Of all the actors to tackle their advancing years by going the Liam Neeson/Taken route and portraying a dude who can make mincemeat of men half their age and twice their size, I never thought Denzel Washington would be one of them. Maybe it’s because he’s always seemed so classy, or maybe it’s because previous brushes with big, budget action have resulted in movies like Virtuosity, but the fact that he signed on to this brutal reworking of the 80’s, Edward Woodward, thriller show of the same name still catches me off-guard somewhat.
The answer, in case you were wondering, is most likely director Antoine Fuqua, a man who, ever since he helped Washington win an oscar with Training Day, has helped the actor step outside that “serious actor” box by letting him play sharp shooting cowboys and skull bludgeoning vigilantes and The Equalizer is surely the most brazen of them all.
Robert McCall is a quiet widower who spends his time in Boston working a simple job at a hardware store and helping the kindly people around him in their daily lives – like helping a portly colleague make weight in order for him to pass the exam to become a security guard. At nights, the reserved McCall heads out to a diner and reas a quiet book and it’s here that he gets entangled in the life of Teri, a teenage prostitute who has aspirations to becoming a pop star. Witnessing the type of shabby treatment a call girl gets at the hands of her cruel, Russian pimps, McCall first attempts to liberate her from her contract with some sensible words and an envelope full of his own money, but when that predictably doesn’t work, Robert clues us into some particularly noticable set of skills he possesses when he utterly decimates a room full on gangsters, leaving all in various states of death.
You see, Robert is a former operative of a Defence Intelligence Agency who has been believed dead for years by his bosses and has been trying to live a simple life without any violence whatsoever before breaking his streak by shoving a fucking shot glass into someone’s eyesocket.
However, unbeknownst to McCall, the enclave of Russian gangsters he just wiped off the face off the earth is only part of a larger syndicate and who sends their psychotic enforcer, Teddy Rensen, in to figure out who could have put such a dent in their operation. Teddy (obviously not his real name) immediately gets to work, intimidating, beating and murdering his way until he ends up knocking on Robert’s door which puts literally everybody our hero knows in mortal danger. But if the normal, everyday, people that McCall knows are no match for a sadistic, tattooed, Russian enforcer, it’s time for him to equalise things…
You would think a hyper-violent, vigilante film that sees its lead at one point stick a drill into the back of a thug’s skull would be beneath an actor of Washington’s calibre and yet there’s something perversely fascinating watching the actor fuck up various scumbags and maniacs like he’s auditioning to play the freakin’ Punisher. If I didn’t know better – and I usually don’t – The Equalizer appears to be a belated response to Denzel’s role in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire which saw him as a similarly restrained hero capable of jaw-dropping acts of inventive violence and molds the premise of the original show into something that fits the actor’s familiar brand of wisdom spouting confidence like a bloodstained glove.
As it stands, The Equalizer ends up being something of a standard vigilante movie that features a strong – if undemanding – central performance, a reliably nasty – if forgettable – villain and a bunch of nice, but faceless victims/civilians for our hero to protect. Yet what’s interesting about this particular serving of righteously savage justice is that it’s far “nicer” than your average Death Wish clone, with Washington proving to be something of a stealthy pillar of the community even before he starts riddling bad guys with tricked out nail guns. Say what you will about Paul Kersey and Frank Castle, but their devastating acts of revenge usually happened way too late to help people, Robert McCall actually manages to save the vast majority of people he sees out to help despite the odd bit of collateral damage required to sell us on the despicable nature of the bad guys (sucks to be you Haley Bennett).
The rest of the cast, that features a dead-eyed Marton Csokas, an underutilised Chloë Grace Moretz who technically kicks the whole story off and then literally spends the rest of the film in a hospital bed, Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman in a glorified cameo and a pre-Stranger Things David Harbour as a crooked cop who weirdly leans hard on the f-word. All are forced to the side in order to facilitate Washington’s OCD white hat.
Possibly the most damaging aspect of Fuqua’s thriller is the bafflingly dence two hour and twelve running time and try as I might, I cannot work out for the life of me why the filmmaker feels that that’s a tight, lean length for what is, obstensively, a gruesome revenge flick. Sure, we get to focus on the world this operates in, both sunshine-y and shady, but surely some judicious chopping could have pepped things up a bit. There’s also a hefty feeling that the movie has a bad case of the throwbacks after indulging in some prime, action flick iconography as not only to we get a starry-eyed Washington pointing a weapon at a foe as a fire sprinkler trickles water down his unforgiving visage, but we even have a moment where he walks away from an explosion in slo-mo.
However, in a weird turn of events, the experience of watching Hollywood’s go-to lead for decent behaviour, slaughter mobsters with gardening tools like an Oscar winning Jason Voorhees proves to be too awesome to deny and while the movie doesn’t give you much you haven’t seen before, it certainly gives you that.
And you know what? It’s enough to carry the whole film through which neatly ends on a nice, sequel bating note as our hero decides to stop playing nice from the shadows and actually takes up the mantle of being a protector whom, I suspect, will pulverise an abusive husband pro-bono while he helps your son study for an exam. Which is nice.
An attempt to treat the vigilante genre with a smidge more humanity and a touch more brains still ends with the latter sprayed all over the ornate walls of a crime lord’s office, but while Washington and Fuqua hardly reinvent the wheel, they put enough bells and whistles on it to make it run smooth – possibly over the legs of a drug pusher…
But all things being equal – it’s fine.