Denzel Washington plays a guy with a mysterious past as a bad arse, who now lives a ‘normal’ existence working at a hardware/home improvement store (Think Bunnings, if you’re Australian, Home Depot if you’re American). He’s well-liked by colleagues (despite dispensing dietary advice, which would result in a punch to the face from me, you judge-y bastard!), but doesn’t socialise much. One night at a diner he witnesses young prostitute Chloe Grace Moretz getting a little roughed up by her pimp, and he can’t help but act. His violent actions, however, alert the attention of Russian gangsters at the controls of the whole operation, who send out a no-nonsense bad arse of their own (Marton Csokas) to deal with Washington. In roles that seem to have bits and pieces missing (presumably to be found on the cutting room floor) Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo appear briefly as figures from Denzel’s past.
No, I will not change the spelling, Americans are wrong. They just are. I was worried that this 2014 big-screen version of the popular Edward Woodward TV show was gonna be another ghastly, horribly manipulative vigilante movie like Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” which mixed (too much) violence with (too much) sentiment, and was no fun at all. Thankfully, it’s not quite like that, and apparently it’s nothing like the TV show, either (From what I hear it plays more like a loose prequel). Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”, “Tears of the Sun”, “King Arthur”, “Brooklyn’s Finest”), yes it overstates what a great guy the Denzel Washington character is, to the point that it stretches things to an unworthy two hours. Yes, like “Man on Fire” it gives us another young girl for Denzel to protect. Thankfully, though, Chloe Grace Moretz’ character is only in the film’s opening and closing and doesn’t really play a huge part here. She is what initially motivates the Denzel character, but is certainly not used in such a horribly manipulative/exploitative way as I was expecting. “Man on Fire” dragged things out, thinking it was some kind of high art, to excuse its ultra-violence. This film is under no such illusion, though I still prefer my vigilante movies much campier and more ‘fun’ than this, or else the ultra-violence stops being ‘fun’. I’m not really a fan of the more contemplative, brooding ones, I’m afraid. Or, I guess I prefer my vigilante movies to be action flicks, not urban dramas. When Denzel picks up a drill as a weapon late in the film (you don’t see much), the film doesn’t revel in the gore like the second half of “Man on Fire”, but it’s certainly violent and brutal at times. I actually thought the use of the drill was rather clever, given Denzel works in a hardware store.
Rather than something genuinely nasty like “Man on Fire”, though, this is closer to a Steven Seagal film or something like that. In some ways this actually reminded me of “Death Wish 3” (Denzel helping out his friends and co-workers, for instance) only it doesn’t suck like that film, and Denzel (whose presence, when he’s on song and well-cast simply can’t be matched) actually attempts to give a good performance. Denzel is also playing a more relatable character than in either “Man on Fire” or the “Death Wish” series. Those characters were a bit unstable, mentally or at least emotionally, and I could never really warm to either. The character Denzel plays here used to be a badass of some kind, stopped because his wife asked him to, and now decides to use his skills to get rid of some scumbags who frankly deserve it. I normally find the ‘ordinary person turned vigilante’ thing to be implausible (“The Brave One” immediately springs to mind), so at least this character I was able to believe because he has some training in implementing violence. He’s also likeable enough that you want to spend time with him, without making his violent actions seem implausible to his character- a tricky balance most get wrong.
Denzel is probably the key here to why this film isn’t so bad. When it’s his wont, Denzel is one helluva actor and he is much better company here than in “Man on Fire”. He’s the film’s best asset by far. She’s not in the film much but Moretz is pretty decent too, though playing a hooker doesn’t make this one “Taxi Driver”, OK, Mr. Fuqua? It’s still basically a vigilante movie on the B-level, just with a somewhat A-grade cast. It’s easily Antoine Fuqua’s best-looking and least pretentious-looking film to date, which I much appreciated. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“The A-Team”, “Avatar”, “Tears of the Sun”) even adopts a bit of ‘black lighting’ at times, which is cool. He really only has one bit of show-boating, and gets away with it: The camera rotates over the tattooed body of Marton Csokas. That was really snazzily done, I must say. It may be average screenwriting, but it’s certainly solid directing without getting too pretentious or distracting. As for Mr. Csokas, who looks like a dyed Russell Crowe here, he’s just OK here…which makes it by far his best performance to date. I kinda liked that he gave his Russian character a somewhat English accent, suggesting an overseas education. Nothing says ‘old-school action movie villain’ like a clipped English accent. The violence is straight up mean and nasty, but like I said this isn’t meant to be taken terribly seriously, it’s basically a straight-up action film, albeit one with not enough action throughout, which is a shame.
This isn’t a good film, particularly. It’s really a classed-up latter-day Steven Seagal film (Perhaps Seagal turned the film down because the villains are Russians and Putin is apparently his best buddy), right down to the cameos by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, not normally the names you expect to see attached to something like this. Polished but not particularly memorable, it’s certainly more digestible than I was expecting. Fans of vigilante movies will want to bump the rating up considerably, I’m a bit mild on it and it’s way overlong. The screenplay is by Richard Wenk (“16 Blocks”, the remake of “The Mechanic”, “The Expendables 2”).