A couple of months ago when I heard the voice-over actor on the “Widows” trailer say (in a bass voice) “Widow-zzz,” like out of a horror movie, the whole thing already felt contrived. Like, “Vampire-zzz.”
No. It’s just some desperate housewives who never managed to figure out that their husbands (Liam Neeson, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss, and Jon Bernthal) moonlighted as gangsters, and now the hubbies are dead by way of many bullets and a fiery explosion, and the wives are ordered to pay back the money their gangster husbands owed other gangsters. Or die. So they team up to do that very thing. That’s the movie.
“Widows” is based on a British TV show that ran for a couple of years (debuting in 1983), which is why, ostensibly, the British director Steve McQueen is helming. But the location is transposed to Chicago, ostensibly to accommodate the largely American cast.
That said, it’s a decent popcorn thriller-actioner. Why? Because McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) is a director of rare vision, and it features a cast of powerful A-list actors. Viola Davis is guaranteed to never phone in a role, Cynthia Erivo’s an up-and-comer to watch, and Liam Neeson’s currently the action hero du jour. With four lady protagonists, it’s sort of an “Ocean’s 4,” but rawer (rawr!) with more tension.
The Bad Guys
All the men are bad, all the women relatively good. Colin Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, a dirty politician, micromanaged by his racist dad Tom (Robert Duvall).
African-American Chicago crime kingpin Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is looking to go straight; he’s running against Jack Mulligan for the position of alderman in the largely black 18th ward district, where old Tom Mulligan and his plantation-owner mentality is still the incumbent.
The thing is, Manning needs that giant wad of cash, which got stolen (and burned to ashes in the explosion) by those gangsta husbands, to fund his political campaign. So he pays a visit to widow Veronica (Viola Davis). She’s an extremely intelligent Chicago teacher’s union delegate who, as mentioned, somehow never quite managed to figure out what her husband did for a living.
Now she’s saddled with making 2 million dollars appear by next week. How’s she going to do that? She manages to sleuth her way to husband Harry’s heist playbook, wherein he jotted down his crew’s next 5-million-dollar job. It’s like a treasure map with building blueprints and such.
It would appear that the motivation to pay back the money, at least on Veronica’s part, besides staying alive, is to maintain her somewhat luxurious lifestyle. This is the feeling one gets when she goes everywhere carrying her tiny white terrier lap-dog with her.
But the real motivation is the need to avoid Manning’s enforcer-from-hell brother Jatemme (a very scary Daniel Kaluuya). With her back against the wall, Veronica must rustle up her own crew and go pull off hubby’s next planned heist. What better-motivated crew could you find than all the widow-zzz of the men-zzz crew?
The widows crew consists of Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), who ran a clothing store, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) the abused one, who’s now become a call girl. They can’t score the last widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), because she’s got a new baby and is involved in some plot-twisty stuff you can see coming a mile off.
But the widows need a getaway driver, so they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo, she of the amazing voice in “Bad Times at the El Royale”), with the lure of money.
Newcomer Cynthia Erivo is shown hitting a heavy bag while Michelle Rodriguez looks on, and it’s hard to believe that 18 years ago Rodriguez was the upstart talent hitting the heavy bag in 2000’s “Girlfight.”
Erivo looks like she’s been pumping a lot of iron since her star turn as a soul singer in “Bad Times at the El Royale”; she’s very versatile.
Viola Davis is eminently watchable, and if you ever read about her incredible rags-to-riches journey to the Hollywood A-list, you’ll understand why she takes no role for granted.
Watch for Elizabeth Debicki’s shape-shift into a Russian mail-order bride in order to get an American woman to help her buy three Glocks at a gun show. “That’s a lot of firepower.” “I need one for every room.” She’s a subtle scene-stealer and completely eclipses Lukas Haas in their scenes where he plays an upscale-realtor john who wants to pay for a relationship with all of the good and none of the bad.
“Widows” is good popcorn fare. It would have to be, considering all the talent on board, and yet McQueen doesn’t really come off as that different from other action directors, apart from a few lingering, overly long, arty shots here and there. To live up to that Widow-zzz tough-guy/horror voice-over intonation, though, the plot line would need to have been more along the lines of Jennifer Garner’s recent “Peppermint,” where she trains to become a hardened vigilante/assassin.
My main objection to the movie is its lack of true growth for any of the characters. These are women, who, much like Carmela Soprano, were happy to live in bourgeois comfort on dirty money. When it comes to a crashing halt, they demonstrate they’ve got enough moxie and resourcefulness to get out of trouble and avoid death. So what?
The evolution of “Peppermint” is not uplifting either; it just yanks our revenge chains and elicits “woo-hoo’s!” I’m not saying the women need to start wearing Lululemon yoga pants and fashionably seek enlightenment. I’m just saying I want something uplifting. I feel like Oliver Twist saying, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo, Michelle Rodriguez, Lukas Haas, Elizabeth Debicki
Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 16
Rated 3 stars out of 5