D: Antoine Fuqua / 131m
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis
Robert McCall (Washington) is a quiet, reserved man who works at a hardware store in Boston and is generally well liked by his colleagues. At home he lives a somewhat monastic, ordered lifestyle, and the only time he appears to go out is when he goes to a local diner and reads his latest book. As a regular he gets to know Terri (Moretz), a teen prostitute with ambitions to be a singer. When McCall witnesses her being mistreated by her pimp, Slavi (Meunier), and then she ends up in the hospital, badly beaten up, he decides to do something about it. He pays Slavi a visit, and when negotiations don’t go as he’d hoped, he kills Slavi and four of his men.
What McCall doesn’t know is that Slavi was part of the East Coast Russian mob, and he’s singlehandedly taken out the Boston hub of that organisation. The mob sends a fixer, Teddy (Csokas), to find the person responsible, but it takes a while, during which time McCall gets on with helping others who are experiencing crime-related problems. When Teddy finally tracks him down, McCall decides to turn the tables on him and become the hunter instead of the hunted. Striking at the mob’s operation while staying one step ahead of Teddy’s efforts to find and kill him, McCall reveals further aspects of a past that no one knows about, and which he keeps hidden.
When Teddy discovers a potential weakness in McCall’s character, his friendships with the people he works with, he holds them hostage and gives McCall an ultimatum: either give himself up or they all die. But McCall has other ideas…
Adapted from the US TV show that ran from 1985-1989 and starred Edward Woodward, The Equalizer is a big screen reboot that trades that series’ subtlety and clever plotting for a more direct, impactful approach, despite its slow burn opening and attempts at deft character work. It’s a long while before McCall’s visit to Slavi, and during that time we get to see him at home, at work, at the diner, leading a normal life of sorts, but obviously lonely rather than a loner. We learn that he’s a widower, and that he’s working his way through a list of books his wife was aiming to read before she died. He helps a co-worker, Ralphie (Skourtis), prepare for a security guard exam, jokes with other co-workers that he was once one of Gladys Knight’s Pips, and encourages Terri to change her life and follow her dream of being a singer. He’s kind, attentive, supportive, fair, but still a bit of an enigma.
It’s all “good stuff” and gives Washington a chance to show off his acting chops (which are considerable), and serves to introduce McCall as just more than the violent avenger he’s soon to become. But the drawback is that once McCall faces off against Slavi and his men, all that character build-up is jettisoned in favour of a more traditional action thriller style movie, and Washington stops being Mr Average and becomes an invincible righter of wrongs. In many ways this is unavoidable, the nature of the story giving the director and his star little option but to revert to the tried and trusted approach of blowing shit up and killing a whole bunch of stuntmen. But thankfully, and despite the increasingly derivative nature of the narrative, Fuqua’s distinctive visual style and Washington’s reliable acting skills hold the viewer’s attention, and offset some of the more ludicrous moments (McCall walks away from a series of huge, multiple explosions at such an insanely slow pace it’s less a case of a cool looking moment than a clue that Denzel can’t run that fast anymore).
In the end, The Equalizer reveals itself as an origin story, prepping the way for potential sequels (though Washington has yet to make one). On this evidence, any further outings will need to address the issue of how much McCall’s character will be focused on, and whether or not aspects such as his borderline OCD is dealt with (it’s featured, but isn’t developed, the same as his use of a stopwatch to time certain moments and incidents). The storylines will need to be a bit more impressive as well, and a more serious adversary to give a much needed sense of threat; Teddy is certainly psychotic but McCall outwits and dispatches him too easily, leaving any possibility of tension or doubt about the outcome so far behind it’s practically invisible.
As a vehicle for Washington, The Equalizer is a good fit, and he’s ably supported by Csokas, Moretz and Harbour, while Pullman and Leo appear as old friends of McCall who know his history. Richard Wenk’s script works best when focusing on McCall as Mr Average, and his relationships with Terri and Ralphie are skilfully drawn. The action scenes are expertly choreographed (though a fight between McCall and one of Teddy’s men is scrappily edited: blows are landed but who’s being hit is mostly a mystery), and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography adds a vitality that helps counter the familiarity that builds once Slavi bites the dust.
Rating: 7/10 – although it eventually proves an entertaining introduction to Robert McCall and his “set of skills”, The Equalizer is too formulaic to have much of a genuine impact; a good vehicle for Washington but not a movie to stay in the memory for too long despite the positives (that the movie then squanders).