In The Equalizer, director Antoine Fuqua’s refurbished take on the classic 1980’s vigilante TV series of the same name, star Denzel Washington’s grizzled ex-government killer Robert McCall has the habit of constantly checking his watch, timing himself before he unleashes his next flurry of creative violence. He seems to be constantly trying to improve his speed, make himself more efficient in execution.
It’s just a pity that the same approach wasn’t applied to the movie itself, which occasionally had me checking my watch, as Richard Wenk’s (The Expendables 2, The Mechanic) bloated script piled on the running time minutes. Fortunately though, Washington puts in another magnetic performance that ranges from Motown buffoonery to glacial killing machine, and his on-screen presence helps to keep the gears greased on this action vehicle.
But before anything gets moving, we get treated to an unexpectedly protracted prelude, setting up McCall’s current quiet life as he has swapped out body bags for tea bags. He does his 9-5 at a Home Depot-like store, where the youngsters rag him about his old-timer ways, while he also plays “Biggest Loser” motivational coach to an overweight co-worker. At night, McCall spends most of his time voraciously reading classic literature in a throwback 24-hour greasy spoon diner, his constant insomnia (and obvious inner demons) having driven him out of his spartan apartment. The only interaction he has is with fragile and frazzled teen prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a nighttime diner regular with dreams beyond the gutter and lowlife pimps on speed dial, who takes an interest in his books. In response McCall elucidates on the “Old Man and the Sea” and being beholden to who you are, and even throws some “Don Quixote” rumination about heroes looking for quests into this diner dissertation. Yes, in the immortal words of that great Guardian of the Galaxy, Drax the Destroyer: “Metaphor!”
Putting the vigil in vigilante, this somber and introspective opening chapter is pure character study, which I actually appreciated. Moretz solidly turns up the tragic charm alongside Washington’s OCD zen, but it will more than likely have action junkies getting antsy though as it barely simmers along for nearly 40 minutes. But when Teri’s scummy Russian paymasters get too physical, putting her into the hospital to teach her a lesson about knowing her place, McCall’s protective instincts kick in and things finally boil over to violent satisfaction as he goes full Neeson.
What begins as a negotiation between McCall and these vodka chugging ne’er-do-wells for Teri’s release from her life of sexual servitude quickly explodes into a hyper-violent, bone shattering brawl. Actually, “brawl” is the wrong word, as that would imply a somewhat even fight. McCall, borrowing the hyper-time observational skills of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes and the improvisational skills of MacGuyver (I never knew a shot glass could be used to such painfully deadly effect), simply wades through them all in a dance of blades, bullets and lots of blood.
Unfortunately for McCall though, these were more than just your garden variety scum, and by eviscerating them he draws the ire of the Russian mob, setting off an all-out mano-a-many-mano war. Eventually.
See, the moment McCall gets back to his death-dealing ways, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by an ever-expanding list of picked-on community members who could all use some justice on their side. And with all these clichéd community service gigs on his plate, he barely has time for the Russians, much to the annoyance of anybody hoping this movie would stop playing “criminal Whack-a-Mole” and just stick to its main plot.
Especially since that plot also features Martin Csoka’s Teddy, the cold-blooded Russian specialist sent in to clean up the mess McCall has made. Csokas, with his reptilian gaze and disarmingly creepy voice, owns the role and nearly every scene he’s in, chewing scenery like the sets were made out of stroganov. He also makes for an appreciated change of pace from the production line of interchangeable Russian thugs that McCall eventually gets around to smacking down. Also shooting down, stabbing into, garroting through, blowing up, etc. McCall is definitely an equal opportunity killer.
For the most part Fuqua shows off all of this with a stylish brutality, but he does have the occasional tendency to shoot his action far too kinetically. This is nowhere more apparent than in a few moments of the film’s finale, a lengthy, Home Alone-eqsue, night-time standoff that involves several power tools items used in ways they were definitely not designed for. Theses dimly lit scenes combined with a jittery camera sometimes reduce events to nothing more than a whirligig of limbs punctuated by the relevant audio cues of snapping bones and opened throats.
When the action does stay in focus though, Fuqua produces some sublimely violent visuals, never more so than in a series of magnificently shot explosions, captured with such fetishistic fervour that they would get Michael Bay all hot and bothered.
In the end, there is enough of this type of gobsmacked action beats and sizzling performances from Washington and Csokas to ensure that most thrill seeking audience members don’t feel completely shortchanged. But with the level of talent at his disposal, had Fuqua and co just trimmed the fat on the script and got rid of all that clichéd bloat, The Equalizer could have been so much more.
Last Updated: September 25, 2014