gunfighter who followed his own moral compass, a man who could be counted on in a crisis but one who seemed more comfortable wielding a gun than engaging in working or intimate relationships.

Liam Neeson of late has stepped into a role that he does well, that of a flawed man whose skills put him in a dangerous world. There he thrives, while his personal life is a shambles. The characters in his most recent high-profile movies — Bryan Mills in “Taken” and “Taken 2,” Ottway in “The Grey” and Bill Marks in “Non-Stop” — fit snugly into this mold.

Neeson is not only good in this role, he draws us into his characters, and that has paid off in these movies. His work is a major asset in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” classified as a crime thriller mystery that is not all that thrilling and does not even try to be a whodunit mind bender.

Based upon the novel by Lawrence Block, “Tombstones” is written and directed by Scott Frank, who did a superb job of adapting two of Elmore Leonard’s novels — “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” — to the screen. In those movies, it was not the crimes, but the characters, that carried the story. Frank makes that same effort with “Tombstones,” and the results are mixed.

Neeson’s character is Matt Scudder, who when the movie begins, is a plainclothes New York City cop in 1991. While he is indulging in some free drinks in a bar, three ill-fated robbers hit the place, and moments later, Scudder has taken them down with gunfire, two of them fatally.

The movie jumps ahead to 1999 and now Scudder is an unlicensed private investigator and a an alcoholic who has been dry for a while. Unfortunately, the trailers for “Tombstones” reveal why he left the police force, which diminishes the emotional impact when it is detailed in the movie.

One evening in 1999, Scudder encounters Howie (Eric Nelson), a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member, who says that his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) could use Scudder’s services.

Scudder meets with Kenny, who tells him his wife Carrie was kidnapped and even though a ransom was paid, Carrie was murdered, dismembered and left in the trunk of an abandoned car. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this and bring them to him.

Kenny seems well off financially and finally admits to Scudder he is a drug trafficker but plans on getting out once he builds a nice nest egg. Scudder refuses to take the case initially but soon is drawn back in. He then learns through his investigation that these kidnappers have done this before and Scudder believes they will do it again.

While in a public library checking out microfilm for old newspaper articles on these crimes, Scudder meets TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless boy who latches onto Scudder because he wants to become a private investigator some day. Scudder tries to discourage him but soon the two develop a unique kinship.

The identities of the two kidnapper-killers are revealed about midway through the movie as Ray (David Harbour, seen most recently as Reed Ackley in “Manhattan”) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), but beyond that little else is exposed about these two characters. They live together, but whether they are intimately involved or just partners in crime who share a home is never addressed.

The only real mysteries in “Tombstones” are why these two became serial kidnapper-killers, and what are their motivations for singling out certain people for their crimes. This assures some lively post-movie discussions and prevents “Tombstones” from stumbling into what can seriously erode a crime thriller — the obligatory monologue by the bad guys as to why they commit these atrocities.

Amid Scudder’s investigation, Ray and Albert strike again, this time abducting the teen daughter of another drug trafficker. These two guys, however demented their intentions, are very good at covering their tracks. Meanwhile, Scudder, without the resources of a law enforcement agency, must rely on a motley crew of associates that include the revenge-minded Kenny, the drug-addled Howie and the street kid TJ. It seems like a major mismatch.

A lot of the footage shows Scudder walking among the broken down areas of New York City, interviewing people and finding little evidence to go on until he questions a groundskeeper, James Loogan (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who works at a cemetery where the remains of an earlier victim had been disposed.

Frank’s screenplay ties in redemption with Scudder’s efforts to bring down the two killers, and the movie plods along at a slow pace. “Tombstone” tries to be a thinking person’s crime mystery, but too much information is left out to make it memorable in the end. Nevertheless, Neeson once again brings out a character haunted by inner demons who can only find meaning when he has to immerse himself in the muck of the worst of humanity.

Son of Monsterpalooza looks at “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 40 years later

When talking about horror movies that were pacesetters in the genre of scary films, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is always regarded as one of the most influential in this type of entertainment. The original movie, which came out in 1974, has spawned four sequels, one prequel and two reboots and even has a place in the New York City Museum of Modern Art for its importance in the development of American cinema.

Its depiction of violence was so intense that it is mistakenly remembered as being more graphic than it really was. But it did set the stage for the modern horror genre that has become more explicitly gory than ever thanks to the evolution of special effects.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” four surviving cast members appeared at the Son of Monsterpalooza event the weekend of Sept. 12-14 at the Marriott Burbank Convention Center. On hand were Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker) and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). On Friday evening and all day Saturday, these actors greeted fans, signed autographs and posed for photos, and on Sunday sat on a panel to talk about the making of the film. Sadly, two of the other main stars, Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty) and Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty) have passed away, Partin in 2005 and Burns a little more than a month ago on Aug. 5.

