By Derek May
YIN: Equalizer 2
Robert McCall is back, and the gloves are officially off.
2014’s reboot of the 80’s TV series saw Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall struggle against his vocation, reluctant to fully embrace his nature. By the end of that film, all indecision had been wiped clean by blood, and McCall, having finally come to terms with himself, was ready to go out into the world and help who he could. And with this year’s inevitable sequel, McCall is doing just that.
We pick up a few years into his new life in a new town, with McCall finding those in need by chauffeuring them around as a Lyft driver. We see no less than four completely separate examples of his unique brand of altruism, giving the film a broader scope, but also a more episodic feel. And while each story is interesting in and of itself, they are also completely separate from the larger whole, giving the film a must more disjointed feel than the original.
Setting those mini-episodes aside, the main storyline, once it’s allowed to fully breathe, pulls McCall out of the darkness of his shrouded past and into the light of day. In the first film, we got hints of McCall’s background—obviously military-trained, some sort of special ops. But the veil remained, giving him a mysterious aura that served both that story and the character well. Our only real glimpse behind that curtain came through a visit to his friends Susan and Brian Plummer (Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman). It was obvious McCall and Susan had a working history, and she became one of his few confidants and served a critical function in bringing McCall out of his shell. And as such, Susan once again serves as our entry point, with her unfortunate murder acting as the catalyst that drives McCall to seek his own sense of justice, releasing the skeletons of his past in the process.
From this point, the plot does its best to appear intricate, but the “twist” is fairly obvious. There’s a bit of fancy slight-of-hand editing to appear to add weight by cutting between the various storylines and characters, and to a degree it works. But ultimately, the story in and of itself is just not as crisp as the first and feels like the script was just a draft or two off where it needed to be.
That said, the characters really make up the difference. Denzel imbues McCall with that keen intelligent ferocity that only Denzel brings. His interactions with so many other characters provide the impetus for the normally introverted character to explore his different facets, from his noble desire for fairness and decency to his almost savage need to punish. But even more importantly, we get a little more insight into McCall the family man that could have been. Not only still working his way through the 100 books as a testament to his late wife, we also have the chance to explore a little more of what that loss has really meant, and what it’s cost him.
We get the best revelations through McCall’s involvement with troubled young artist Miles, played by up-and-comer Ashton Sanders. The surrogate relationship between the two is neither subtle nor overdrawn, and it’s the only side-story to heavily effect the main. But here, the actors really play well off each other, both pushing the other to provide as much emotion and meaning in a word or a look as possible, deepening their connection without having to hit the audience over the head. If the relationship between McCall and Susan is the cornerstone of the plot, the one between he and Miles is the cornerstone of the emotion, as embodied in one of the most gut-wrenching and dramatic scenes of the entire film.
McCall’s interaction with former squad member Dave York, played by Pedro Pascal, starts out both interesting and refreshing; but as the story progresses, it becomes thinner and thinner when it should be going just the opposite. Not sure if this is a fault of Pascal hamming it up a little too much or a lack of effective development of his character, but while their relationship serves its purpose, it lacks the emotional resonance of the others, especially in comparison.
We’ve talked a lot character for an action movie, which to my mind is never a bad thing. But giving proper due, the action sequences are for the most part cleverly designed and understated enough to feel fairly realistic. Denzel, now 63, shows no signs of slowing down, though he’s smartly playing a character who doesn’t require a flashier martial style, allowing the actor to perform much of the work himself. As with the first film, we have little doubt that McCall has the skills to do what he does, and Denzel is as fine an actor with his fists as he is with his eyes, grounding us in the realism of the moment. The finale at the shore during a storm was smartly built up, though the final set piece feels a little trite, with the fight touching on the anti-climactic. Still, outside a far more popcorn-y film, the action performs its job amiably.
In all, Equalizer 2 is a fair if flawed follow-up to the first (like my alliteration there?). It suffers from a lack of cohesive flow, but delivers on both the drama and the characters. And while the whole suffers from the disjoint of its parts, those parts are impressively and skillfully crafted, making each scene so enthralling that we enjoy the ride despite the bumps. If you enjoyed the first, you’ll likely enjoy the second, and regardless of anything else, you really can’t ever go too wrong with Denzel, now can you?
YANG: Luke Cage (Season 2)
Like most people, when it comes to the premiere season of Netflix’s Luke Cage series, I much preferred the first half of episodes to the latter. Part of this was due to the strength of Mahershala Ali’s “Cottonmouth,” deservedly recognized as one of the stronger antagonists of the Marvel live-action universe. With his departure halfway, the rocket that had soared upon flight ultimately touched down for a soft, albeit-respectable landing. But one of the strengths of Marvel, whether on screens big or small, is its ability to listen to feedback and make necessary adjustments. And credit where due, Luke Cage Season 2 is aware enough not to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor; yet perhaps not so aware as to avoid a number of new ones.
