Video Verdict: Reviews of ‘The Equalizer’ and ‘Tusk’

From left, Justin Long and Michael Parks star in the Kevin Smith horror film “Tusk.” Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

From left, Justin Long and Michael Parks star in the Kevin Smith horror film “Tusk.”

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

A new film from writer-director Kevin Smith and a revenge adventure starring Denzel Washington anchor this week’s home video releases.


The Equalizer

3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references
Sony
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

There’s nothing inventive about director Antoine Fuqua’s big-screen adaptation of the 1980s TV drama “The Equalizer,” but it is plenty entertaining. Most of the credit goes to Denzel Washington, an actor who can take any role to unexpected heights. In “The Equalizer,” he plays Robert McCall, a former special-forces officer who has retired to a quiet life working at a retail store.

Although Robert goes out of his way to avoid the violence that used to drive his career, he is moved to action when a prostitute he befriended (Chloë Grace Moretz) is brutally beaten by her pimp. Although Robert intended his intervention as a one-time act of kindness, he is quickly drawn into an escalating series of dangers, as the girl was working for members of the Russian Mafia.

Washington is always outstanding, and he is particularly good in roles like this. The actor portrays Robert as a remarkably intelligent man with a talent for combat, both hand-to-hand and with weaponry. When he isn’t fighting, he comes across as kind, generous and charismatic. When he is fighting, he is deadly.

Fuqua’s movie also benefits from a respectable Richard Wenk screenplay. The plotting is relatively straightforward and predictable, but Wenk wisely ties the story to a broad arc about organized crime. He could have easily made Robert embark on a series of unrelated acts of vigilantism, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

As presented, Robert is a mystery when the story begins, but his character is largely revealed by the time credits roll. This makes him more likable, and it draws viewers into the simple story on multiple levels.

Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Olympus Has Fallen”) is good with action, and he keeps the plot moving rapidly. This makes “The Equalizer” a breezy revenge flick that – although derivative – is enjoyable.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Tusk

2½ stars
Rated R for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content
Lionsgate
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Writer-director Kevin Smith began his career as a wunderkind of cinema. His early films – “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” – offer brilliant, funny and often irreverent insight into the lives of Gen Xers.

Sadly, his recent work is considerably less compelling, and some of it – think 2010’s “Cop Out” – has been flat-out bad. In 2011, Smith abandoned the mainstream movie industry to make the interesting-yet-flawed, independent horror-comedy “Red State.” With “Tusk,” Smith again dives into this territory, delivering an offbeat horror film that is both terrifying and goofy.

Like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Smith seems to enjoy playing with the hallmarks of grindhouse cinema, creating movies that are salacious on the face, yet carry serious undertones. These days, Smith seems particularly interested in the narcissism of modern youth.

“Tusk” begins by introducing viewers to Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a rising podcast star who – with partner Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) – runs a show called the Not-See Party. The allusions to Hitler are intentional, and this tells viewers a lot about the discernment of the lead characters, who think nothing of laughing at a young man who becomes a viral video sensation after mistakenly lopping off his own leg. Wallace even travels to Canada to interview the boy, presumably planning to poke fun at his stupidity.

Wallace’s plans fall apart when the boy – devastated by the accident – commits suicide. Despondent about flying to Canada for nothing, Wallace hits a bar where he finds an intriguing note. It promises a room, plus countless tales of adventure to anyone willing to help an old man manage his estate. Wallace calls, explaining that he is not interested in the room but that he would like to record the man’s stories for his podcast.

Soon, Wallace finds himself in the home of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an eccentric whose promise of wild stories is true. Among other things, Howard details a time when he was rescued from a shipwreck by a walrus. Just as the stories are getting interesting, Wallace passes out, awakening to find himself a prisoner in Howard’s house.

The remainder of “Tusk” is a bizarre mix of macabre horror and silliness, marked in particular by a fascinating performance by Johnny Depp. The superstar actor is unrecognizable as Guy Lapointe, a former lawman who believes Wallace has been abducted by a serial killer that he has been tracking for years.

Smith is a talented filmmaker, and it’s easy to imagine the right audience embracing “Tusk” as a cult classic. It is difficult, however, to call the film good. Like the grindhouse pictures that inspired the genre, Smith’s film relies heavily on shock value, and the serious undertones are largely obscured by the repulsive events depicted on screen. There are funny moments hidden within the horror, and Depp is particularly entertaining, but the satire is ugly and dark, meaning only select viewers will get it. Still, the film moves quickly, meaning it’s an easy watch for anyone curious about Smith’s current work.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include two making-of featurettes, deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Smith.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Elsa & Fred”: Drama about two seniors (Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer) who embark on a whirlwind romance. Directed by Michael Radford.

“Kelly & Cal”: Story of the unlikely friendship between a wistful middle-aged mom (Juliette Lewis) and a frustrated teen (Jonny Weston). The movie is the first feature-length film for director Jen McGowan.

“Reach Me”: Writer-director John Herzfield presents the story of numerous people influenced by the sentiments in a motivational book. Lauren Cohan, Kyra Sedgwick, Thomas Jane and Kevin Connolly star.

“Last Weekend”: Patricia Clarkson plays a wealthy matriarch whose plans to bring her dysfunctional family together over Labor Day weekend go awry. Directed by Tom Dolby and Tom Williams.

“Shameless” – The Complete Fourth Season: Twelve most-recent episodes of Showtime’s dramedy about the Gallaghers, a poor family struggling to make it in a South Side Chicago community. William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum and Cameron Monaghan star. The show has been nominated for numerous awards, and Macy is up for best actor in a TV musical or comedy in the current Golden Globes race.

“Banshee” – The Complete Second Season: Ten most-recent episodes of the Cinemax series about a former convict (Antony Starr) who poses as a small-town sheriff while trying to evade an organized crime boss. Rus Blackwell, Ivana Milicevic and Frankie Faison also star.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

NOTE: Blu-rays, DVDs and screening links are provided to the reviewer at no charge. This enables us to run reviews the day titles become public, but it does not influence the opinions expressed.
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