We’ve seen Denzel Washington be a badass; we know he can do it, and he remains one of the best at combining action and gunplay with sheer magnetic personality. All three were front and center when he and director Antoine Fuqua first teamed up for TRAINING DAY, which gave us a version of Washington who was both villain and character we were still sort of rooting for if only because to lose him from the story meant the film would be something less. So what if Washington presented us with a character who was reserved, hesitant to act, quiet (but not in a menacing way), bordering on boring? Well, it’s still Denzel Washington, so he’d just make that character a different kind of badass.
Based exceedingly loosely on the 1980s television series, THE EQUALIZER presents us with Washington as Robert McCall, a widower and former black ops operative who is living a quiet existence working at a Boston home supply superstore (you don’t have to be Macgyver to see the weapons possibilities throughout a Home Depot) and keeping to himself and his very odd schedule. He faked his death years earlier and just wants to live a non-violent life that includes visiting his neighborhood diner where Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute in trouble with her Russian pimp, hangs out quite a bit. The two just talk, mostly about books, but they form a strange bond that helps McCall feel somewhat connected to the world.
Details on McCall’s earlier life are scarce (perhaps being saved for an inevitable and quite welcome follow-up film in what the makers are clearly hoping will be a franchise), but these early scenes that chronicle his day-to-day routine are fascinating if only to see Washington do ordinary, mundane things that are nevertheless meticulously planned out and efficiently executed. He also sees intent on being a good guy, helping out fellow store employee Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) eat healthier so he can lose weight to qualify to become a security guard at the store. It’s actually a welcome change to watch Washington play a normal guy with a secret, and it makes his eventual transition to instrument of destruction all the more interesting.
After Teri is brutally beaten by her pimp, McCall takes it upon himself to avenge her, and what starts out as an exercise in teaching a pimp a lesson turns into McCall getting himself over his head with a nasty Russian mob (is there any other kind?), including a bit of evil named Teddy (Marton Csokas, who’s had a busy year with supporting roles in SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and NOAH) hitman for the big boss Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). And with the same fascinating efficiency as other things in his life, McCall sets up these slightly cookie-cutter villains for an ugly, violent fall.
(SIDEBAR: Can I just say, thank goodness the Russian are our enemies again? It really does make spotting the villains so much easier in films these days.)
Despite a few misses along the way, I’ve always liked the way director Fuqua (THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS, BROOKLYN’S FINEST, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN) makes movies. And with a deceptively simple script from Richard Wenk (16 BLOCKS), THE EQUALIZER is a solid first chapter that ends essentially setting up a version of the McCall that is more familiar to fans of the series (he places an ad in the paper to which those in trouble can respond). I especially liked a tease sequence where McCall leaves Boston for a spell just to collect himself and lands up at the doorstep of former “Agency” colleagues Brian and Susan Plummer (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo). The scene is great because it gives us just enough detail about McCall’s former life to hook us, and it allows us to see him slightly more confident around those who know he has every right to be.
I guarantee you some reviewers will complain about the running time (about 130 minutes) of THE EQUALIZER, and those are likely people who have a very set way of thinking action movies should be paced. But this film is going for something different. It bothers to build characters (well, some of them) and doesn’t care if you’re in a hurry to get to the next blood-spurting gun battle. Trust me, when we get there, you’ll be satisfied.
THE EQUALIZER has other issues than length. Strangely enough, the weakest scenes are the ones with Moretz, and it feels strange that she essentially vanishes from the film for a good deal of it once Teri is put in the hospital. It’s not her performance that’s sinks her scenes with Washington, but the writing. Their sexless friendship (weirdly mirroring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster in TAXI DRIVER) is supposed to be the driving force behind McCall coming out of his self-imposed exile, but their relationship is so grossly underwritten that we don’t quite see the motivation behind his decision to seek vengeance on her behalf.
Still, I think Washington’s performance saves and even enhances THE EQUALIZER, and there are still enough questions about this character and places in his past to explore that make me eager to see the actor return and make this a franchise for the more “mature” actor and audience. There’s more here than you might suspect or others might have you believe.