Directed and co-written by Tobe Hopper — along with Kim Henkel — “Massacre” is about Sally and her paraplegic brother Franklin, who along with three friends — Pam, Kirk and Jerry (Alan Danzinger) — take a road trip in a van to visit the grave of the Hardesty siblings’ grandfather, not only to pay respects but to follow up on reports that the cemetery has been hit by grave robberies. Along the way the five people pick up the hitchhiker, played by Neal, a bizarre character who eventually gets kicked out of the van after cutting Franklin on the hand.

The group ends up nearly out of gas in a remote area and soon come upon a house where Leatherface literally bursts into their lives for some terrifying and ghastly and in some cases fatal encounters. It turns out Leatherface and Hitchhiker are part of a family that murders people for their meat that they sell for barbecue.

The Sunday panel gathering of the four actors also featured some selected clips from the movie, allowing the stars to make comments.

In one clip that shows Hitchhiker in the van demanding payment for a Polaroid picture he has just taken of the other passengers, Neal quipped, “And we’re still selling photographs.”

McMinn said that when Neal was brought in to play Hitchhiker, she thought he had actually been recruited from a local insane asylum. “Wow this guy is crazy,” she said.

Vail revealed that he and Neal had been roommates in college, a fact McMinn was unaware of until this panel event.

One of the first shocking scenes in “Massacre” is when Kirk (Vail) enters the old house, looking for residents and Leatherface makes his violent debut, fatally clubbing Kirk, throwing him against a wall and then dragging the body into a back room. In recalling the fatal hammer scene, Vail said that originally, Hansen did not hit him hard enough to respond, throwing off the timing in the scene. So Vail encouraged Hansen to attack with more force.

“Gunner was so pumped, blood vessels around my eye were ruptured (when he hit again),” Vail said. Then Hansen threw him so hard against the wall that Vail said he passed out. Hansen concurred. “I was so pumped that I threw him head-first into the wall.” Fortunately, pillows had been placed off camera for Vail to land on. “So he did have a soft landing,” Hansen added.

In recalling terrifying scene in which Leatherface slams the door shut with such force, Hansen said the segment works so well because the door was not properly aligned in the door frame, so it just jammed suddenly and didn’t bounce or jiggle despite being light metal. Instead it appears that it is a heavy door being violently shut.

Vail said that director Hooper purposely kept the group of actors playing the victims apart from the those playing family members, so that when Vail and others initially see Leatherface, they actually were encountering that character for the first time.

Another clip shown was one of the most grisly scenes, when Pam is scooped up by Leatherface and taken to the back room and hoisted upon a meat hook. Regarding that scene, Neal said that he has won many $5 bets from people over the years who insist that the hook can be seen protruding out of Pam’s chest, which is not the case. In fact, the hook is never seen penetrating any flesh.

Once the meat hook scene was filmed, pretty much in one take according to McMinn, the entire set was quiet. “It brought us to a realization of the finality of the violence,” she said.

Hansen was eager to talk about the chicken seen confined to a bird cage in a room full of feathers and bones. Hansen said that Bob Burns, the art director who handled the props, was adamant that the poor chicken being handled humanely. What Burns never found out was that the chicken did die overnight. In fact, several chickens had to be used because they did not last the nights. Co-writer Henkel was secretly going to a nearby chicken farm and purchasing a chicken to replace the latest one that had died.

Hansen also revealed that prior to playing Leatherface, he had never handled a chainsaw¬† before. In the scene in which Leatherface is shown chopping up the dead Kirk, the actors were flirting with disaster. “First of all,” said Vail, “Gunner could not see very well,” because of the leather mask on his face, yet he still had to bring the chainsaw as close to Vail’s head as possible. The scene was set up so that Vail’s head could not be seen, just most of his body from the shoulders down. Vail said he could feel the hot oil and wood chips hitting his face, but could not flinch or otherwise move, since he was supposed to be dead.

Hansen said Hooper insisted that a real saw be used so as to capture the authentic sounds of the blade cutting things. Although Hansen pointed out “that’s what post (production) is for,” Hooper prevailed in this decree. Hansen of course did not realize that when a saw contacts the object it is cutting, it can jerk forward, so even though Hansen is a big man at 6-foot-4 and believed he could control the chainsaw, he would not have known to anticipate the jerking . Fortunately he managed to keep the saw from hitting Vail.

“There were stories that in this film some people came close to death,” Hansen said. “No, nobody ever came close to death, but death came real close to several people.”

Said Vail, “I trusted Gunnar to take care of me and said let’s shoot the film. We were young and dumb.”

The four actors also expressed appreciation for Burns and Partain. As the wheelchair-bound Franklin, Partain insisted in staying in character even when not shooting any scenes. At one point between scenes, Partain asked Vail to bring him a Coke, upon which Vail told him to get out of the wheelchair and fetch his own soft drink. The actors said Partain was in character so much that his fellow stars ended up not liking him.

