Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

In a summer of endless sequels, Equalizer 2 has the distinction of being both unoriginal and predictable. Yes, it stimulates that part of your brain that likes to see things go boom and bad guys get pummeled—but the part of your brain that likes to solve things and seeks intellectual depth will take a nap during this film.

However … Equalizer 2 also has a guy named Denzel Washington in it, supplying his every line with grace and punching up the quality of a rote script simply by being onscreen. He and director Antoine Fuqua team up once again and make this sequel to a cinematic update of an OK TV show worth your time. It’s fast food … but it’s good fast food.

Washington returns as Robert McCall, a former special-ops guy with a taste for vigilantism and tea. He’s just sort of hanging out in Boston, working as a Lyft driver and painting over graffiti at his apartment complex, when word comes in that a good friend has bit the dust at the hands of mystery killers. Robert does not like it when you kill his friends. In fact, it’s fair to say Robert will do bad things to you for such acts.

He goes on a search for the killer/killers … and you will probably figure out who the bad people are fairly quickly. Equalizer 2 isn’t worried about tricking you with mysteries. It wants to set up scenarios for McCall’s vicious showdowns with bad folks—and Fuqua does this multiple times with bloody action gusto. Sequences include a dustup on a train in Turkey, with McCall in a full-bearded costume, calmly drinking his tea before dispatching multiple attackers in the most improbable yet badass way. (Does the teapot become a weapon? Why, yes, yes it does!) There’s also a shootout in a hurricane, reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s showdown at the end of Patriot Games. Fuqua makes them all pop in a way that improves upon his work in the first film.

This time out, McCall comes off as a combination of Michael Myers and the Batman. He’s almost supernatural in his abilities to disarm and dispatch his victims. It doesn’t matter how many guns, hammers and blades are coming at him—he’s going to win. There’s a lot of knife play in this movie, so if you have a hard time with cinematic stabbings, this one is not for you. It sometimes plays like a slasher film. Balancing out the nasty violence, Washington plays the role with as much finesse as he does in those Oscar-nominated efforts of his. He’s just so damned cool.

There are other people in this movie, like Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight). They all do serviceable work, but let’s face it: They all need to shut up and get out of the way so the almighty Washington can orate and kick ass. Many of the people in this film are just around to have their noses broken, necks twisted and fingers pulled apart.

There were a couple of plot threads that, quite honestly, could’ve been dropped, although McCall’s fatherly relationship to Sanders’ character is one of the better parts of the film. Sanders plays Miles, a wannabe art student who dabbles in gang activity. Washington and Sanders have some good screen time together.

Back when the first Equalizer came out, I openly asked for it to become a franchise. With this—Washington’s first participation in a sequel of any kind—I got my wish. It’s everything that garbage remake of Death Wish wanted to be. The way this one finishes … it feels like it could be the last. But there’s no need to stop.

The Equalizer 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Denzel Washington directs and stars in Fences as Troy Maxson, an ex-baseball player in the 1950s. It’s a role originated on Broadway in a 1987 Tony-winning performance by James Earl Jones. Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway revival (for which he also won a Tony), and now he’s taking another shot at this great character penned by August Wilson.

Viola Davis, who co-starred with Washington on Broadway (yep, another Tony), plays Rose, Troy’s long-suffering wife. The two try to raise a son of their own (Jovan Adepo) while contending with Troy’s children from past relationships and present affairs.

Some of 2016’s finest performances are contained in the movie, including that by Washington and, most notably, Davis, who should find herself in contention for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The movie, however, suffers from that feeling that it is a filmed play: The staging is lackluster and drab, and some of the writing feels a tad melodramatic, far more suitable for a live performance than a motion picture.

Still, you can’t take away from the performances by Washington and Davis. Washington definitely has a knack for getting great work from his cast.

Fences opens Saturday, Dec. 24, at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342).

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Director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven (which itself was a remake of Seven Samurai) has enough in common with the Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen original to make it feel like a re-telling of the classic story. It also contains enough departures from the original to make it feel like a fresh take.

The Mexican bandits led by Eli Wallach in the original are replaced by an evil, land-stealing company led by a man named Bartholomew Bogue. As played by Peter Sarsgaard, Bogue is a memorable villain who makes skin crawl. He rolls into a mining town; kills a bunch of good, hard working people; and winds up getting the grouping in the movie’s title opposing his ass. Let the spectacular gunfights commence!

Fuqua pal Denzel Washington (they also worked together on The Equalizer and Training Day) is first-rate as Chisolm, basically Brynner’s role from the 1960 classic. When the wife of one of the deceased (Haley Bennett) comes looking for help and mentions Bogue’s name, Chisolm flies into calm, collected and valiant action. He enlists six other men to visit the town and prepare the townspeople for the fight of their lives.

