Denzel Washington is back and so are the 80s with the release of The Equalizer, the TV series upon which this is loosely based. That series aired from 1985 to 1989. But that’s not the reason for my associating this film with the 80s. It’s because Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall is the second coming of the archetypal 80’s action hero while the villains are straight out of the Lethal Weapon and Death Wish franchises.
Washington’s Robert McCall lives like an obsessive-compulsive monk. The first shot of the film is a relatively long tracking shot through McCall’s banal and mundane apartment, setting up his banal and mundane life. Everything is measured by time and everything is in order, down to the dish towels. His daily routine is mundane; a nine to five job at House Mart (a.k.a Home Depot), a nightly jaunt at the local diner–he even has the moment when his teabag is placed in the cup while the waiter pours the water down to the second. He doesn’t pollute his body with sugar or salt. He never slouches in his seat, he sits as if on a throne. He rarely sleeps. We see this routine repeated a few times at the beginning of the film.
One evening while reading The Old Man And The Sea, one of the diner’s patrons, a young girl named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz, looking six years older than she actually is) strikes up a conversation with McCall. He befriends her. Not too long after, Teri befalls a tragedy at the hands of her pimp. McCall’s hyper-ordinary life gets pushed to the side and he goes into Equalizer mode. And make no mistake, Washington, one year shy of 60, is an extremely convincing Equalizer. He is efficient–in one adrenaline-pounding fight scene, he times himself with his wristwatch stopwatch–and quite deadly. Not long after the fight, we see McCall asleep in his bed for the first time, indicating that he can’t hide who is; “equalizing” is just as much a part of his biology as eating and in this case, sleeping.
The movie manages to sidestep being a sequel to 2004’s Man On Fire, which had a similar premise of one man fighting against the odds for the sake of a child. In avenging Teri, McCall has made enemies of the Russian mob. A good night’s sleep aside, he’s wary of bringing out his past demons. There are moments when you can almost hear his character thinking, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in! With a dash of Straw Dogs and a scoche of Death Wish, McCall becomes a…man on fire? Well, he becomes something more akin to the 80s action hero I mentioned earlier. The film takes a slight turn towards cheesy, what with the cliched shot of the hero walking towards the lens in slo-mo while something explodes behind him, to McCall actually uttering the line, “I’ll be back.” McCall becomes somewhat of a superhero. The only thing missing is his cape. He blows things up, thwarts the villains’ plans, and evades them by moving about from apartment to apartment inexplicably. At a certain point, perhaps near the end of the second act, implausibility begins to rear its ugly head. McCall is a man “with a particular set of skills” so well-honed, he never appears to be in danger of defeat. The character is so good at what he does that director Antoine Fuqua doesn’t bother to show McCall dispatching a few bad guys. There are times where the script simply tells us he’s kicked ass, or a dolly shot past henchmen in varying states of comatose repose hint at what we the audience weren’t shown. Most egregious is the scene in the trailer involving a House Mart robbery, cut to McCall returning a hammer to its sales rack; we don’t get to see the creamy filling in the middle of that cookie. The final act plays like a mixture of Saw, Home Alone and, with a brief moment of slo-mo, Flashdance.
Martin Csokas, the lead villain, chews scenery like Pac-Man. Chances are you won’t remember Csokas as the weird lab scientist running experiments on Electro in this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2. He chewed the scenery embarrassingly during his brief scene in that film as well, playing the role like a Rocky Horror Picture Show reject. Here, his mixture of Victor Maitland (Beverly Hill Cops), Hans Gruber (Die Hard) and a splash of Kevin Spacey make for a menacing , if not hammy, Russian scoundrel. Bill Pullman and Maggie Leo appear as associates from McCall’s dark past, but for all they contributed to the plot, I wonder why they bothered.
Despite the plot being lightweight, the film being longer than it needs to be, and having a dated feel in terms of technique and character (one man’s “dated” is another man’s “homage”), The Equalizer has some exciting scenes and great action. Denzel does what he does best, and that is, he is Denzel. There’s no frame he appears in where he doesn’t own it. Everyone around him seems unworthy to share the screen with him. He is the African-American DeNiro for my generation, playing in a genre Liam Neeson made possible for a 60 year old to play in. The film is worth seeing to watch Denzel deliver his trademark slow burn gaze as he delivers lines such as, “What do you see when you look at me?” I see a man I wish had been doing action like this awhile ago, so I could get at least three or four sequels out of him, understanding there is room for improvement. 3.5/5 reels