Movie Review: “The Equalizer”

Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour
Antoine Fuqua

Denzel Washington has never shied away from making movies that many would consider beneath his talents, balancing Oscar-caliber films like “American Gangster” with less serious fare like “2 Guns.” But while it’s not the first time that the veteran actor has indulged in a little butt-kicking fun, “The Equalizer” is certainly his most entertaining – a “Taken”-like action thriller that reunites Washington with “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua. In fact, the movie has a certain air of arrogance to it, as if to say, “Anything Liam Neeson can do, Denzel can do better,” and “The Equalizer” makes a pretty good argument for that, heralding a potential franchise for the actor which has curiously evaded him up until now.

Washington stars as Robert McCall, a former CIA black ops agent who faked his own death in order to live a quiet life in Boston, where he spends his days working at a hardware store and his nights drinking tea and reading at a local diner. It’s there that he meets a young prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), striking up a friendship with the girl during their frequent visits to the joint. When Teri doesn’t show up one night and McCall discovers that she was viciously beaten by her Russian pimp, he decides to pay the gangster a visit and teach him and his goons a lesson. McCall doesn’t realize that they had connections to the Russian mafia, however, and once word of the attack reaches Moscow, they send a specialist (Marton Csokas) to track down the men responsible, initially believing that it was rival mobsters starting a turf war. But after it’s revealed that the seemingly ordinary McCall acted alone, the Russians plan to make an example out of him, unaware of who they’re dealing with.

Very loosely based on the 1980s TV series of the same name, “The Equalizer” is probably the closest that Washington will ever get to playing a superhero. McCall is a one-man army, taking down his opponents with Bourne-like precision to the point that he knows how long it will take before he even throws the first punch. This is conveyed in a manner similar to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, where we see McCall sizing up his surroundings to create the most efficient (and destructive) path possible. Of course, Fuqua hammers home those methodical habits so often that it grows a bit tiresome, especially when the movie clocks in at an outrageous 130 minutes. That kind of runtime would be understandable if the story had a lot of moving parts or something really important to say, but it has neither, instead wasting time following McCall around town as he solves other peoples’ problems while the audience awaits for the inevitable showdown between him and Csokas’ villain. The two men don’t even meet until the hour mark, and although that helps build suspense, “The Equalizer” would have really benefited from Fuqua trimming some of the fat in the first half that slows the story down.

When he just lets Denzel be Denzel, kicking ass and taking names as the calm and composed badass he plays so well, the film is all the better for it. Washington could read the dictionary and it would probably be riveting, so it goes without saying that he elevates the material here as well, even if he doesn’t get much help from the supporting cast. Csokas makes for a formidable adversary, but the rest of the actors are terribly wasted. Moretz appears in the first 20 minutes, never to be seen again until the very end, while Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo pop up in throwaway roles that could have been played by just about anyone. It says something about Fuqua that both actors were willing to accept such small parts, and it’s great to see Pullman again after what seems like years on the sideline, but their involvement is strange nonetheless.

With that said, you don’t go to a movie like “The Equalizer” for the story or the acting, and Fuqua is well aware of this, populating the film with some excellent action sequences and unexpected moments of brutal violence on both sides. The big finale takes place inside the home improvement store where McCall works, and though that provides the MacGyver-like protagonist with plenty of makeshift weapons at his disposal (seriously, it’s like “Home Alone” for adults), nothing beats the image of Denzel walking slo-mo through a shower of water carrying a nail gun. The actor has always had plenty of swagger, and when combined with the poise and gravitas that he brings to each role, he’s created an action hero that any audience can get behind. “The Equalizer” is hardly groundbreaking stuff compared to Fuqua and Washington’s last collaboration, but it’s a slick crowd-pleaser that provides the escapist entertainment of any good action flick.