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12 Movies to Watch After You See ‘The Equalizer’

By  · Published on September 26th, 2014


20th Century Fox

If you’re never seen the TV series of The Equalizer, the movie probably won’t inspire you to seek it out. Well, maybe for some of the before-they-were-stars guest appearances, including Steve Buscemi (a clip of that one was recently seen in The Wolf of Wall Street) and Melissa Leo, who is now in the movie adaptation. And maybe the episode where Adam Ant plays the villain. For the premise itself, though, it’s not that tight of a link. The show and its theatrical successor aren’t especially distinct, and there are as or more relevant movies that just don’t share the name so aren’t as obvious necessary predecessors.

Fortunately, here’s another installment of our column where we recommend movies to go back and watch after seeing a lesser new release. Not that all the selected titles are truly better movies, but of course that’s all subjective. What’s important is that they’re either somehow related or are necessary classics or both. This week, we have a couple of movies for which The Equalizer feels like a sequel (is this where I get to make a “Sequalizer” joke?), a few that are thematically similar or feature notable parallels, a few that are sort of referenced in the new movie and as always some that are earlier works of talent involved in the current release.

The following list alludes to plot points in The Equalizer and therefore may include spoilers. Read on after you’ve seen the new movie or just don’t care.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

You can pretend The Equalizer is a sequel to one of last year’s White House under siege action movies by pretending that Leo’s character in the new movie is the same as her role there. In Olympus Has Fallen, which was also directed by Antoine Fuqua, she’s Secretary of Defense. In The Equalizer she seems to have had some significant role in the CIA. The jobs are close enough, and maybe she had become Secretary of Defense after serving as Director of Central Intelligence, like Robert Gates.

Man on Fire (2004)

Many have compared Denzel Washington’s role as Robert McCall in The Equalizer to his character in this 10-year-old Tony Scott movie (which was also based on and a remake of an ’80s property). In both, he’s ex-CIA, reluctantly cares for an underage girl (Dakota Fanning) and by himself goes up against a huge crime ring including corrupt cops in order to save and avenge her kidnapping and abuse. There’s a big reason why The Equalizer can’t quite be even a spiritual sequel, and even if I don’t spoil that reason I suppose you can figure it out.

Leon: The Professional (1994)

Luc Besson’s cult classic action movie features Jean Reno as a lonely man who seems to be a banal guy with a few obsessions, namely milk. One day, though, he allows himself to become involved in the life and revenge of an underage girl (Natalie Portman) when her family is slaughtered by corrupt cops led by Gary Oldman. It’s probably for the best that in The Equalizer, McCall works alone and doesn’t mentor and train his new teenage friend (Chloe Grace Moretz), because then they’d just seem like Big Daddy and Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass. Fun trivia: The Equalizer co-creator Michael Sloan later wrote at least one episode of the TV series La Femme Nikita, which was based on Besson’s movie of the same name.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese recently paid homage to the Equalizer TV series (in Wolf of Wall Street), and now the movie version seems to be inspired by one of the director’s best movies. Moretz plays a teen prostitute, like Jodie Foster in the classic, while Washington plays a guy who mostly keeps to himself until he goes on a killing rampage for the sake of that girl. If only we could have seen Washington sport a mohawk in the end.

Commando (1985)

By the end of The Equalizer, McCall becomes a one-man army who not only single-handedly defeats the Russian mob in Boston but then goes to Russia in order to chop the head off the snake (or however his metaphor goes), killing one of the world’s most nefarious criminal leaders and his men, presumably bringing peace to everyone on the planet. The movies are full of one-man-army types where a lone wolf hero piles on an enormous body count and unrealistically wins a war all by himself, especially in the ’80s. The best, in terms of it being awesome and ridiculous but not in a totally laughable way, is this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in which he plays a guy out to rescue his kidnapped daughter (Alyssa Milano). It’s in the top ten of all-time largest body counts for a main character, too.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

There’s an element to McCall’s fighting style that’s very Holmesian, particularly reminiscent of the Robert Downey Jr./Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock, how he quickly plays out the action in his head before going through with it. In Sherlock Holmes the device is annoying because we’re actually shown the action twice. In The Equalizer it’s annoying because Fuqua doesn’t appear to be taking as much care in plotting things out, making the action sequences disappointingly sloppy.

Matchstick Men (2003)

You can’t have an ethically complex antihero with OCD and not call to mind this Ridley Scott con-man caper. Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men is pretty consistent, though, whereas you might forget halfway through The Equalizer that Washington suffered from the disorder.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

“Nailed ’em both.” While not the first movie to feature someone using a nail gun as a weapon (that might be The Toolbox Murders), it is the most memorable and maybe the best movie to use the method, especially thanks to Danny Glover’s soft-spoken quip. You’d think that it’s been done enough over the decades that The Equalizer wouldn’t use it for its climactic kill of its big bad. Aren’t there other fun things in a Home Depot type store to use as a weapon that we haven’t seen?

xXx (2002)

I’ve already recommended this movie once this year for Marton Csokas, but unlike with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, here he again plays the Russian big bad, as he did memorable in the underrated Vin Diesel extreme-spy movie. More than Washington, Czokas is the best part of The Equalizer as Teddy (what an oddly non-threatening name), an enforcer for the Russian mob who travels to America to figure out who has killed their top men in Beantown. He doesn’t have to physically do a whole lot, but the guy’s facial acting and line delivery are a pretty killer combination.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Don Quixote (1957) and Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002)

The three books that we see McCall reading in the movie, as part of the list of novels to read before you die, are Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” Miguel de Cervantes’s “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” (“about a guy who is a knight in shining armor, except he lives in a world where knights don’t exist anymore”) and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Clearly the texts for each of these should come first, but afterward check out the trio of films noted above. The first is John Sturges’s adaptation of the Hemingway, which earned Spencer Tracy a much-deserved Oscar nomination (the film won for its music), the second is a Soviet version of “Don Quixote,” which might also be the best one but is mostly selected because of The Equalizer’s Russian interests, and the third is a documentary about the author, who never allowed a movie made out of his book about African-American identity.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.