Tag Archives: Antoine Fuqua

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

So I was on a short flight recently and had the opportunity to either do some work or watch a movie. When I saw that they had The Magnificent Seven, which I missed out on during its theatrical run,  the choice became a no brainer.

I’ve never watched the 1960 classic or Seven Samurai, the 1954 Japanese film that inspired the American version, but I knew of their reputation and the fact that this remake was unlikely to live up to either. That said, I also knew this latest version of The Magnificent Seven is directed by gritty action director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and written by Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective, so I knew it was unlikely to be bad. After all, it does feature a superstar cast led by Denzel Washington, along with Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Cam Gigandet, and Matt Bomer.

I was kind of surprised just how simple the premise is. Sarsgaard plays a corrupt, mean baddie who likes to take advantage of the little people. Before he returns to pillage a little town, Haley Bennet decides to hire a warrant officer played by Denzel Washington to save them. Denzel goes on to recruit a group of magnificent gunslingers and warriors from all walks of life to help him, along with assistance of the townspeople. They prepare and then engage in a spectacular battle. It’s essentially a tower defense game masquerading as a Western.

I liked the tone and spirit of the film. All seven dudes are cool and charismatic in their own ways, with Denzel and Pratt being the obvious standouts. And the action, when it finally hits, is spectacular and unrelenting. I didn’t time it, but it sure feels like nearly half the movie was spent on this all-out gunfight with bullets and explosions galore. It’s well-executed action with a blazing score from legendary composer James Horner before his tragic passing last year. As far as popcorn entertainment goes, The Magnificent Seven is indeed quite magnificent if you’re into old school Westerns.

On the other hand, it felt like the movie didn’t have time to develop the characters with any level of depth. There are, after all, seven of them, plus a main villain and a couple of important supporting characters, but there’s only 133 minutes to share between them. So really, all you get is a slick introduction and then not much more with the exception of a one-liner here or there. Some are handled better than others, but on the whole,  film is unable able to do any of the characters or their interactions and relationships justice. And as  result, the motivations of these characters in fighting a battle with the odds firmly stacked against them are never properly fleshed out. There are virtually no subplots, and certain plot points are set up in a way that make the resolutions blindingly obvious.

In all honesty, I think The Magnificent Seven would have been better off as something like a 10-episode TV series, where you introduce a new character each episode and have them fight it out in a long two-episode finale. That’s the only way they would have been able to address the shortcomings and add a little more flesh to the bare bones story. As a full-length feature film, it is what it is — a fun, largely forgettable popcorn ride with a super cast and some cool moments — but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Southpaw (2015)

Southpaw-Teaser-Poster

I still remember when I saw the first promo pic of Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloodied, ripped body for Southpaw, and turning gay for a second or two. Gyllenhaal had been in pretty good shape for Prince of Persia and Love and Other Drugs, though the intense boxing training he underwent for Southpaw took his physique to a level that even earned praise from the world’s most renowned bodybuilder, The Terminator himself (during a joint appearance on the Graham Norton Show).

What excited me more than Gyllenhaal’s physique was the promise of a genuinely good boxing movie. As an avid fan of the sweet science, I know just how rare boxing movies are, and how virtually non-existent good boxing movies are. But Fuqua has proven himself to be a skilled director through stellar efforts such as Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, and the Oscar-nominated Gyllenhaal was coming off a downright phenomenal performance in Nightcrawler. Surely the two of them together could produce some magic.

Or so I thought.

And so it pains me to say that Southpaw was a huge disappointment, probably my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Despite packing so much promise, the film turned out to be a two-hour cliche fest filled with predictable plot points, stereotypes and unrealistic depictions of the boxing world. Not even Fuqua’s solid direction or Gyllenhaal’s abs could save it.

The story revolves around Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a hard-nosed, temperamental world champion light-heavyweight boxer raised through Brooklyn’s tough orphanage system with his beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams). All boxing movies are ultimately underdog stories, and Southpaw is no different, regardless of whether the protagonist starts from the bottom or from the top.

