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Movie reviews: 'The Equalizer,' 'The Boxtrolls'

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"The Equalizer" (R) *** (out of four)

Denzel Washington is as cool, calm and charismatic as ever in "The Equalizer," an intense and violent yet crowd-pleasing action-thriller that reteams the two-time Oscar winner with his "Training Day" director, Antoine Fuqua.

Washington stars Robert McCall, a seemingly mild-mannered home improvement store worker in Boston who is well-liked by his co-workers and will go the extra mile to help them improve their lives. An avid reader, McCall like clockwork ends his day with a classic book at a local cafe, where he befriends Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young woman forced into prostitution by a gang of violent Russian gangsters.

Troubled after the thugs violently beat Teri, McCall's mysterious past is reawakened, and he uses a special set of lethal skills to equal the odds between criminals and the helpless in an effort to, in this case, set his friend free.

The problem is, the gang of sex traffickers is only a small part of a much larger, impenetrable organization, which in response to the thugs' deaths sends a deadly assassin, Teddy (Marton Csokas), to find whoever is responsible. Soon enough, Teddy finds out that McCall isn't one to back down easy, and he won't stop until he dismantles the entire crime organization.

Forget that Washington is pushing 60, because in "The Equalizer," it seems like he hasn't aged a bit. He's fit, agile and his acting skills are as sharp as ever, making Washington one of the few actors today who can take a familiar-feeling storyline like the one in "The Equalizer" and mostly make it his own.

Oddly enough, "The Equalizer" bridges what we see with Liam Neeson in his "Taken" films and the actor's latest mystery crime thriller, "A Walk Among the Tombstones." In the latter, Neeson avoids taking the "Taken" route, and while a butt-kicker, he manages to steer clear of high-energy action movie trappings while an actual story develops and plays out.

In "The Equalizer," Washington takes scummy criminals to task with extreme prejudice, a la Neeson in "Taken," yet is a character whose background remains a mystery. We don't know who he worked for or why he helps the downtrodden; all we know is he has a special set of skills and is a force to be reckoned with, and we only learn more about him as the story unfolds. Along the way – queasy audience members take note – that means lots of ultra-violence, as McCall swiftly and mercilessly dispatches of the bad guys in a grisly manner.

While Washington, Csokas and Moretz are all standouts in the film (and the capable Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman also show up for brief roles), their performances are only tempered by "The Equalizer's" clichéd and mostly-predictable plot. Of course, it doesn't help that the film is based on the 1980s TV series of the same name starring Edward Woodward, but even then, you can't fault a show that a large part of today's audiences probably haven't seen.

Instead, "The Equalizer" feels more like an '80s action-revenge thriller, except this time, that thriller isn't cheesy. Sure, it has a classic slow-motion confrontational shot in the final act, but thanks to expertly-paced filmmaking by Fuqua, and Washington's charm and collectedness, the film playfully balances many lighter moments with several more of murder, mayhem and intensity. Even while you sense what's going to happen in the film, you'll still be on edge and no doubt entertained.

"The Boxtrolls" (PG) ***1/2 stars (out of four)

Laika maintains its incredible handle on the stop-motion animation medium with "The Boxtrolls," a wildly entertaining follow-up to the studio's first two stop-motion efforts, "Coraline" and "ParaNorman."

Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark in "A Game of Thrones") voices Eggs, an orphaned 11-year-old boy who was raised by a group of trash-collecting, underground dwellers known as the Boxtrolls. Above them is Cheesebridge, a Victorian-era village driven by wealth, class, the town's main product, cheese, and an evil exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) – who wants a big piece of it all.

In an effort to climb the social ladder, Archibald strikes fear into the hearts of the townsfolk about the so-called monstrous Boxtrolls while capturing the creatures one-by-one. It's part of a bigger, dastardly plan, though, which Eggs – who finally realizes he's a human after he rises up to the surface – and his accepting new friend, Winnie (Elle Fanning), try to stop before it's too late.

Much lighter in tone than its "Coraline" and "ParaNorman," "The Boxtrolls" succeeds by boasting a winning combination of an interesting story, lovable characters, spectacular visuals and quirky humor, forgoing the conventional plotlines and easy jokes that have doomed many of its animated predecessors.

Employing one of the most unique looks in film with the seldom-used craft of stop-motion (the facial movements are enhanced, however, by computer effects), the film could conceivably get by on its magical looks alone. But Laika, which earned Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations with "Coraline" and "ParaNorman," clearly isn't content on doing that, and "The Boxtrolls" harkens the worlds of Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl and cheeky (quite literally, in one instance) "Monty Python"-type humor to help drive the narrative. "The Boxtrolls" has a message, too – but not in a preachy sort of way – about tolerance, even though it may be a bit too similar to that of "ParaNorman."

Unlike "ParaNorman" and "Coraline," though, "The Boxtrolls" isn't frightening in the least. There are some moments of suspense and intensity, but the title characters are hardly the monsters Archibald makes them out to be. In fact, they could very well find a following akin to the Minions from the "Despicable Me" movie because the indiscernible jibber jabbering creatures are just so funny, charming and full of heart. It's a great film for all ages.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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