Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer would like you to believe that it’s a different kind of action film – specifically, a different kind of “wow, Denzel Washington really likes offing people” action film – as it opens in an unexpected fashion: with a Mark Twain quote and approximately forty-five minutes of routine-filled inaction that seems to belong to another movie entirely. By the time Fuqua and Washington get to the “offing people” section of the feature (rest assured, as pleasingly boring as the first act of The Equalizer may be, it’s all just lulling build-up to the blood-and-bullets spectacular that dominates its later sections), the film fully transitions from a cerebral send-up of action films to something so gory and insane that it practically demands that its audience stand up and cheer. They might not be clapping for the right reasons, however.
Although Robert “Bob” McCall’s (Washington) life is dictated by his various routines – many of which come with implications that they’ve been put into place to battle low level OCD – it seems fairly obvious to everyone around him that he’s not just a guy who works at a Home Depot knock-off (it will later become quite clear why Home Depot presumably rejected a full corporate tie-in, no matter that the store looks and operates exactly like a Home Depot). But who is he?
Robert’s late night activities are largely dedicated to hitting up his local coffee shop for some hot tea (he brings his own tea bags) and a good book (he’s working his way through a best books list). The gleaming restaurant is depressing and lonely and weirdly sanitized, and it looks vaguely like Edward Hooper’s “Nighthawks” come to downtrodden life. Most nights, Robert is joined (in terms of proximity only) by Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a beaten down kid who has clearly been forced into a life of prostitution, who takes an interest in the kind guy just a few tables away. Robert plies her with sugar and an equally sweet face, but he’s got precious little time for the obviously exploited and endangered child he spends his off hours with (or, at least, close enough to share air and some sad looks).
That all changes when young Teri is roughed up by the thugs who presume to own her and Robert is suddenly snapped out of his routine, finally compelled to act. (As is so often the case with Washington-starring action films, “act” really means “just totally goddamn kill.”) Fuqua has never been afraid to splash gritty, crunchy and bloody violence on the big screen (feel free to check out Tears of the Sun for further proof of this claim) and The Equalizer is no different, punctuated by massive action setpieces that include inventive and gruesome deaths. What’s a weapon in The Equalizer? Let’s keep it simple: everything is a weapon in The Equalizer. (And, no, it’s not a coincidence that Robert works at a place crammed to the gills with table saws, nail guns and propane tanks.)
Turns out, Robert is at the mercy of an iron-fisted Russian mob – it’s always the Russian mob — and despite head bad dude Teddy (Marton Csokas, who looks and acts like a second-tier Kevin Spacey) and his game attempts to appear fearsome and calculating, no one else on the screen can compare to Washington. The villains, no matter how many guns and hard-soled shoes they possess, never appear to be actual equals to Robert, and it’s only a matter of time before he absolutely flattens each and every one of them. It’s obvious that Robert has some kind of violent and messy backstory, and though the film wisely avoids laying it all out there for the majority of its runtime, that’s all blown to hell by the film’s shaky and dumbed down third act.
Although The Equalizer is gifted with a relatively straightforward story (guy sees wrongs committed by evil-doers, guy corrects those wrongs by exacting revenge on said evil-doers), Richard Wenk’s muddy script piles on superfluous additions and convoluted subplots, and the film slowly loses sight of what it’s meant to be about. While Teri’s brutal beating is the inciting incident – and Robert seems bent on specifically exacting revenge the bad guys responsible – the eponymous Equalizer randomly sets about correcting other unsettling situations perpetrated by bad people. Even Teri, the one person Robert seems compelled to protect, drops off the radar after the first act, with Moretz vanishing so completely that audiences may wonder if they missed something in the narrative.
It may be a ton of gruesome and wacky fun to watch Washington decimate his enemies on the big screen – and hell if the film’s final fighting sequence isn’t a jawdropper of the highest order – but its otherwise loose and poorly constructed third act ends things on a sour note. All that big action may be the kind of stuff that’s excellent when it comes to getting audiences pumped up for a sequel, but it robs the narrative at hand of clarity and its own power, leaving The Equalizer feeling unexpectedly uneven.
The Upside: Denzel Washington is very good at killing people, unique and inventive violence and action, a pleasingly offbeat opening act, an overall tone of B-movie nuttiness and insanity that’s easy to cheer for.
The Downside: The supporting cast cannot match Washington’s level of commitment (especially Chloe Grace Moretz, who is given surprisingly little to do), third act plot movements are overwhelmingly obvious, a relatively straightforward story that is bogged down with unnecessary backstory and complications, uninspired villains.
On the Side: The Equalizer television series ran for four seasons and eighty-eight episodes from 1985 to 1989. That show’s own Robert McCall was an ex-operative for the CIA who used his skills (and some nifty newspaper ads!) to help people in need.