Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Johnny Messner, Haley Bennett, Vladimír Kulich, Robert Wahlberg, David Harbour, Alex Veadov, Allen Maldonado, Owen Burke, Dan Bilzerian. Written by Richard Wenk.
The Equalizer is the kind of film that ends with the hero casually strolling home with a bag of groceries after slaughtering hundreds of bad guys, and we’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief. Two hours of nonstop bloodshed is, apparently, exactly the right amount to ensure that peace wins out in the end.
It works, mind you: The Equalizer’s extended Home Depot climax – twenty minutes of inventive MacGyver/Home Alone-meets-slasher movie action – is so taut and exciting and gruesomely fun that it makes up for any shortcomings during the somewhat lackadaisical 90+ minutes that have preceded it.
But The Equalizer fails to match Man on Fire – a film in which star Denzel Washington plays a character so similar to his one here that it may as well be a direct sequel – in that it never forces us to confront the violence. In Tony Scott’s movie – and many of the better revenge pictures dating back to the original Death Wish – the filmmakers ask us not if the end justifies the means, but if the means are justified in the first place.
An eye for an eye, and all that jazz. Is our bloodthirsty craving – not just to see the bad guys die, but to have them meet gruesomely violent ends – justified by the actions committed by the bad guys that spark the protagonist into action?
Not so much here. Washington is Robert McCall, a benevolent manager at a home improvement retailer (Home Depot has become “Home Mart”) who may or may not have a mysterious past (he was a Pip, one of Gladys Knight’s dancers, he tells his colleagues). McCall’s sleepless nights are spent in the local café, where he’s been making his way through the 100 books you must read before you die. He’s currently on The Old Man and the Sea.
McCall is befriended by friendly Russian hooker Teri (played Chloë Grace Moretz, who feels too creepily young for this role at 17), and it’s her violent assault at the hands of pimp Slavi (David Meunier) that spurs McCall into a kill-crazy rampage. Usually it’s something a little more serious – Charles Bronson seemed to lose just about everyone he knew during the Death Wish films, and last time around for Denzel it was poor little Dakota Fanning who was abducted and presumably killed in Man on Fire – but apparently the roughing up of a prostitute he has barely spoken to is enough for McCall to take on the entire Russian mafia in Boston.
The Russians call in professional fixer Teddy (a wonderfully slimy Marton Csokas) to sort things out, but even he doesn’t seem to be bad enough to warrant McCall’s blood lust. Csokas’ Teddy is an emotionless pro, smart and elegant, and even his strangulation of a prostitute is vaguely intimate and merciful; we want to see him die, sure, but his chilly actions lack the brutality that would make us really want to see him suffer.
But it’s only the extended sequences between action scenes that had me thinking of such things. The one thing working against The Equalizer is a glacial pacing courtesy of director Antoine Fuqua, who somehow stretches out this straightforward B-movie to an unwieldy 131-minute runtime. It’s never boring but it is slow, and for a film where everything is set up in the first half hour, it sure takes it’s time to play out.
But then there’s the inventive slasher movie Home Depot theatrics, and all is good as McCall takes on the Russian baddies with knives, garden shears, barbed wire, shattered glass, a propane torch, bottles of explosives in a microwave, and, of course, a nail gun. I think he even heats up a doorknob at one point to cauterize a wound. (A wound? McCall is more invincible than Superman through most of this film.) This sequence is played as if McCall were Jason Vorhees and the Russians were his helpless victims, and the filmmakers know what their audience wants: grisly violence, and plenty of it.
The Equalizer ain’t great, but it’s stuff like this that has action movie fans leaving the cinema with a sense of satisfaction; this is what they’ve paid good money to see.
Because Hollywood will never again touch an original project, The Equalizer is apparently based on the 1980s TV series that starred Edward Woodward as McCall. Hogwash. While the film slyly hints that potential sequels may get into the ‘friendly vigilante’ concept, this one is a generic (but effective) revenge movie-cum-actioner that has almost no ties to the TV show besides the name.