I don’t want to divulge much more about the plot than that, though if you’ve seen a single trailer or read any reviews with spoilers (most of them have) you’ll pretty much be able to guess all the main plot points from start to finish. Actually, you might be able to do that even if you haven’t.

There were multiple times during the film when I thought, I hope cliche X doesn’t happen next because it sure looks like it’s gonna happen! And then of course, BOOM, it happens exactly the way I feared. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly where you’ve seen specific plot points or scenes before, but it will all certainly feel very familiar. For some audiences, that safe feeling of predictability is welcome, but for me it was a low blow.

My problems with the movie really begin with the title, Southpaw. As a natural left-hander myself, I was hoping to see a southpaw protagonist as the title suggests. But guess what? The title is misleading! It’s not completely irrelevant to the story, but it’s almost as though they thought, hey, Southpaw would be a nice name for a boxing movie, nearly finish filming it, and then suddenly realise, Oh shit, we need to do something about that title! (The real reason is because the film was originally written for Eminem, a lefty in real life).

Next, I found the world in the movie to be lacking in authenticity. It’s hard for me to get into details without giving away spoilers, but essentially the boxing world that is depicted in the film is not how things work in real life. Not for big time boxing stars in the modern era (and that’s what Hope is — white, undefeated, exciting style, good-looking, etc). Everything from the promotional aspects to the financial aspects is manipulated to suit the narrative, and it sticks out like dogs balls for people who know a thing or two about how the frustratingly rigid fight game works these days.

These are just some general comments and not spoilers, but basically top-tier pay-per-view events need at least several months to promote. Even the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, the biggest fight in boxing history, had about three months, and that was regarded as the absolute minimum even taking into account that the fight didn’t need a typical promotional tour because it would sell itself. Top-tier PPV draws and their promoters — on both sides — would not take on megafights at short notice (you need at least an eight-week training camp). Popular former champions — especially those still in their physical prime — wield considerable clout in the sport and will have no problem finding a manager or setting up a fight people will pay to see. And the amount of money PPV stars make these days is easily in the millions per fight, and if you’ve had a long and successful career you’ll be set for life many times over. We’re not even talking about the generational stars like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who have in excess of US$400 million each in career ring earnings. Even second-tier or third-tier guys a lot of casual fans might not have heard of, like Paulie Malignaggi from Brooklyn, who boasts a modest career record of 33-7 (with 7 KOs) and generally fights on the undercards of big bouts, has an estimated net worth of about US$8 million. I’m not saying that the film ignores all these things completely, but just that it glosses over them with convenient cliches.

And for all the talk about brutally realistic boxing sequences and really getting punched, I actually didn’t find them that authentic. Kudos for getting real HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr and using the same cameras as the PPV telecasts, but if you watch a lot of real boxing you might think some of the fight scenes in Southpaw look quite choreographed. Not all of them, but the close ups in particular look very methodical. It might be the slightly exaggerated reactions to the punches or the studio-made sound effects, or perhaps it’s the stark contrast between the unorthodox brawling style of Hope and real world-class boxers. Granted, we’re a long way away from the arcade-game boxing of the early Rocky movies, though in terms of authenticity, Southpaw‘s fight scenes are still a notch or two below Ali and The Fighter (which have the advantage of real footage to emulate) and probably fall on the same level as Rocky Balboa. Watch them on YouTube and see if you agree. In fact, the most naturalistic boxing scenes in the entire film were from a short sparring session featuring real professional fighter Victor Ortiz.

The biggest problem with the movie is the lazy script. I mean, come on, naming the central character “Hope” so you can toss in a bunch of puns isn’t exactly subtle. Apart from the boxing issues I noted above, there are a lot of little nagging things. If you break down the major themes and plot points in the story — I’m not going to spell them out — you’ll see that they’ve pretty much all been recycled from the Rocky franchise. There are also unresolved issues that shouldn’t be unresolved, like a major incident early in the film (given away in the trailers) that is kind of forgotten until it is disposed of at the end with a throwaway line. And the fact that it was unresolved in the first place lacks logic and common sense.

