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Denzel and Liam take on killers: So what else is new? – Play It Again, Tim

Equalizer 3
Written by Tim Miller

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated in a world where corruption and evil run rampant. What can one person do?

That’s why movies like “The Equalizer 3” (R, 109 minutes, in theaters) can be so cathartic. One person can, and does, make a difference, as anger turns to action.

Very brutal action.

“The Equalizer 3” is the fifth collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua. They’ve also worked together on the two previous “Equalizer” movies, a remake of classic Western “The Magnificent Seven,” and “Training Day,” which earned Washington a best-actor Oscar.

Equalizer 3

Denzel Washington returns as Robert McCall in “The Equalizer 3.” (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

In “Equalizer 3,” Washington is back as Robert McCall, a retired Marine and former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who went vigilante in the first two “Equalizer” flicks and is about to do it again.

This time, he’s in Italy. In the immediate aftermath of slaughtering a Mafia gang at a winery in Sicily (as always, he has his reasons), Robert is shot in the back. Back on the mainland, he’s found, near death, and is taken to a doctor, Enzo Arisio (Remo Girone), in Altamonte, a seaside village near Naples. As Robert temporarily regains consciousness, Enzo asks just one question: Is Robert a good man or a bad man? Robert says he doesn’t know. That’s good enough for Enzo.

As Robert slowly recovers, he hobbles around town with a cane, and he falls in love with the place and its people. He could find peace here. Perhaps he has found a home.

Ah, but this would be a short movie if it ended there. Mobsters linked to the crime organization the Camorra are terrorizing the Altamonte people.

Robert doesn’t like this. He suggests to mob lieutenant Marco Quaranto (Andrea Dodero), hot-headed younger brother of equally hot-headed mob leader Vincent Quaranto (Andrea Scarduzio), that the Camorra take its business elsewhere.

Marco, backed by his gang of thugs, finds this suggestion amusing. Until he doesn’t.

But, all along, we are amused. Because we’ve come to know Robert, and he’s the Larry Bird of vigilantes. Just as Bird would tell an opponent guarding him, “Now I’m going to knock down a three-pointer, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” and then make good on it, Robert’s warnings aren’t so much threats as statements of fact. We’re in on this; Marco and his like are not. When they underestimate Robert and are about to be taught a horrific lesson as a result, we can’t help but chuckle.

This is one reason why “Equalizer 3” has an edge over most vigilante action flicks, but there are others.

Shot by the great three-time-Oscar-winning cinematographer (and Cape native) Robert Richardson (“JFK,” “The Aviator,” “Hugo”), the film captures the beauty of an Italian village and the surrounding area, along with the sense of community among its people. Despite the film’s overriding dark material, these glimpses of Italian village life make it easy to understand why anyone would feel a sense of serenity and warmth there – except when those pesky Camorra folks are around, of course. Then Marcelo Zarvos’ gripping, blaring music anticipates and accentuates the insanity of the intense violence to come.

It comes as no surprise, though, that Washington, with his gravitas and all-around badassery, dominates the picture. He makes you believe that Robert alone can kill 10, 20 hoodlums in a few minutes. But Washington also does something really fascinating here: A few times, after Robert has dispatched several henchmen and is watching a particularly evil killer draw his last breath, all humanity drains out of his face. He stares, slack-jawed, at the bloodied person crawling before him almost as if inspecting a bug, and he himself looks like an alien, or someone with diminished intellectual capacity. You wonder if there’s sadistic pleasure behind his gaze or simply emptiness. Either might make it possible for him to butcher so many people with such ease, and we’re left to wonder: Even with the best of intentions, is he a good man or a bad man? Where do you draw the line?

And here’s another question: Are we complicit? Despite the film’s virtues, the formula it follows is simple, and simplistic: Bad guys do really bad things to good people; hero does really bad things to bad guys. The end. And it often leads to a big box-office bonanza.

Even if Robert isn’t sadistic – and that’s a big if – are we? Are we good people or bad people?

You got me. **½ (out of four)

Anxiety without the fun

I’ve got enough stress in my life.

I don’t need “Retribution” (R, in theaters) to add to it.

Suspense and vicarious thrills can be fun. That’s why Hitchcock films remain popular.

But “Retribution,” the latest family-members-are-in-danger-and-it’s-up-to-Dad-to-save-them movie starring Liam Neeson, offers 91 minutes of anxiety without the fun.

Bank executive Matt Turner (Neeson) is stuck driving in his Mercedes through the streets of Berlin, Germany, and he can’t get out because some mystery villain has stuck a bomb under his seat. If Ben gets out of his seat, ka-boom!


Liam Neeson is behind the wheel in “Retribution.” (Lionsgate)

Worse, he’s got his sullen teenage son – Is that redundant? – and young daughter in the car with him, and when they learn about the bomb, they’re not exactly helpful. While Matt is trying to figure out a way to avoid getting blown to smithereens, he has to field questions like “What did you do?” and “Are you and Mom getting a divorce?” (Yes, the bomb in the car isn’t enough. There also are marital issues with which to contend, with Embeth Davidtz as the neglected wife.)

When not dealing with the needy kiddos, Matt is on the phone taking directions from his victimizer. Naturally, it involves arranging for a large sum of cash to be transferred to some secret account. And, naturally, this is difficult to arrange.

To make things even more complicated, the mystery person has already blown up a few cars and killed their inhabitants, and framed Matt for it. Our hero has to dodge police cruisers in a series of chase scenes.

With the possible exception of Matthew Modine, as Matt’s boss, everything about this movie is dull. The plot is dull. The action is dull. The characters are dull (and, as an added bonus, unlikable). Even the heavy-handed message – Hey, Mr. Workaholic! Wake up and appreciate your family! – is dull.

But then there is that anxiety the movie creates. So the question is: Can anxiety be dull?

“Retribution” provides the answer. Yes. Yes it can. *½

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller, Movie Critic

Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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