Movie Review: The Equalizer
By Matthew Huntley
October 2, 2014
The Equalizer probably would have been a better movie had it told us more about who the title character is rather than show us what he does. We know going in, just as the story suggests early on, that Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) has a complicated past, one that he’s not particularly proud of. Nowadays, he’s an austere yet gentle man who rises early, clocks in and out of his job at a Home Depot-like store, and waits until dark to go to a small, unassuming diner in Boston, where he brings his own tea bag, methodically arranges the silverware, and then quietly reads a book off the “100 Books Everyone Should Read” list, all by himself. This is Robert’s day. It’s just like the one before and no doubt the one after. Only later do we learn his routine is his way of keeping himself in check.
But then a wrench enters the mix in the form of an adolescent call girl who goes by the name of Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). She’s Russian and works against her will for the sleazy Slavi (David Meunier), a pimp whose organization has ties to the Russian mafia. Robert befriends Teri at the diner and when he sees she’s suffering from both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her employer, he tries to buy her freedom. After Slavi and his goons decline his offer, we see what Robert can really do, which is to utilize everything around him to kill with absolute precision and without mercy. He’s so obsessed with accuracy and perfection, he even times himself.
Before long, Robert is in an all-out war with the Russian mafia, as well as a group of dirty Boston cops. Leading the fight for the Russians is the equally ruthless Teddy (Marton Csokas), “a sociopath with a business card” who’s been sent by the big cheese to see that Robert gets what’s coming to him.
This is the basic setup for The Equalizer, and for its first half, it’s a patient, interesting and surprisingly restrained film. Richard Wenk’s screenplay, based on the 1980s television series, begins as a character study and although we know there will be the inevitable scenes of gritty violence and sensationalism, we were hoping these wouldn’t completely take over, or if they did, they’d at least be credible.
Like Robert, though, the movie loses its balance. Just when it has all its ducks in order, it devolves from character-driven thriller to adequate police procedural to silly action extravaganza, eventually leading toward an over-stylized, even laughable climax in the hardware store. The ending comes across as sort of the R-rated version of Home Alone, in which Robert uses every prop in sight to set booby traps and take out the Russians one-by-one, who at this point have become stock movie pawns whose only function is to shoot at (but never hit) the hero just so that he can kill them by craftier means. This entire sequence is so frivolous that it wouldn’t have surprised me to hear Robert say with an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent, “You have been equalized.”
It’s a shame, too, since the first half is so promising. Granted, there have long been “killers who come out of retirement” movies, (Unforgiven, A History of Violence, RED), so the premise isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but Denzel Washington is an actor with a presence and charm that make him immediately watchable. Even though he’s treading on familiar territory, he makes it his own, and so it feels fresh. We want learn more about Robert’s past and the promise he made to his dead wife that he would never go back to his destructive ways.
We figure we might get more when Robert visits the Plummers (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo), his friends and former colleagues who hold some sort of position with the government. After meeting them, we assume Robert used to work for the CIA or some other intelligence agency, but such details are never revealed. In any case, the Plummers exist just to expose plot information about the bad guys, and Pullman and Leo’s screen time is unfortunately cut short.
Another potential moment comes along in the movie’s best scene, when Robert sits down with Teddy and tells him an important story. Washington and Csokas’s chemistry is quite good here and we’re hopeful the screenplay might develop Teddy beyond the standard villain characteristics and show that he’s a human with a past.
But the movie ultimately abandons its substance and settles on being a routine, over-the-top vigilante picture that uses too many of the same old devices to get to the foregone conclusion, which, even in this day and age, is so preposterous that it’s boring.
I have a feeling The Equalizer began as a grounded and character-oriented story before being retooled as a full-fledged action picture. Studio executive probably figured this latter approach would make it more sell-able. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) is a competent filmmaker and he convinces us that he and his crew can harness their resources effectively, be them the actors or high production values. We know this because The Equalizer starts out as something we feel we can really get into, but it eventually spins out of control and we end up seeing it merely as a wasted opportunity.