Some of the errors are littered throughout the dialogue and can be glaring. I’m going to break a rule here and divulge a couple of mini-spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Otherwise, highlight the white text below to read me rant. 

At the start of the film, a reporter asks Hope whether there is anyone left for him to fight. Seconds later, Hope’s arch nemesis, a top up-and-coming fighter he has never faced, appears and challenges him to a bout. Why would the reporter ask such a stupid question when the answer is so obviously standing right there? The commentary written for the HBO commentators also has these problems, such as moronically declaring that a previously undefeated fighter’s career is over after one loss.

I feel bad for Jake Gyllenhaal because it’s obvious he put a lot of work and effort into this role. But surely a guy who has been in so many fantastic movies can tell Southpaw isn’t very good. It would have been interesting had Eminem gotten the role instead, but clearly Gyllenhaal is the better actor and stronger screen presence. Oh well, at least he got really ripped and learned how to box. And Eminem still got to a write a song for the movie.

As for the rest of the cast, Forest Whitaker does his usual shtick as an old trainer with serious skills and a heart of gold. It’s the type of role the Oscar-winner can sleepwalk through, and probably did. I like the guy who plays Hope’s nemesis, Miguel Gomez, who might not be a great actor but at least looks like a boxer. The problem for me is that he keeps reminding me of his character in TV’s campy zombie show The Strain. Rachel McAdams doesn’t get to do much, and the young girl who plays their daughter, Oona Laurence, doesn’t particularly stand out, though I blame some of that on the dialogue given to her. No such excuse for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who plays Hope’s manager. He’s flat-out horrible.

A lot of my harshness in this review stems from expectations and my fondness for the sport. Casual viewers who don’t think as much about the intricacies and are simply looking for an uplifting sports movie might find it a lot more enjoyable than I did. I wish I felt differently about the movie because I can see what they were trying to do with it — an underdog story of redemption that’s character-focused and fuelled by a moving father-daughter relationship — but ultimately the script and execution is so heavy-handed that I couldn’t see past all the flaws.

If I have to end this review with a boxing analogy I would say this: They say the  most devastating knockout punches in boxing are the ones you don’t see coming. Southpaw may hit very hard, but it’s nowhere near as effective as it should be because you can see all the punches coming from a mile away.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Equalizer (2014)

The-Equalizer-IMAX-poster

The Equalizer, or as I like to call it, “Black Taken”, is predictable, formulaic Denzel Washington excitement. For those who take comfort in familiarity, the film will probably be an enjoyable experience. For those who are sick of watching Denzel play the same bad ass over and over, it will probably not do very much for you.

Denzel plays a seemingly normal loner named Robert, qho works in a seemingly normal job at a Home Mart. But of course, he is really a man with a very specific set of skills, and if you cross him, he will find you, and he will kill you.

And so when a surely-she-can’t-be-that-young prostitute played by Chloe Moretz is roughed up by her Russian gangster pimps, Denzel decides to go on a personal rampage of revenge and justice. But you already knew that.

Typical “character development” scenes aside, The Equalizer is more or less just Denzel being Denzel, taking names and taking down baddies with brutal efficiency. Unlike Bryan Mills, however, Robert McCall is not just about doing what he needs to do without giving a damn about anything or anyone else. And that’s because, of course, Denzel characters also need to have a heart of gold. So Bob is not only a badass — he’s also a disgustingly great guy with a moral compass that always points in the same direction as Jesus’s.

In terms of action and execution, there’s not a whole lot to complain about The Equalizer. It’s powered by the stylish direction of Antoine Fuqua and it features Denzel’s always-impressive acting chops, and for all the violence it’s actually a very comfortable film to watch because you know exactly what you’re in for. I did wish, however, that Robert could have run into a little more resistance or had some more formidable foes.