One of the saving graces this time round is that we have a much clearer vision of our villains. We stick with them throughout the season as they challenge Luke, and each other, in their own unique ways. Alfre Woodard returns as Mariah Dillard (or Stokes, if you will), who steadily increases pace along her journey from respected civil servant to terrorizing gangland overboss. Woodard certainly appears to relish the role, chewing up every ounce of scenery she can get her teeth into. I’ll admit that this approach tends to be hit and miss with me, with more often than not her choice to go broad giving the character a much more cartoonish feel than those around her. Sure, it’s a comic book show, but most of the actors, as well as the showrunners, tend to veer more toward the realism of the moment. Woodard feels like the exception, and whether she’s simply trying to outshine her castmates or simply making a bold choice for the character, it nevertheless tends to work against her far too often.
Our supporting villain this year is Jamaican super John “Bushmaster” McIver, who is far more interested in Mariah than with Luke. He’ll literally stop at nothing to exact his revenge upon her, and neither Luke nor the entire city of Harlem will stand his way. With his secret-herbs-and-spices miracle drug making him even more powerful than Cage, he’s a physical force to be reckoned with, a vital element in a show about a near-indestructible hero. He’s also a far more complex character than initially presented, with his backstory being fully fleshed across the series, making him on more than one occasion surprisingly sympathetic. Actor Mustafa Shakir has the look and the attitude to really sell the character, even if his island accent is nearly too good—about half his dialogue (not to mention many of the other Jamaicans’) is practically unintelligible!
On the flip side, rejoining Cage is unflappable badass Misty Knight, fresh off the sacrifice of her good arm during her exploits in the Defenders. She’s given a requisite amount of time to deal with the repercussions of that, both personally and professionally, before engaging more with the fallout of her corrupt partner from Season 1 and her divided loyalties between the department and Cage. She rubber bands between the two much to the consternation of both, but rises to the various challenges enough to see her take a truly unexpected (perhaps even unbelievable) turn by the end. It’s a well-explored journey that ends up allowing actress Simone Missick to mine the emotional depths of the character while taking her to ever-new places.
By now you may be wondering, where the hell is Luke Cage in all this, I mean, it IS his show, right?! And that exact point is one of my major criticisms of this entry. For all the impressive character depth, the intricate plot twists and turns, and the conflict between all manner of characters, the piece that sadly seems to get the least attention is our titular hero. Amazingly, he feels like the secondary character to his own story, spending far too much of his time reacting to people and situations than being pro-active.
Throughout the series, we know more and more about Mariah, Misty, Shades, Claire, Bushmaster . . . hell, even Comanche!! We know their histories, their motivations, their thoughts and deepest feelings, their struggles and fears. But I don’t know if I can honestly say the same for Cage here, at least not to the same degree. Sure, he faces challenges. Mariah is the test of his morality, Bushmaster the test of his physicality, Claire the test of his humanity. And while we certainly have scenes showcasing Luke’s internal struggles with each, I am willing to bet good money that if you tallied the percentages of screentime of all the major characters this season, Luke’s would be the least by far. It’s not that he’s not developed, it’s that he’s not developed to the degree he should be. Compared to any of the other Marvel shows, Cage is almost a bit player, overshadowed by the uneven interest in those around him.
Whereas the show explores every conceivable facet of Mariah’s relationships, from her ill-fated romance with Shades, to her estranged love-hate connection to her own daughter, to her traumatic and misplaced loyalty to her crime-family roots, which leads to the direct conflict with Bushmaster, there’s nary a character stone left unturned.
But what about Cage?
There are some wonderful moments with Claire as he struggles with his past demons and who he is and wants to be. But just as we get to the meat of the matter, Claire departs, leaving Cage dangling in the wind. His biggest challenge is in finally confronting his past, as represented by his own alienating father. And while their scenes together are by far Luke’s most emotional confrontations, it still feels sparse in comparison to the others.
That being said, Mike Colter does his best to make use of his time. I’m not convinced he’s a great actor, but I am convinced he was born for the role. He exudes charm, intelligence, physicality, sexiness, and honesty—you believe he’s a hero! Which makes some of the struggles and decisions throughout the season so difficult to understand, up to and including the enigmatic ending which I’m still not entirely sure about. Luke, for all intents and purposes, is learning what it means to be a hero here: is it just the desire and ability to do good? Is it being the symbol of hope and embodiment of moral perfection that people expect? These are valid and interesting questions, and though we struggle alongside Luke, I’d much prefer to see more of him and those struggles than of those of really anyone else.
So where does that leave us? I’d say that in many respects, Luke Cage Season 2 fixes the major complaints of its first run by streamlining its villains and keeping more to a focus. Yet, ultimately the quality is about on par, given its unequal emphasis on side characters, causing a tough buy-in to Luke’s overall journey. If you’re a fan of the character, the show, or just the Marvel universe at large, it’s certainly worth your time. There’s plenty of good swimming around in there. But like a cake with a few too many eggs, it just needs some adjustment of proportions.
P.S. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole season is how this season accomplished in 1 episode something that 2 seasons worth of other shows couldn’t do: make Iron Fist not just less annoying, but almost . . . interesting? Stay tuned, true believers!