Thursday, August 27, 2015

Two Men of Violence: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) & The Equalizer (2014)

I was all prepped up to file A Walk Among the Tombstones, a Lawrence Block adaptation by Scott Frank, under “another film where Liam Neeson plays an aging Man of Violence™ who has to get back to his old ways again”, in other words, as something that’ll probably be decently entertaining but also something that I’ve seen before a few times too often. And sure, A Walk does belong into this particular genre of crime films but this one feels special and weighty all the way through, with the clichés feeling close again to the truths that once built these clichés.

The superiority of Scott Frank’s film becomes particularly clear in comparison with the same year’s Denzel Washington version of The Equalizer directed by Antoine Fuqua. Whereas the Equalizer makes a lot of gestures towards the horrificness of violence and the toll it takes on those performing it (not much about the victims, nor about the fact the borders between the role of victim and perpetrator might get rather fluid sometimes, though), by the end, it’s basically fist-pumping Washington’s character (a guy who stops the time he needs to kill a bunch of people on his watch), spouting all the usual vigilante movie crap, and simply ignoring much of what it has set up, A Walk is all made out of one piece, not turning away from the violence yet also never simply condoning it. In fact, there’s nothing simple in this film’s moral world except perhaps simple human compassion. Again, compare the way the Equalizer uses the compassionate acts of its hero as a basis to then cheer on his acts of horrible violence, where A Walk treats both things as standing in opposition to each other even when some of Scudder’s violence really – perversely - is a product of that compassion. The difference is that A Walk heads for the grey moral zones this sort of thing causes with open eyes and a headful of thoughts where The Equalizer is shouting “FUCK YEAH!” way too loud to have time for thoughts, particular once the film has reached its second half, when all promising suggestions the people involved might actually have realized that McCall isn’t an awesome badass but both an awesome badass and a monster, and that there just might be a problem with that, fly out the window.

Of course, Antoine Fuqua’s unpleasantly showy direction doesn’t help The Equalizer’s case much either, always using the wrong kinds of gestures, and always in a way that suggests it doesn’t really want to think about the nature of its protagonist despite having brought it up during its first hour (of more than two, which also makes a simple plot unnecessarily bloated) itself. A Walk’s Scott Frank, on the other hand, has a clear, calm, and controlled approach to direction that looks much simpler than Fuqua’s but really brings out much more subtlety, eschewing to hammer ever point it makes home, and building up a sense of place and atmosphere.

Now, I wasn’t really planning to come down quite as hard on The Equalizer just after I watched it, because I had a decent – if not un-annoyed - time with it, it’s just that I saw A Walk Among the Tombstones right the next evening, and really couldn’t help but notice how much better Frank’s film is, and how much worse the Fuqua outing becomes in direct comparison, not so much for reasons of it being catastrophically bad, but because it is a barely decent film compared to one I expect to return to again and again, and its thoughtlessness truly becomes clear in the contrast.

What’s undeniably good in both films is the acting, and in this regard, I’d probably even argue The Equalizer to be slightly superior: for where Liam Neeson et al actually have interesting and not unsubtle characterisation and focused direction to work from, Denzel Washington, Chloe Grace Moretz and so on do their best to make something out of a film that just doesn’t seem to know what it actually thinks about its main character and that surely doesn’t want to face any unpleasant implications of the way he acts when it comes down to it, because fuck yeah, slowly walking away from an explosion. So where Neeson gives a performance that gains a part of its considerable strength and authority from the possibilities the work around and behind him provides it with, every bit of Washington’s success is one all of his own. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure all the coherence McCall has as a character belongs to Washington and the way he and Moretz play off of each other in their scenes, the bizarre tacked on happy ending notwithstanding.

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