The Magnificent Seven include Chisolm, scheming alcoholic gunslinger Faraday (Chris Pratt), the knife-wielding Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Vasquez the “Texican” (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

Each member of the cast does a nice job of building a character in the 133-minute film. Hawke (who also frequents many Fuqua films) is especially good as the once-heartless sharpshooter who now has a case of the Jon Voight-in-Deliverance shakes when he tries to kill a living thing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here again: Hawke is the most improved actor I’ve witnessed in my years of reviewing movies. This guy used to be the worst thing on a movie screen, and now he is one of the best.

Pratt scores laughs as the slightly racist, Archie Bunker-with-a-pistol member of the crew. D’Onofrio is equally funny, sometimes employing a high-pitched voice, as a man of honorable means who will crush your face with his boot if you steal from him.

Fuqua most certainly knows how to stage an action scene, and the action scenes in this one are absolutely thrilling. Every gunfight is expertly staged and beautifully tense, especially the final standoff. I was reminded watching this movie that if it weren’t for that final battle in the original The Magnificent Seven, we wouldn’t have had those final battles in Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos.

While the film somehow scored a PG-13 rating, it’s worth noting that it is still very violent. There are not only a lot of gun deaths in this movie; there is some serious stabbing and slashing with knives and forks and things. I was actually surprised by how brutal the film was. I guess the MPAA has some sort of blood-volume criterion, and a movie can stab and shoot as much as it wants as long as no more than two quarts or so of fake blood is spilled. By my eye, this sucker is an R-rated movie.

If anything takes the film down a notch, it’s the all-too-clean production values. The sets often look like something out of Disney’s Frontierland, and the costuming is a little too clean and spiffy. I prefer Westerns that are a little grittier (Eastwood’s Unforgiven being the high watermark).

The Magnificent Seven gets the fall movie season off to a good start. It’s actually the sort of well-cast, thrilling blockbuster we often would see in the summer, and it gives the old time Western genre a decent addition.

The Magnificent Seven is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a quiet employee at a Home Depot-type store. Robert likes to drink tea at a local diner and read his book. When a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) gets into trouble with Russian mobsters, Robert springs into action—and major details of his past are slowly revealed.

Washington is pretty damn great in the role (based on a TV show from the 1980s), playing a sweet, gentle man who can tear your face off in an instant without blinking an eye. The film is directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and while he resorts to a lot of visual clichés (slow motion, rain), he owns those clichés. Marton Csokas is good and scary as Teddy, the film’s main bad guy. His confrontations with Robert are quite memorable.

The movie doesn’t offer much when it comes to new things, but it does provide solid entertainment throughout. I’m hoping Washington gets a franchise out of this one, because I’d like to see more of Robert McCall.

The Equalizer is playing at theaters across the valley.

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2 Guns offers a couple of intriguing acting possibilities.

One: Denzel Washington, who has done well on the dramatic and action side, has always shown a flair for humor, yet he hasn’t made many comedies (Carbon Copy in 1981 and Much Ado About Nothing in 1993).

Two: Mark Wahlberg has made a lot of action films, but most of them stink (Contraband, The Big Hit). His comedies, on the other hand, feature some of his very best work, with The Other Guys being a shining example.

So, does 2 Guns provide a chance for Washington to be funnier, and Wahlberg to bring the laughs in an action movie that isn’t completely lame?

The answer: a mild “yes.” 2 Guns gets no accolades for originality, but Washington and Wahlberg are a winning combo—and a nasty turn by Bill Paxton as a satanic CIA man helps things along. This is not a straight-up comedy, but it has a good share of action-comedy laughs.

Washington plays Bobby Trench, an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent trying to take down a Mexican drug cartel led by the dude from Miami Vice and Battlestar Galactica (Edward James Olmos). Wahlberg is Stig, AWOL from the Navy and looking to clear his name, (There’s some other nonsense that I didn’t really follow, too.)

Through a bunch of “only in the movies” circumstances, they find themselves teamed up and robbing a bank—unaware that each of them are undercover, and lying about who they are. They rob the bank expecting to net a certain amount of money, but wind up with a lot more.

Enter Bill Paxton. He proves mightily adept at playing a man with compromised morals. He has a bit involving a Russian-roulette game that is actually quite chilling, and he chews on every line delivery as if it were a mouthful of awesome jerky. I haven’t enjoyed Paxton this much in a movie since he wielded an ax and spouted religious claptrap back in 2001 in the underrated gem Frailty.

The film kicks into a higher gear when the Washington and Wahlberg characters realize each other’s true identities, and they work together to overcome various betrayals and double-crosses inflicted upon them by the CIA, girlfriends, the Navy, the snot-nosed kid down the street, and Jesus. Everybody seems to be out to screw these guys.

I like Wahlberg most when he’s trying to be funny. I especially liked a sequence in which his character is berating a group of men for torturing chickens—while he is chewing on a barbecued chicken leg. His character has a strange sort of exuberance; he's a childlike wonder coupled with a shooter’s eye, and that all makes him a great action-comedy partner.

