Overlong and erratically paced, Brendan Kyle Cochrane’s New York City-based “Equal Standard” opens with a self-conscious scene that heavy-handedly hints at an impending tragedy. There in the sun-dappled kitchen of the happy Jones family, Detective Chris (Tobias Truvillion), Sergeant Jackie (Syleena Johnson) and their adorable daughter lovingly go about their rosy morning routine, while an over-sentimental score embellished with stark notes of caution (one of the film’s various recurring motifs of unsubtlety) accompanies the perfect picture. As the doting husband and wife exchange their daily goodbyes before taking off for their high-risk professions, there is so much weight and emphasis placed on the concerned Jackie when she says “Be safe” that you prophetically know Chris is soon going to need that advice.
Aiming to be “The Wire” of the Black Lives Matter era with a multi-pronged yarn penned by first-time feature writer Taheim Bryan, “Equal Standard” sadly exhibits a consistent lack of restraint while the story widens its scope and stakes, falling notably short of its well-intentioned ambitions to honor multiple viewpoints amid rising racial tensions. A considerable part of the problem is Bryan’s on-the-nose writing that over-explains the film’s ideas at every turn.
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In his crowded ecosystem — which consists of law enforcement figures, street gangs, governmental players, racist church leaders and middle-class families on different ends of the social spectrum — there isn’t really much new to harvest other than the most obvious fact: Racism is an evil vicious circle. While the film will surely attract audiences on account of its timely and urgent themes, this defining moment in American history deserves something more inquiring and sophisticated in dissecting the well-documented negligence and racism within the police force and their appalling impact on the communities cops are supposed to serve and protect.
The other major limitation here is the wide-ranging quality of acting and the wooden delivery of the already clumsy dialogue that makes large portions of “Equal Standard” sound like a corporate training video designed to educate viewers on critical societal issues. Thankfully, Truvillion in one of the leading parts is an exception to this overarching shortcoming. As Chris, a good cop in a barrel of bad apples, he puts forth a performance that is in equal parts authentic and tender.
Before the movie’s chief incident changes his life forever, we observe Chris as he uses his authority for the good of his people while the world outside continues to react to the news of an innocent black man nonsensically and fatally shot by a white police officer. Despite being a Blue, similar troubles find Chris soon enough, when a white cop, Peter McKenzie (Rob Minutoli), confronts and searches him out of nowhere one night, refuses to believe the legitimacy of his police credentials and turns the confrontation violent, with Chris fatally shooting him out of self defense after getting injured by a gunshot himself.
Part of “Equal Standard” wrestles with examining this case from various angles. Unfortunately, it loses track of its narrative priorities elsewhere, both due to an overstuffed screenplay that superfluously insists upon giving everyone a voice and Pete Talamo’s scattershot editing, which further convolutes a story that is already bursting at the seams. At least the writer-director duo prove to be at ease with the material set in the streets of New York (mostly around Queens), with Cochrane capturing the city’s urban dynamics with some sense of visual rhythm, and Bryan vividly bringing to life two rival gangs seeking peace and truce at a time of turmoil.
While these are some of the more successful scenes of “Equal Standard,” with a number of roles played by Ice-T (also an executive producer), Hassan Johnson and Fredro Starr, they are also among the film’s most distracting, keeping the audience away from the main dramatic tension Chris gets wrapped up in for unwelcome amounts of time. But when the movie switches its focus back to him, it actually manages to remain somewhat compelling, following both McKenzie’s surviving family — including his agitated and racist brother, Josh (Brad Fleischer), looking to ignite violence in revenge, and more sensible sibling, Kevin (Chris Kerson) — as well as the painstaking bureau investigations that try to get to the bottom of the deadly events between Chris and Peter.
Compared to other recent and more successful films with themes at the intersection of law enforcement and racial identity (such as “Black and Blue” and especially “The Hate U Give”), “Equal Standard” comes across as both naive and a missed opportunity that bafflingly fails to engage with even the most basic of its arguments beyond surface level. Between their frequent and haphazard changes in perspective and lecture-like scenes for an already converted crowd, Cochrane and Bryan sadly deliver something hollow and inconclusive.
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