The Equalizer update starring Denzel Washington is a throwback to 80’s action movies in more ways than one: Not only is a remake of the underrated Edward Woodward TV show. It’s the kind of movie in which the good guys are really good, the bad ones are beyond redemption and there are no grey areas in sight.
This is not necessarily a problem. The good vs. evil conflict is the foundation of the most stories worth telling. But The Equalizer nurses higher aspirations and doesn’t quite get there. As an action movie, it’s a joy to watch, with effective set pieces and fitting resolutions. As a revenge fantasy, it’s too heavy handed to have a meaningful impact (“The Old Man and the Sea” and “Don Quixote” are alluded to, unironically).
The film is true to its source, at least in the setup: Robert McCall (Denzel), a former black ops agent, is trying to sweep away his tempestuous past and carry a monk-like lifestyle. He is successful for the most part, other than a nagging sleeplessness that takes him to a 24-hour diner on regular basis.
In this context McCall befriends a young prostitute (Chloe Moretz) under the thumb of Russian mobsters. Despite trying desperately not to get involved, the beatings the girl endures push him over the edge. Now McCall is on the prowl and the criminals are blissfully unaware what’s coming for them.
Director Antoine Fuqua (who drove Denzel to an Oscar for Training Day) is a stylist at heart, and without a sturdy storyline, he is likely to stray. The script of The Equalizer is very basic and feels padded: A subplot involving McCall befriending colleagues at a home improvement store is a lot less interesting than Fuqua seems to believe. The gritty realism of the beginning soon gives way to increasingly outlandish situations, a progression that doesn’t end until the credits roll.
It’s in situations of conflict that this movie shines. The highly stylized, twenty minutes-long climax is unapologetically violent and beautifully kinetic. The Equalizer’s ace in the hole is Marton Csokas, a merciless henchman who is very much Denzel’s equal except in one key aspect: Empathy. Their Sherlock/Moriarty relationship is the most interesting aspect of the movie.
The late Tony Scott (who directed Washington often, most notably in Man on Fire and Déjà Vu) is a clear influence here. His signature move –the hero walking away from a explosion without looking- gets a nod so over the top, it may have put the iconic American macho demonstration to rest.
The most poignant moment of the film is by chance: McCall confronts a couple of dirty cops and calls them on their disregard for the law they swore to protect. It’s a cathartic reverse Ferguson and pushes The Equalizer over the fence. Three prairie dogs.
It occurred to me that…
…The Equalizer features one of the strongest soundtracks in a while (they don’t normally even register with me).
… This is the second movie in as many weeks in which David Harbour (The Newsroom) is one of the villains of the piece (the other one is A Walk Among the Tombstones).