It seems sequel-itis has officially hit theaters this week with not one, not two, but three follow-ups to semi-successful films that most people weren’t hankering for. This comes on the heels of Tom Cruise’s sixth go-around as Ethan Hunt in the Mission:Impossible series and follows a week after the third installment of Hotel Transylvania 3 graced us with its unpleasant summer vacation. I understand that brand recognition can drive sequels, but if that’s the only thing studios are banking on, then they are doing not only the audience, but themselves a disservice. Producing a sequel is one thing; producing a new story with interesting character development within the same world is quite another, and it isn’t hard to see the difference. Where Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again, a follow-up ten years in the making, finds a way to feed off of its predecessor while maturing into its own delightful song, The Equalizer 2, the next chapter to the semi-successful 2014 film about a man with a past who anonymously helps those less fortunate, does nothing but set itself on repeat.
First things first — Denzel Washington is incredible as always. The inner turmoil he so effortlessly portrays is like watching a master craftsman at work. There’s no denying his appeal as Robert McCall, a man so scarred from his past that he can’t bear to watch others suffer the way he has. He has an incredible sense of right and wrong, and will do whatever he needs to be the clandestine superhero to those who need him most. It’s a terrific character identity that doesn’t get explored to the level it could, or at least, more than it did in the first film.
Every story beat of the The Equalizer 2 is exactly the same as it was in the first film. McCall has a mundane day job (this time as a Lyft driver as opposed to a clerk at a Home Depot-type store, a change that isn’t explained in any detail) and uses it to help strangers with their problems; he befriends a teenager who is about to head down a dark path and tries to guide him on the straight and narrow; and when a conspiracy takes place that’s personal to him, it ends in a harrowing climactic sequence.
Because of this, there’s really nowhere for the character to go. In the first film, there was a mystery behind the man, a dark shadow that hovered over him with a need and a desire to understand him. But, now that we’ve learned everything we need to know about him, the character has nowhere new to go. There is zero character development in this film, thus, any intrigue that you may have been expecting has been dulled, making for a much less interesting film.
It doesn’t help that the secondary characters are also watered down. First up, there’s the young kid McCall tries to mentor. I remember quite clearly the kinetic energy Washington had with Chloe Grace Moretz in the first film, and I saw none of that with Ashton Sanders, who plays a young artist who hangs with the wrong crowd. Not only is his character devoid of any charisma, but his backstory is all but dead in the water, a mundane cliché that isn’t given any depth.
Then there are the rote villains who do nothing to enhance the atmosphere of the piece. As McCall discovers the truth behind the murder of his ex-handler, Susam Plummer (Melissa Leo), we’re supposed to find all of it shocking and feel the pain of betrayal, and yet, it feels so dry that it’s hard to get excited for the finale sequence that tries too hard to be as intense and creative as the rampage through the hardware store.
There’s no doubt Director Antoine Fuqua, has made some incredibly deep and thoughtful action films, but with The Equalizer 2, he fails to ignite his passion in any substantial way, making it feel that, much like McCall, he’s just going through the motions.
On the other had, Mamma Mia 2 does the best thing it could do story-wise: it sidelines Meryl Streep’s Donna in order to focus on 1) her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and 2) her younger self, played with kinetic energy and spirit by Lily James. In fact the casting of all of the younger versions of the characters is one of the best things about this film, as there wasn’t one that I couldn’t see growing into the older actor they portray. And not only because of how they play them, but in their appearance as well. In fact, I could swear they somehow cloned Christine Barinski by how much Jessica Keenan Wynn resembled her twenty-five years ago.
Don’t get me wrong — Meryl Streep is a tremendous actor, one of the greatest in the last fifty years, but a great actor does not a great singer make, and one of the downfalls of the original was how poor Streep’s singing voice was (and to a similar degree, Pierce Brosnan’s voice — there are just some people who should not sing). So by making the inciting incident be the passing of Donna, which fuels Sophie’s desire to rebuild her home into a hotel and fulfill her mother’s dream, did several things to help bolster the story and give new life to the characters.
First, it replaced Streep with James, who took the reigns of the character and ran with them into the sunset. James is a delight as she’s able to instantly find chemistry with everyone on screen. Seeing what actually happened during those few weeks when she met Harry (Hugh Skinner & Colin Firth), Bill (Josh Dylan & Stellan Skarsgård), and Sam (Jeremy Irvine & Piecre Brosnan) is fun, even if it isn’t necessary. Secondly, it eliminates the need for sticom-style slapstick and misunderstanding, which kept the first film treading on unbearable. Writer/Director Ole Parker replaces it with a relatable story that felt much more real and not convoluted for the sake of comedy or the music.
It’s not all good — there’s a pretty cheesy sequence involving Cher as Sophie’s grandmother toward the end of the film that felt a little tacked on, and a lot of the lip-syncing was poorly executed by several different actors, including James, something that becomes heavily noticeable the more it happens. But, with a final scene that draws you in with how sweet and tender it is, Parker is able to wrap up both films with a strong voice.
My Grade: Equalizer 2: B-; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: B+
The third of the sequel trifecta, Unfriended: Dark Web, leans more on the side of Mamma Mia, replacing the odd supernatural element of the first film with a more grounded premise, helping writer/director Stephen Susco execute the original’s idea in a much more realistic fashion. A
Next week, new movies include Mission Impossible: Fallout and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.