I don’t think it’s quite as good as Man on Fire, but those who are happy just to watch Denzel tear up the screen should be perfectly satisfied watching him do his thing in The Equalizer.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

olympus_has_fallen

Olympus Has Fallen has been called “Die Hard in the White House”, and for once this description is apt. Of course, it’s nowhere near as good as (what I believe is) the greatest action movie of all time, but all things considered it’s about as good as you could reasonably hope for given the insanity of its central idea — the White House getting taken over by terrorists.

Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a former Secret Service agent who gets reassigned to a desk job after a tragic accident. The South Korean president visits and somehow the White House gets overrun by a mysterious terrorist. The US president, played by Aaron Eckhart, is held hostage, and Banning becomes the only man who can save him — and the world!

The premise is as corny as described, but to be honest I didn’t find it all that hard to swallow, thanks to director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter), the man with the coolest surname in Hollywood. Fuqua doesn’t make Olympus Has Fallen realistic (that’s impossible), but he allows us to sufficiently suspend disbelief through clever misdirection and never giving the audience time to think about the plot’s deficiencies by bombarding them with non-stop, blazing action. I just kept thinking, “Yeah, that could happen,” and went along for the ride.

Contrast that with another film I reviewed recently, Red Dawn, also about a foreign invasion of the United States (and one of the worst movies of 2012), and you too will appreciate Fuqua’s supreme filmmaking skills. Though both films have lots of guns and explosions and Americanism, Red Dawn bored me to tears, whereas Olympus Has Fallen had me mesmerised.

The film essentially copies the Die Hard template but ups the stakes about a hundred fold. A capable dude caught in a situation he didn’t expect to be in — but instead of a commercial building you have the White-freaking-House. One man against a whole army of badasses. A mysterious and brutal villain determined to weed him out. Epic gun fights, skilful hand-to-hand combat, exploding helicopters, falling from high places, sceptical allies on the outside, no friends on the inside. Awesomeness.

I’ve never really liked Butler outside of 300,  but here he makes an excellent Secret Service guy because he looks the part. Aaron Eckhart won’t be remembered as one of the best on-screen presidents, but he’s certainly not one of the worst either. He doesn’t get to do a whole lot in this film but he makes the best of what he’s got.

The rest of the supporting cast is stellar. As usual, there is the omnipresent Morgan Freeman in the type of role we have seen too many times; Angela Bassett and Robert Forster as anxious government officials; Aussie Radha Mitchell as the wife; Ashley Judd as the First Lady; and Melissa Leo — the standout — as the feisty secretary of defense.

The weak link was Dylan McDermott, another ex-Secret Service guy. It was probably more how the character was written than his acting, but he came across as totally unconvincing and lacking in personality. His story arc was also poorly conceived and concluded. Just crap.

Also crap is some of the pitfalls of the action film that Fuqua just couldn’t avoid, such as blessing our hero with obvious insights that somehow escape the common man (and all of the president’s staff), the usual America “f*%k yeah” moments, as well as the the odd annoying cliche. I also found it strange that a number of the more interesting plot points were either not explored or wrapped up prematurely. I can’t go into details without divulging them, but those who have seen the film will have an idea.

Nonetheless, Olympus Has Fallen turned out to be far better than I expected. Stylish, explosive and rarely a dull moment, it’s the action film that Die Hard 5 could have and should have been (instead of that silly Russian story). Actually, it would have been a pretty good premise for a 24 movie too, if they ever decide to make one. This is a movie I would definitely keep watching if I happen to stumble across it on TV in a couple of years.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: One of the best decisions the producers made was to make this a R-rated film (MA15+ in Australia), which allowed all the violence it needed to be effective. It will be interesting to see what type of film White House Down (which looks like exactly the same film except with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx), set for release in the summer, will be with what is expected to be a tamer PG-13 rating. My guess is it won’t be as good, but you never know with Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) at the helm.