Hansen said that during the filming, Partain only got close to John Dugan, who played Grandfather, and confided in Dugan that he was afraid he would “lose” Franklin if he ever went out of character, and not be able to recover him when it came time to film scenes. “He called everybody by their character name,” Hansen said.

The strategy paid off in a macabre way. Hansen said that when it came time to shoot the scene in which Leatherface attacks Franklin, he was really looking forward to “killing” the character because Partain had become so convincing in portraying this annoying person. It was about 20 years later that Hansen was able to reunite with Partain, meet the man outside of the Franklin character and build a friendship before Partain’s death in 2005.

Regarding his own approach to Leatherface, Hansen said, “Leatherface is not a method actor.” Hooper, meanwhile, told the other performers that Hansen was a jerk as a way of creating some real tension during the shooting.

Hansen said that he never felt he was actually assuming the character of Leatherface. It was more a physical role because Leatherface could not speak, just grunt and make pig noises. Hansen always referred to Leatherface in the third person. It wasn’t until a late scene, at the family dinner, that Hansen finally began to feel himself in the role of Leatherface.

Burns’ recent death made it difficult for the other cast members to talk about her.

“She was my best friend,” McMinn said. “We loved spending time together. It’s been really hard.”

Neal recalled that one time he and Burns had agreed to attend a screening of “Massacre”¬† in Texas, and upon arriving they learned they had to wait until the movie was over before they would meet the attendees. This allowed the two people a chance to chat for a couple of hours. Neal said he asked Burns what frightened her the most. Was it the fear of death? She said no. So he pressed: What’s your greatest fear? After a moment’s thought, she said, I do have a great fear: One day years from now you and I will be at the opening of a 7-11 in Oklahoma, and there’s two people in line.

“We miss her because we lost someone from our family,” Hansen said.

Marilyn Burns left horror fans with an indelible performance as the first, and in many viewers’ opinion, the best of the “final” girls, the ones who survive at the end despite the relentless pursuit of a deranged killer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The November Man’ pushes all the right buttons for a spy caper

The spy thriller enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s, thanks mostly to James Bond, but still endures five decades later because it provides everything viewers want in their entertainment: action, suspense, sometimes colorful villains, great spy vs. spy posturing and sex appeal.

Pierce Brosnan has earned his “license to kill,” having done a term as James Bond and also starred in less fanciful but engrossing political thriller films such as “The Tailor of Panama.” In “The November Man” he fits in comfortably as Devereaux, an ex-CIA operative trying to live a quiet life as a restaurant owner who is called back into the game by a former colleague. He is asked to conduct what seems to be a simple extraction mission but it turns out to be a complicated entanglement that involves high politics and ends up putting a big, fat bulls-eye on the back of Devereaux.

Like most heroes in such adventures, Devereaux was exceptional in his job performance, a real asset to the company. Also, as a familiar plot element, it is tragedy of a mission gone wrong that likely led to his retirement.

“November Man” opens with a sequence in 2008 in which Devereaux, on a mission to thwart a potential assassination, is working with a younger operative, Mason (Luke Bracey), whose disobedience of an order by Devereaux results in unintended collateral damage.

Five years later, the retired Devereaux is visited by one of his former handlers, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), who informs the ex-operative that some other agents in the field are being picked off by a coldly efficient killer, Elexa (Amila Terzimehic), and one of those in danger is a woman, Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), with whom Devereaux has had a history and now as an undercover agent is a close associate of the man expected to be the next president of Russia, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). Hanley claims that Natalia’s cover has been compromised, and she specifically requested Devereaux for the extraction mission.

Although Devereaux does manage to pick up Natalia, he learns things are not what they seem. Natalia was not expecting him after all, and soon the two are being pursued by some unknown people. Things wind up bloodily, and Devereaux learns that he and Natalia are being targeted by the CIA, with Mason as part of that team.

Natalia had provided Devereaux with the identity of a woman who has information that could not only destroy Federov’s political ambitions but also have him put away for war crimes. Devereaux soon hooks up with Alice (Olga Kurylenko), who may be able help him track down this woman before others find her and kill her.

Of course, now Devereaux is a marked man, by the agency that previous employed him. In addition, the professional killer Elexa also hot in pursuit.

“The November Man” becomes a story of two people being hunted by dangerous people with a lot of resources at hand. So the odds are against Devereaux and Alice, and the added touch is the now adversarial relationship between an old pro and his former pupil.

Director Roger Donaldson, who worked with Brosnan previously on “Dante’s Peak,” maintains a lively pace, and the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek — based upon a novel by Bill Granger — does a good job of keeping the viewer guessing. There are the usual twists and betrayals and finger-biting scenes of potential disaster to keep the audience taut.

Brosnan presents Devereaux as a world-weary man who once again has to rely on his instincts and skills to survive. Realistic elements include the man’s need to calm his nerves via alcohol and the revelation that Devereaux, when training Mason, in one vital aspect did not practice what he preached.