How do you discuss a film like The Equalizer? Before you get too excited by my rating, let me say: it’s not a great film. But as badass action films go, as September films go, as films from semi-forgotten TV shows go–it’s very good. Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua may not have topped Training Day, but they’ve made a film that excites, engages, and at times, even stuns.
Mild (very mild) spoilers.
Robert McCall (Washington) is a man who does not waste time. This point is made from the first shots of an alarm clock going off at 7:30–while Robert is already up and painstakingly cleaning his sneakers for work. And it’s not like Robert is an “early to bed, early to rise” type, either; around 1 in the morning, he generally heads down to an all-night diner and reads while drinking tea. He applies his disciplined nature to those around him, as well: his out-of-shape co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) is trying to become a security guard, and Robert trains him, urging him to eat better and supervising his exercises.
Although he’s well-liked by his co-workers at “Home Mart” (which is totally a Home Depot), he is coy about his background. When Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute who frequents the same diner as Robert and has formed a rapport with him, is beaten up to the point of hospitalization by her Russian mobster pimp Slavi (David Meunier), Robert confronts him and his men and offers to buy Alina’s freedom. Slavi rejects the offer, and Robert kills him and all his men single-handedly.
It turns out Robert has something of a past–he was an operative for “the Agency” and faked his death to live a normal life with his late wife. He had promised her to leave violence and bloodshed behind him, but now begins using his skills for good, such as returning a co-worker’s ring after a robbery and confronting a pair of corrupt cops about the protection money they’ve extorted from Ralphie’s mother.
Meanwhile, Teddy (Marton Csokas), a close associate of the head of the Russian mob, comes to town to see who killed their men and has curtailed their operations. Robert’s skills have allowed to evade law enforcement, but Teddy, sifting through the scant evidence, becomes suspicious and begins leaving a trail of bodies in his wake as he tries to get to the bottom of things. Robert, naturally, proves a formidable adversary.
Is it a spoiler to say Robert ends up on top, and in spectacular fashion? I suppose, but let’s be honest, that’s the only way it was going to be. And the fashion is spectacular indeed. Fuqua stages some great action sequences here, with the climactic showdown in Home Mart being a particular highlight as Robert dishes out punishment in a very bloody way. And his massacre of Slavi and his men is, in its own way, just as grisly and just as powerful. My jaw dropped a time or two.
But The Equalizer isn’t just grim bloodshed. It manages to balance humor and tension quite effectively–when Robert kills Slavi and co., he plans the attack out in his head and estimates he can do it in 16 seconds, and times himself. It takes 26 seconds, and Robert’s attempt not to be disappointed with himself is a fine bit of sly humor in the midst of a bloodbath. And one sequence near the very end, which I will not spoil, is quite funny in its display of Robert’s casual, almost blithe skill at eliminating his opponents.
The film’s brutality can be quite somber, however, and when it deals with the plight of the sex workers–Alina, and especially Mandy (Haley Bennett)–it can be quite painful. It’s a credit to Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk that the film manages to avoid being exploitative in these scenes, and while no one will mistake it for a message film, it did not trivialize these characters, and I appreciated that.
I also appreciate the fact that Robert is an intellectual hero–a man whose preferred pastime is reading, a top-notch strategist, an exacting dietitian and a man of near-monastic (he’s even described as living like a monk at one point) discipline. When so many action films (Transformers 4, or Green Lantern to name an especially odious example) treat the intellectual with suspicion, it’s nice to see a film which applauds one.
And if the role doesn’t ask Washington to do anything he hasn’t done before, he does it damned well, combining the laid-back humor, the moral certitude, and the disciplined badassery as only he can. He never suggests that he’s slumming it or hams it up, but is on-point throughout, and if he does a sequel or two (and the film’s success so far suggests he will), I’ll be happy to go.
Csokas, who looks something like Kevin Spacey’s evil younger brother (with a dash of Michael Shannon), is a properly loathsome villain. He has one scene with Bennett which is almost unbearably tense, thanks to his subdued malice–he’s even courteous to a point–and when confronted with the unflappable Robert, shows the slightest crack in his cold-blooded veneer. Teddy isn’t one of the all-time great villains, but Csokas makes him engaging.
The sexualization of Moretz has been one of the more disturbing cinematic trends of recent years (though nothing tops Hick for sheer creepiness), but here it serves some contextual purpose. That said, Alina (whose professional name is Teri) is basically Taxi Driver‘s Iris with a little less cynicism, and Moretz’ performance seems vaguely off–as if she’s not sure whether to play up her self-defensive swagger or her bitter resignation–but she does adequately enough. Bennett is pretty good, though she has less to work with than Moretz.
As for the rest of the cast, David Harbour is solid as a corrupt cop who is nonetheless startled by Teddy’s brutal indifference to the established crime networks; he gets some good scenes near the end where he is compelled to do the right thing by Robert, who always gives his foes a chance to repent before resorting to lethal force. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo are fine in their cameos as former associates of Robert who assist his investigation. Skourtis provides some comic relief that manages to feel reasonably organic; Meunier is an effective slimeball.
As noted, Fuqua stages some fine setpieces–he even gives us what may be the definitive “walking in slow-motion away from an explosion one has set”. And the film as a whole is well-handled; Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore put some striking images on the screen, especially during the big climax. It looked pretty good in IMAX, I’ll tell you. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is fine; I could’ve sworn I heard Tuvan throat-singing at one point. John Refoua’s editing keeps the action scenes thankfully coherent, and the film moves well without rushing itself (though, at over two hours, it could’ve lost some fat). The sound mixing and editing is excellent throughout, with the explosions sounding particularly thunderous.
Richard Wenk’s script is solid, though it doesn’t quite rise above the norm; when Robert and Alina discuss the themes of The Old Man and the Sea, it’s a pretty on-the-nose attempt to advance the film’s own themes (“Gotta be who you are in this world”), and comes off as a somewhat failed attempt at profundity. For the most part it’s a perfectly good script, but if any part of the film could’ve used a little punching up, this might’ve been it.
I’ve never seen the 80s series which the film is based on; in fact, this scene was the first I’d heard of it. So I can’t say how accurately the film captures its spirit–in fact, Robert never identifies himself as “the Equalizer” in the film, and only at the very end is there a nod to the character’s pitchline. But on its own terms, it’s a fine action film and a fine vehicle for its star. It’s not light fare–it earns its R rating for sure–but I certainly recommend it.