Review: “The Equalizer”

Smart, stylish, and entertaining from open to close, “The Equalizer” works thanks to yet another powerhouse Denzel Washington performance.

Smart, stylish, and entertaining from open to close, The Equalizer transcends its genre and TV adaptation trappings thanks to the timeless charisma of its star, Denzel Washington, and the willingness of director Antoine Fuqua to take risks and not pull punches in telling the story he wants to tell.

That story revolves around one Robert McCall (Washington), a middle-aged widower living a quiet, unassuming existence as a retail employee for a Home Depot-esque home improvement store in Boston. He spends his days being the affable, dependable co-worker, always on-time, always there to lend a hand with any problem. His sleepless nights are spent reading the many books so meticulously ordered and shelved around his modest apartment, or sitting at the same table at the corner all-night diner, with a book and a cup of tea. His co-workers all suspect that there’s more to him than just the charming, soft-spoken guy who’s always there when you need him. But whatever he was before, he’s not saying. It’s in the past, and that’s where McCall wants it to stay.

All of that changes once he gets to know Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass, If I Stay), a call girl who hangs out in McCall’s chosen late night haunt when she’s not with clients. Teri needs help — her life is not her own, and her handlers are a particularly brutal lot — and after McCall sees firsthand what happens to her when she upsets a john, he feels he has to do something. When that something turns into a violent encounter, McCall calls upon the skills and the persona of the life he’d meant to leave behind — that of a U.S. Special Forces operative — and in the span of seconds he’s surrounded by lots of dead bad guys.

Now as is often the case in these sorts of stories, those particular bad guys weren’t the only ones, and thus his actions put McCall square in the sights of Teddy (Marton Czokas), a brilliant and ruthless fixer sent by the Russian mobsters who employed Teri’s handlers. Unlike the other thugs and corrupt cops on the mobsters’ payroll, Teddy’s good enough at his job to know just how dangerous his quarry is, and as their battle of wits and fortitude escalates, it becomes a question of if McCall can keep those he’s come to care about from being caught in the crossfire.

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The Equalizer is the latest entry into what’s becoming a subgenre of action thrillers all its own, films fronted by heroes made no less invincible, unstoppable, and badass by the fact that they’re middle aged. 2014 alone has seen five such films, including this one: 3 Days to Kill with Kevin Costner (age 59), Non-Stop AND A Walk Among the Tombstones with Liam Neeson (age 62), The November Man with Pierce Brosnan (age 61) and now The Equalizer, with Washington also at age 59. Quite the crowded field, and the fact that just about all of the films enjoyed some success at the box office, at least in their opening frames, it’s a good bet audiences will be seeing more in this genre in the near future.

Washington’s entry is by far the most memorable and enjoyable film of this year’s lot, and a great deal of that has to do with Washington himself, whose combination of charisma, intensity, and effortless cool make him a perfect fit for this updated version of the character the late Edward Woodward played from 1985-1989 on CBS prime time television. Washington’s take on the character is rich with little details that make the journey of his character from the start of the film to its final shot all the more satisfying, regardless of whether you were familiar with the original version or not. A testament to Washington’s skill as a performer and Fuqua’s vision as a director is that a great many of those little details are conveyed in quiet scenes without dialogue or exposition, scenes where its on the actor to convey the meaning behind the action the audience sees. It’s yet another captivating performance from a star who rarely delivers a poor one, and it deserves to be seen and enjoyed.

But a great deal of credit should go to Fuqua as well, who takes a number of risks with this production that prove to pay off in the end. The first of these is the film’s length. An action thriller clocking in at almost two and a quarter hours flies in the face of prevailing wisdom in an entertainment landscape dominated by the need to cater to the shorter attention spans of younger viewers. Add the “R” rating thanks to some truly graphic violence and there’s the risk of alienating older, more conservative viewers who might otherwise flock to see a Denzel Washington film. It’s difficult to imagine that there weren’t serious discussions with nervous studio execs and bean counters regarding speeding up the pace of the film and toning down the violence in order to broaden the film’s appeal and bankability.

Thankfully, that’s not the route taken here. Fuqua keeps the pace steady and the focus on character and the character’s journey, rather than trying to deliver non-stop plot driven action and adrenaline. He relies on his star’s considerable skills to make that extra time spent on character worthwhile, and when the film finally gets down to the nitty gritty of McCall dealing out vigilante justice, he does so with a brutality that may be shocking to some, but is consistent with who McCall is and how he would operate. There’s also tremendous creativity in the staging of those scenes which should delight action fans sick of just guns and fistacuffs. Though by the end the lengths McCall goes to in order to win his personal war stretch credulity a bit, by that point the film has been so entertaining that such narrative choices are easily forgiven.

So long story short (too late): if you only see one of these Middle-Aged Action Hero movies this year, see this one. It’s sure to be recognized as one of Washington’s most enjoyable and memorable performances, and it delivers on every level as a good time at the movies.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

The Equalizer
Starring Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour with Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo. Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Running Time: 131 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.

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