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Review of the Year – Part Three: Disappointments

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Although the cinema can offer tremendous experiences, sometimes there is a misfire. 2018 had much that delighted but also some turkeys. Thankfully, there were few serious stinkers, and it might be fair to say that no film is completely without merit so long as it is well lit, so you can see what’s going on. That said, there were some films in 2018 that had me variously shaking my head, silently shouting at the scream and coming out afterwards wondering how it all went so wrong.

As mentioned in my last post, The Little Stranger was underwhelming. Although director Lenny Abrahamson captured a very British sense of reserve, the film failed to generate much tension or societal satire. A bigger disappointment was Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento classic. A great power of cinema is to show rather than tell, and Suspiria told too much, was far too long and overwritten to a tedious degree. Horror maestro Eli Roth made an effort at family fare with The House with A Clock in Its Walls. Despite the winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, THWACIIW was flat and laboured, offering only passing enjoyment.

As is par for the course these days, 2018 offered various superhero films, and while some of them were brilliant (watch this space), others demonstrated the pitfalls of the genre. Venom was a wasted opportunity that lost its potential in chaotic incoherence, and while I didn’t hate Aquaman, it had a lot of soggy moments. Still, not everything can entertain to Infinity…

Computer based movies proved a less than inspiring source in 2018, as Searching took an interesting premise but stretched it beyond credibility. Documenting and dramatising lives lived through technological devices has significant potential, but Searching took the conceit too far in terms of its timeframe and reasons (or lack thereof) for the material to appear on screen. On the adaptation front, Tomb Raider was an improvement over the previous efforts, offering a more grounded approach to the adventures of Lara Croft. Nonetheless, it was still a disappointment since everything it offered had been done before and better. Speaking of which, Sicario 2: Soldado proved a poor follow-up to the 2015 original. Stefano Sollima’s overreliance on a crashing score and a lack of nihilism made this a weak and ultimately ineffective thriller, despite the promise of its genre and evocative setting.

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Although there were few stinkers in 2018, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The Equalizer 2 was a huge disappointment after the pleasant surprise of the 2014 original. When I saw it, one of my viewing companions actually fell asleep. He said he would not have dozed off if he had been less tired, but would have stayed awake if the film had been more engaging. It is easy to see his point, as the disparate storylines, vague characterisation and pedestrian direction made this a seriously unequal sequel.

Red Sparrow

The worst offering of the year though, just as it was half way through the year, was Red Sparrow. Everything about this said I would like it: a genre I love, proven directorial chops, great cast, genuine commitment to being unflinchingly brutal. Yet the result was laboured, the nastiness at times gratuitous and the film as a whole deeply boring. It was a cinematic experience that I spent waiting for the film to get good, something to kick in, give me a twist that carried dramatic weight, draw me into the scenes of torture or abuse, and it failed on pretty much all fronts. It wasn’t a total disaster, since there was some moody lighting at times, but the film proved to be more turkey than sparrow.

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The Equalizer 2

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The Equalizer was a pleasant surprise in 2014. An exploitation film that made a virtue of the simplicity of an ex-special forces soldier in Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) becoming a DIY avenger. The attention to social detail, especially in respect to race and class, constructed an interesting site of resistance. In addition, the genuinely nasty violence showed a commitment to the brutality of the depicted organised crime and the potential of a hardware store, while star Washington elevated the material to something more engaging than it might have been otherwise. Sadly, 2018’s sequel fails to deliver on almost all these aspects. Foregoing the stripped down simplicity of the original, EQ2 suffers from an overly elaborate plot, or rather plots that lack connective tissue. Character relationships muddy the waters rather than adding dramatic weight, whether they involve McCall’s mentee Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders), former comrade Dave York (Pedro Pascal) or Holocaust survivor Sam Rubenstein (Orson Bean). These sub-plots are frustratingly peripheral, screenwriter Richard Wenk failing to link together McCall’s central pursuit with the different lives he touches. Director Antoine Fuqua brings little stylistic flair to the proceedings, except in one bravura sequence that reminds the viewer of the importance of seatbelts. Meanwhile, a steadily approaching hurricane fails to increase tension, and much of the violence is obscured which makes the film appear neutered. The end result feels turgid and sluggish, and makes the viewer wish for something more efficient. Only Washington emerges unscathed, his charisma and star power lending the work some dignity. But great actors do not always equal great films, and The Equalizer 2 is a prime example of how much more is needed to equalize the quality of other fare.

The Magnificent Seven

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Let it never be said that I (only) do what is obvious, as there is far more to say of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven than how it compares to John Sturges’ 1960 film or indeed Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Fuqua’s film warrants close examination in relation to its genre and period, rather than in terms of how it compares to what came before. Most obviously, Fuqua’s film can be read as a declaration of diversity, as the titular gang includes white, black, Mexican, Asian and Comanche members. Pleasingly, Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto ensure that race and ethnicity are not simply there for declarative purposes but as organic parts of the story. Django Unchained may have made a point of racial revenge, but here little is made of Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) being black, while Native American characters in the film are varied with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) contrasted with Denali (Jonathan Joss) on the side of vicious land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). There is also a decent line in gender relations, as Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is as integral and capable as the men around her. This ensemble of characters are well-rounded, including the PTSD of sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his touching relationship with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), as well as a developing warmth between the seven and the townsfolk of Rose Creek who hire them. Narratively, the film is clear and detailed. So why the long face?