Washington is often called upon to be serious or bad-ass, plus he gets the occasional chance to cry after it looks like he’s not going to cry. (I will never forget that tear shooting out of his face in Glory.) Here, he’s allowed to cut loose in a way he never has before, and Wahlberg proves to be a great counterpart.

Of course, none of this would work if director Baltasar Kormákur had screwed things up—like he did with Wahlberg and the awful Contraband. 2 Guns is far more straightforward than that convoluted mess, and the chases and shootouts crackle with the kind of intensity that we action-movie fans crave this time of year.

This is a testosterone-heavy movie, with Paula Patton playing the only female character who really registers. As Deb, Bobby’s DEA partner, Patton does just fine. Her character, like every other in the film, is a bit of a stereotype, but she handles it with grace. She also gets partially naked, because this is an R-rated film; it’s targeted at men; and most men (and many women) want to see her naked.

The producers face a dilemma if they go for a sequel: What will they name the thing? 2 Guns 2? Or 2 Guns II? Or how about 2 Guns: Even Gunnier? Why not Mark Wahlberg Is Super Funny When He Acts Like a 10-Year-Old, and He Does It Again in This Poorly Named Sequel? Who knows?

2 Guns is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Spike Lee tried to get a movie with Denzel Washington playing Jackie Robinson off the ground for many years, but couldn’t make it happen. I get a feeling that Lee, who made one of the great biopics with Malcolm X, would’ve done something really special with this story.

Meanwhile, this effort from director Brian Helgeland (Payback) is OK, and even really good at times, but gets awfully hokey.

Chadwick Boseman is a great pick to play Robinson, as is Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese. Harrison Ford delivers big-time as Branch Rickey, the man who brought Robinson to the majors, and Christopher Meloni leaves the movie all too soon as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. (Durocher was suspended in 1947, the year Robinson made his debut.) Boseman shines even when the movie doesn’t, and it’s a lot of fun to see Ford do something this craggy and different.

This film is good, but it should’ve been great. 

42 is playing at theaters across the valley.

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A reckless alcoholic who happens to really know how to fly a plane gets a rather strange and romantic screen treatment in director Robert Zemeckis' uneven but entertaining Flight.

As airline-pilot Whip Whitaker—who likes vodka, beer, cocaine, cough syrup and flight attendants to excess—Denzel Washington delivers a typically great performance. The movie is excellent in the first half-hour, but just OK after that. Even though the film drags and gets a bit melodramatic or trite in spots, Washington always manages to hold it up. That's a tough task, seeing as this one clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The film opens with Whip, hung over to the point of still being intoxicated, waking up in a hotel room. A beautiful naked woman prances around while Whip has a tense phone conversation with his ex-wife. Washington plays this scene with a wicked finesse, especially when he leers at the nude woman while arguing with the ex. It's one of those great Denzel moments. Whip then snorts a line of cocaine, dons some sexy sunglasses and a pilot's suit, and heads off to fly a jetliner with more than 100 people aboard. (Viewers will probably do a little extra scrutinizing of their pilot the next time they get on a plane.)

The flight itself is a wonder of filmmaking. Zemeckis produced a shocking plane crash before—Tom Hanks going down in Cast Away—but this sequence is among the best he has ever directed. It's amazing enough when Whip pilots the jet through a storm during takeoff. When that plane takes a dramatic plunge later in its flight, and Whip eventually flies it upside down before gliding it to a crash-landing in an open field, it's a true pulse-racer.

The crash results in minimal casualties, and Whip is initially praised as a hero. Then people start seeing the toxicology reports.

Watching Whip deal with his alcoholism and the eventual legal proceedings gets a little tedious and, at times, ridiculous. The movie hits a real low when Whip visits his co-pilot in the hospital, who happens to be pumped up on painkillers—and far too much religion. It's a scene the movie didn't need.

I'm also not a fan of how Whip conveniently picks up on an angelic heroin addict during his hospital stay. The film chickens out here, refusing to allow Washington to simply portray a man in a downward spiral. The screenwriter just had to throw in the addict with a heart of gold to make Whip more of a romantic character.

With Flight, Zemeckis and Washington have to make a somewhat despicable man worth rooting for over the course of two-plus hours. In the end, they achieve that feat, but only because Washington is almost incapable of being totally unlikable onscreen. Heck, you still liked him when his character's evil ass was getting riddled with much-needed bullets in Training Day, right?

Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle do good work as the union representative and the lawyer trying to save Whip's career, respectively. John Goodman gets some uncomfortable laughs as Whip's buddy and drug-supplier, while Melissa Leo makes a good impression in a short time as a crash investigator.

Flight is ultimately an OK but inconsistent movie about a man's struggle with alcoholism, with a stunning plane crash thrown in. Stay tuned for Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in Smashed, a much-better movie on the subject of substance abuse coming soon to a theater near you.

<i>Playing at a variety of theaters across the Coachella Valley.</i>

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