The last time I saw Denzel Washington, he was drunk, disheveled and not doing well at all in Flight (I missed 2 Guns), so for me, The Equalizer brings him back to full badass mode. And then some.
Loosely based on the 1980s TV series — very loosely — The Equalizer stars Washington as Robert McCall, a man with a mysterious past who works during the day at something called Home Mart, which is really just Home Depot in disguise. McCall spends his nights sitting up late in a local diner, reading classic literature, and it’s there that he befriends a local Russian hooker (Chloe Grace Moretz, trying but still not quite grown up yet) whom he discusses said books with. When she is beaten senseless by her pimp, McCall decides to do something about it.
You can guess what happens from there, and you’d probably be right. You see, McCall is a man with a past, who used to work for a government agency doing things he’d rather forget, but Moretz’s plight stirs his old self out of its slumber. Washington may be as commanding a presence as ever, but The Equalizer generates almost no suspense in either its character revelations or its plot machinations.
The movie follows the same grim, predictable path as so many of its kind, in which a righteous loner must make a stand against a shady or evil organization of some kind. In this case, Chloe’s pimp is just one small part of a Russian criminal enterprise that has its claws sunk into Boston and is personified by the dapper enforcer Teddy (Martin Csokas), who is shipped over from Moscow to find out who’s gumming up the works.
The movie’s version of McCall is in some ways less complicated that the TV edition personified by Edward Woodward for four seasons. He’s a widower while Woodward’s McCall was divorced, and he has no children (at least as far as we know) while Woodward had a son who wanted to get into his line of work as well. The TV Equalizer drove a Jag; this one takes a bus. And did I tell you that the new one has OCD? That’s why he opens and closes a door several times and arranges his tableware just so every night before having tea. But the Washington model has the same nasty skill set as Woodward when it comes to dispatching bad guys — a lethal talent that seems to be peculiar to men in their late 50s and early 60s, as Liam Neeson can also attest.
The Equalizer could almost fit into Neeson’s recent run of generic action thrillers by virtue of Richard Wenk’s screenplay, which sets up a few potentially interesting ideas (like the OCD thing) and then just as quickly discards them. Wenk does the same with supporting characters; after she is hospitalized, Moretz disappears for almost the rest of the movie, while a Home Mart employee (Johnny Skourtis) whom McCall helps ace the test for security guard also pops conveniently in and out only when needed. This is all about getting to the stuff people are paying for, even if it takes a while for Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua to get there: McCall laying waste to an office full of Russian gangsters, McCall taking out a pair of sleazy, corrupt cops, and finally McCall taking on even more Russians, who come out of the woodwork like ants, without even breaking a sweat.
No matter how many Russians show up, McCall always comes out on top, and it’s Washington’s impassive yet still undeniably charismatic screen persona that gets the viewer through the increasingly dreary carnage. He’s essentially playing a superhero, although Marvel would never let Iron Man or Captain America wallow in the hard-R gore and sadism that McCall generates, most salaciously in an extended battle at Home Mart during which our man uses every power tool at his disposal to bloodily dismantle his opponents (I hope he at least got the employee discount when he paid for it all the next day). But even watching Washington in full warrior mode can’t quite save the proceedings from their by-the-numbers progression.
Washington and Fuqua last teamed on Training Day, a much more complex film, and while Fuqua can stage his action scenes effectively and even stylishly (although some of them are a bit too underlit for my taste), he doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And neither does his star. Washington can play this role in his sleep, and it’s a credit to his talent that he’s still hard to resist even if he is literally just walking through a lot of the movie. His co-stars don’t fare quite as well: Moretz, as we hinted earlier, would get carded at any club she tried to enter, while Csokas fluctuates wildly between controlled menace and over-the-top Bondian super-villainy. David Harbour seems perpetually sweaty, exhausted and belligerent as a cop working for the Russians, while Melissa Leo unfortunately gets the Basil Exposition role as a former agency exec whom McCall visits late in the film to have the story explained to him.
None of this is necessarily “bad.” It’s just so overly familiar that it generates almost no reaction at all. The Equalizer is well-crafted enough that it’s not a terrible experience at the movies; it’s just an empty one. There’s nothing complicated or thought-provoking about McCall’s actions, and he never questions himself. There is very little in the way of consequences for him either. By the time he’s officially open for business to help others (putting the TV show’s famous ad not in a newspaper, but on Craigslist), it’s not like he had to wrestle with the idea very much. Washington is capable of so much more, but perhaps as he approaches the age of 60 himself, he figured he’d better get himself some box office insurance. Ostensibly a franchise-launcher, The Equalizer plays like the third of fourth installment of one that’s already on autopilot.
The Equalizer is out in theaters this Friday (September 26).