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The problem with the film is its lack of scale. Fuqua is associated with urban thrillers such as Training Day and The Equaliser, in which his sharp, punchy style is effective because it creates a milieu of fast mouths and faster violence. During the action sequences of The Magnificent Seven, including the genuinely impressive sustained set piece that comprises the final act of the film, this style works, as it conveys suddenness, abrupt changes and viscerally draws the viewer in. But in the earlier part of the film, which introduces the characters and, critically, the setting, the pace of the editing is too fast. As a result, the environment, so crucial to the western, is not established and the film fails to place its characters and indeed viewer within the landscape. This undercuts the power of the finale, as there is little sense of stylistic progression towards this climax. As a result, we end up with a Seven that may be Magnificent, but a film that is only moderate.

Black Mass

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Boston has a funny effect on makers of crime films. Whether it be Clint Eastwood with Mystic River, Ben Affleck with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Antoine Fuqua with The Equaliser or Martin Scorsese with The Departed, Boston demands sociological depth as part of its crime milieu. The same is true of Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a detailed examination of notorious gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) relationships with the FBI and a sizeable chunk of South Boston’s criminal and political community. This sociological aspect contextualises the film’s action, as Bulger’s criminal exploits impact upon his FBI handler John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and various others. Crime is not separate from society here but deeply imbricated within it, as are the personal connections and loyalties between childhood friends. At times the emphases on trust and ‘who ya know’ becomes a little repetitive, but this is a minor detraction in what is otherwise an solidly absorbing and effective crime drama.

The Equalizer

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Who you gonna call when wealthy white men own everything or pay the authorities to look the other way? According to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer, you need to call a middle-aged, working-class black man, who turns to a retired woman when he needs assistance. Demographics are the most interesting aspect of this adaptation of the 1980s TV series about a former special forces operative who takes up the cause for those oppressed by organised crime and corrupt authorities. As a result, it succeeds in being far more engaging than similar vigilante thrillers such as Taken (and several other Liam Neeson vehicles such as Non-Stop and A Walk Amongst the Tombstones) and Man On Fire (which also starred Denzel Washington).

Dramatically, The Equalizer suffers when it is too much – at least two sub-plots could have been excised to make it more streamlined and towards the finale, there is unnecessary use of slo-mo to make the action more dramatic, when it would have benefitted from being more succinct. Politically, the film expresses faith in systems of law, order and justice, but claims that greed and power lead to these being corrupted (hardly original) and it is the task of the proletariat to challenge abuse and corruption. Perhaps less progressively, this challenge is violent and destructive as Robert McCall (Washington) easily murders multiple Russian gangsters, batters dirty cops to a pulp and uses any number of improvised weapons to equalise the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless. The film is generically simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil – the bad guys are so bad that they clearly deserve the grisly deaths they meet and all their victims are innocent and downtrodden, while McCall is carefully constructed to ensure normally that we support him. He is helpful and generous to those around him, especially his co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) whom he helps with a job application, as well as abused prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). His employment at a hardware store and use of everyday tools like hammers, corkscrews, nail guns and barb wire further establish his proletariat credentials, in contrast to the sophisticated weaponry of the gangsters he confronts. But while the violence in The Equalizer is presented as necessary and justified, it is not (for the most part) glorified or presented as redemptive.

McCall

Key to the film’s treatment of violence is Washington’s performance. Whereas other powerful performers such as Liam Neeson and Robert De Niro can be accused of coasting, Washington is never less than an utterly magnetic screen presence. His previous collaboration with Fuqua, Training Day, won him a Best Actor Oscar, largely thanks to David Ayer’s acerbic script (for other instances, see the similarly themed Ayer-written-and-directed Harsh Times and End of Watch). Richard Wenk’s script is more simplistic and less concerned with sociological and sub-cultural detail (for an intimate presentation of Russian gangsters, see Eastern Promises), but Washington demonstrates, as he has throughout his career, how much he brings to even a simplistic character. In scenes with Teri and Ralphie, McCall is jovial and amiable, but in the scenes of violence, he becomes cold, implacable and almost inhuman. This aspect of the performance prevents the violence from being glorified – instead it is mechanical and functional, a necessary response to the (gleeful) violence of the Russian gangsters and dirty cops, McCall like an antibody attacking an infection. Washington’s performance is understated, avoiding the guilt-ridden histrionics of Man On Fire and the grandstanding of Training Day and American Gangster. He hints at a great deal but clarifies little behind his hooded eyes other than his ability to assess and deal with threats (reminiscent of scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). This mystery makes him a cypher, a representative of the downtrodden, including black people, Latinos, women and the working class. While The Equalizer suffers from narrative and stylistic excess, when it focuses on its central figure, what he does and what he represents, it makes interesting claims about sites of resistance.

Action Has Fallen

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Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.

I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.

Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.

Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.

I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.

Death

How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.

This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.

The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).

Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.

I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.

What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.

This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.

Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.

Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.

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