A film featuring a badass Denzel Washington exerting bloody revenge on unsuspecting evil doers based on a cheesy 1980s TV thriller shouldn’t be boring and depressing, but along comes Antoine Fuqua’s resolutely drab and tedious remounting of The Equalizer to prove that even the simplest of can’t miss ideas can be ruined by people taking themselves too seriously for their own good. It’s a ridiculously over the top concept told by people who think they’re making some sort of statement about the nature of our violent, consumer driven society; a right wing “with us or against us” fever dream that would be beneath the likes of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson during their Cannon Films years and devoid of all the fun those flicks managed to come up with.
Former black ops operative Robert McCall (Washington) wants to live out the rest of his days in peace and far away from his bone snapping past working as a mild mannered home improvement store clerk in Boston. His world gets rocked when a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) gets nearly murdered by her hyped up and violent Russian pimps. He decides to exact some revenge for the young woman against her attackers, but it turns out that he hasn’t pissed off a small band of low level thugs, but the entire Russian mafia, making McCall’s brief return to his old lifestyle more prolonged.
Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) and screenwriter Richard Wenk (16 Blocks, Just the Ticket) commit to their po-faced lack of humour early on by constantly taking the audience for rubes and making McCall into a sort of unknown cipher. It’s the kind of obfuscation that comes across as ludicrous to anyone that’s ever seen a movie in their life, especially any number of the films where Washington shows up to be a badass. Let’s also forget for a moment that the set-up to this film and Washington’s similarly minded, but vastly more entertaining Tony Scott joint Man on Fire are almost the exact same. Would it kill Fuqua and McCall to just come out and say that this guy used to be a government spook instead of constantly trying to hammer home how tortured the guy is? The thudding obviousness in the early going of The Equalizer isn’t nuanced enough to be warranted, especially when it’s only there to elongate the film far past the two hour mark to be considered more of a “serious film.”
It’s not that Denzel doesn’t get to do some interesting character work in this part, though. If anything, the first hour seems to play to the actor’s strengths before throwing them out the window once the bodies have to start piling up. He shows a lot of warmth in the early going, and if anyone is trying hard to make McCall look haunted and conflicted, it’s Washington. The way he interacts with his co-workers at his job is novel and thoughtful, and certainly more in line with Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim’s TV series about someone who actually enjoys helping people settle the score. There’s also a quiet elegance to how Washington’s McCall can’t sleep a wink at night, preferring to go out and read at an all night diner. There are minor grace notes at the beginning that the film gives up on around the halfway point.
Things get particularly dire following a scene with thoroughly wasted cameos from Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman as married former bosses of McCall that’s nothing more than a reprisal of bringing in Christopher Walken’s character in the aforementioned Man on Fire. From that point on, The Equalizer devolves into full on sadism with no hope of redemption. Don’t expect any one-liners or more than the most basic of MacGyver-like inventions. Expect ludicrous situations where underdeveloped and sneering Russian villains and crooked cops get what’s coming to them. Some of them are laughable in terms of how easily escapable they are (like a cop getting remote locked in his own car as fumes pipe in through the windows. How was this set up in such a short period of time? How does this work? He’s a cop, so can’t he find another way out of the car, like bashing in a window? What’s McCall going to do? He can’t shoot the guy because he still needs information from him) to downright nastiness in the finale.
The entire finale takes place amid a hostage situation down at the hardware store, meaning the only people left that McCall cares about are in danger. It’s hard to believe that he would go back to help them (or that he would have gotten involved in the first place) considering just moments earlier in what’s admittedly the coolest looking “cool guy walking away from an explosion without looking back” scene I’ve ever witnessed, he probably just slaughtered hundreds of innocents that he never knew without blinking an eye or thinking twice. But come back he does and he’s there to do such cheerful things as drill a man at point blank range in the back of the skull when he isn’t looking or string people up with barbed wire nooses, all the while doing it with the thousand yard stare of a man that has no emotional investment in the situation whatsoever.
And that’s the main problem of the film. To create a set-up where someone gets called back into action because of an emotional investment in a situation and then turn them back into a stalking killer straight out of a slasher film makes absolutely no sense. It becomes about the very thing it starts out rallying against, revelling in bloody, graphic killing that can’t even realize it’s too stupid to be played seriously. The final message of The Equalizer isn’t anything more than, “Well, if you have to kill them, kill them all and feel miserable while doing it.” It’s a complete flatline as a motion picture, but you can easily see ways where it didn’t have to be so long, stoic, depressing, or almost devoid of entertainment value.