At this point, Denzel Washington could be in a movie as Barney the Dinosaur and I would be excited. The man is one of the last true movie stars out there, not just because of his endless charisma and wide range, but because of his ability to sell a movie just based on his presence alone. The only connection I have to the original Equalizer TV show is a brief joke in The Wolf of Wall Street, and on paper the concept seemed pretty generic. However, with Washington and his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua behind it, the potential is certainly there. Did they delver? Well that’s why you’re here isn’t it!
The Equalizer centers on mysterious former intelligence operative and current hardware store worker Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) who possesses deeply tactical, borderline obsessive compulsive combat skills, and a keen sense of empathy for those being oppressed. As we start things off, his gaze is set on Teri (Chloe Moretz), a seventeen year old who has unfortunately found herself in the middle of an abusive Russian prostitution ring. When Robert violently intervenes, it sparks a turf war between the various factions within the cell. The Russians send in the sociopathic Teddy (Morton Csokas) who despite his goofy name makes for a formidable adversary for Robert.
Even though it does not fully succeed, I must applaud The Equalizer right off the bat for attempting to have a little more depth then your average action fare.We don’t get nearly any needless exposition establishing Robert’s past, we’re just thrown into his world and expected as an audience to gather the pieces. Before the action even kicks off, the film spends a solid thirty minutes or so establishing Robert’s personality, and his relationships, specifically with Teri. This really gives the actors a chance to breathe, and actually make us care about the barrage of action we’re about to see. Washington and Moretz both really shine here, the former creating a character who dispenses harsh justice, while still displaying a refreshing amount of kindness, and the later breaking our hearts with what seems to be a pretty futile circumstance to be in.
Once things get going, the momentum is nicely held together by some genuine tension and what grows into a fascinating relationship between Robert and Teddy. When Csokas first shows up, it might be easy to dismiss him as the generic Russian villain who just postures at the camera, but as the film goes on, Csokas really effectively sells just how far gone this man is on a base phycological level. We get the impression that this isn’t just a job to him, but it’s the only thing he knows how to do considering that he sees humanity as mere packs of meat. The two don’t just fight, but actually sit down and have a conversation or two. All very nice changes of pace for this type of film.
As for the action itself, it’s rock solid. I really enjoyed the stark, brutal sensibility Antoine Fuqua has brought to films like Training Day, and Olympus Has Fallen (yeah, I know the later is a pretty silly flick, but damn is it fun), and that continues in spades here. All of the violence here is beautifully photographed, and graphic without being over the top, while employing some very nice practical blood effects in the process (or if it was CG, hats off, because it looked great). Especially worth mentioning is the film’s climax in the hardware store, in which Washington picks off six Russian troops one at a time by stalking them and then using the various tools as mutilation devices. It’s really effective, seeming more out of a horror film then a shoot ‘em up. The only misstep in this department is the slightly heavy handed use of slow motion, particularly to highlight Robert’s deductive skills. It’s a neat technique at first, but it quickly gets tiresome and slows things down.
Speaking of slow, if I had one major complaint about this film, it would be the length. While I appreciated the deliberate style in the first act, the story definitely takes more detours than needed, with Robert foiling a few random injustices that just seem like an excuse to make Washington look cool. There’s no reason this relatively simple story needed to drag on for two hours and fifteen minutes. Also, the story has a couple elements that are extremely derivative of Washington’s own Man On Fire, and while this is definitely a much better film (sorry Tony Scott fans), it’s hard not to notice it.
I have great respect for this film, even if it isn’t fantastic. It’s an action film that really takes it’s time to establish a character who isn’t simply just an extension of it’s star (although Washington’s sheer presence certainly does not hurt) and delivers violence that feels rough and full of consequence. I’m certainly intrigued by Robert McCall and his world, and I certainly hope the rumors of Fuqua and Washington returning for a sequel come to fruition, because I think that next time, they could really knock this thing out of the park. For now though, this solid action flick is just about all you can expect in the dungeons of September. Go for it.