Director Antoine Fuqua teams up with actor Denzel Washington, his muse in badassery, for the first time since 2001’s Training Day. In The Equalizer, a remake of the hit 1980s prime-time vigilante drama, Denzel gets to play a little more heroically in the role of Robert McCall, a semi-retiree who spends his days working at Home Mart (fictionalized Home Depot) and his sleepless nights reading classic literature at a local diner, where he befriends a young prostitute named Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz). An aura of mystery surrounds McCall though he always leaves a positive and generous impression on those he meets. However, when paying for a film called The Equalizer and given what the marketing promises, we know the McCall is every bit the kind of man Denzel Washington is great at playing, the righteous man who takes serious action and excites the part of audiences who crave simple cathartic vigilante action-movie justice. The familiarity and predictability work in the film’s favor more often than not in this thrilling yet tonally discordant and arguably overstuffed film.
Fuqua’s film wavers between gloriously ridiculous and mind-numbingly dull at times, never quite committing to the over-the-top visceral experience it’s skilled at delivering nor the more nuanced human drama it never quite gets right. When The Equalizer fully indulges and embraces its ridiculous concepts and violent set pieces, it delivers on its engaging premise: a reluctant hero with a secret set of very particular skills (much cooler than those we’ve seen from Liam Neeson characters, by the way) who goes on a seemingly difficult vigilante mission for justice. In many obvious allusions in this film Denzel’s character is seen reading books like The Old Man and the Sea or recounting a story of a knight in shining armor in a world where knights no longer exist. At this point in his career, Denzel Washington has perfected the art of playing a character who speaks softly and carries a big stick, which he does here in a way that can at times seem effortless and other times seem a bit phoned-in. He’s also perfected the art of casually walking away from explosions, and The Equalizer features what will probably become the definitive Denzel Washington slow-mo explosion shot. When maximizing the over-the-top visceral delights including a bloody finale too good to spoil, The Equalizer delivers in spades. There is a tense back-to-basics mentality to the action that recalls the iconic films of Sam Peckinpah (Stray Dogs, The Getaway) that’s refreshing when scale and ostentatiousness seems to be more or less the default these days in action cinema. Every fight and set-piece has a very gritty handmade feel to it and there are even some neat recurring motifs such as our protagonist setting his stopwatch to time his brutal acts; there are also sequences where the scene slows as he analyzes his opponents and surrounding while planning his moves (which bring to mind Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films). Nothing particularly stands out as original or creative in any way but action is a welcomed violent diversion that accomplishes effortlessly. There’s no doubt that Fuqua has mastered the art of explosive muscular action (his debut being the under-appreciated Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Replacement Killers; and his last film being the homage to 80s “macho” extravaganzas Olympus Has Fallen) but after showing such promising dramatic chops in Training Day, it’s a little disheartening to see him struggling with the human drama element here.
The issues with regards to the film’s human and more dramatic elements are the film’s tonal confusion and a seeming unwillingness or disinterest in following through on most of the basic threads. During the opening moments of the film there’s a heavy insinuation of our lead’s OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) that has him opening and closing doors a few times, arranging this table setting with precision and of course his aforementioned insistence on counting the seconds during every fight scene. It’s a neat way to have the lead, essentially a blank slate for the audience, feel more like a full character but it never really pays off or leads to someplace interesting. Not to mention much of the supporting cast ends up dropping in and out in contrived and noticeably convenient ways save for Alina. Fuqua realizes that when you have a lead who is essentially an unchanging blank slate you need to have the other characters surrounding them develop & change in order to reconcile that with the demands of story but the problem is that any presence on screen who is NOT Denzel’s character gets the short straw. It’s a shame because Chloe Grace Moretz’ scenes with Denzel are much more welcome stalls than the repetitive scenes of Denzel brooding in the city. Now, scenery shots of a lead character brooding or gazing thoughtfully can help to establish the mood and tone whilst sort of establishing the cinematic voice at work but since The Equalizer is largely surface-level entertainment they ring empty and could easily be construed as meandering.
Some of the stylish trimmings of the film feel intrusive because of how much of the film is surface-level. There is a noticeable lack of subtlety about the film beyond the obvious literary allusions spoon-feeding obvious parallels between them and the film’s narrative. Everything feels agonizingly basic storytelling which would have been fine had the film lent some of the stylish neo-noir décor from its moody stalls towards these elements. The only spicing up we get is with a Russian mafia character played by Marton Csokas (XXX, The Bourne Supremacy) who goes for a big broad menacing caricature reserved for Bond films and cartoon mobsters. He really relishes the role making some odd but completely mesmerizing acting/character choices and gets to have fun being decked out in expensive suits and satanic prison tattoos. For every dull moment with Denzel/The Equalizer and certain side characters, we get a scene where Csokas plays the worthy foil for the understated Equalizer where the film really finds its rhythm and all pretense of “real” is abandoned.
There are times when The Equalizer, in a somewhat good-natured fashion, wants to be taken seriously with regards to child prostitution and the vastness of organized crime. There’s even a thread about good deeds and moral obligation. Those sort of thematic elements are definitely in keeping with the original TV series’ prime-time origins but they do seem odd when juxtaposed with the viciousness that the film glorifies and delights in. The TV series was a much more bloodless affair that imbued the titular character with a much more pronounced reluctance towards violence than Fuqua and Denzel’s version so the moral posturing and soapbox commentary seemed to fit right in. Here, Fuqua’s film has to work a little harder to come up with consistent moralizing but ultimately defaults to a simple good vs evil binary system. While “The Equalizer” is stabbing bad guys with corkscrews and shooting them point blank, they play the antagonists so broadly sinister with their victims played so helplessly you can’t help but feel it’s okay to watch Denzel beat up and kill the bad guys in those ridiculous ways. It’s that same ridiculousness of the violence that makes the after-school soapbox used to justify it seem really difficult to take seriously, leading to a weird sort of dissonance about the film.
However, despite of all of the film’s issues with tone, consistency, etc you can’t help but cheer the moment Denzel Washington has a slow-mo-badass-walk through an emergency sprinkler system downpour ready to deliver action movie catharsis. The Equalizer is a tough film to disrespect because its moments of advertised old-school badassery really will satisfy that craving an audience might have for such endeavors. It’s the parts in between those moments that could have been better, leading to a somewhat unbalanced film that should have been more equalized.