The Equalizer is a (mostly) satisfying vigilante action movie, with several crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping moments depicting bad guys getting their comeuppance.
It’s also a tonally inconsistent, excessively violent film that doesn’t quite understand why it’s problematic to want audiences to feel sympathy for a good-natured guy having a hard time living a normal life because all he wants to do is kill people.
Loosely based on the 1980s CBS series of the same name, the film centers on Robert McCall (the always reliable Denzel Washington), an employee at a Home Depot-like store by day, an ex-Black Ops professional with OCD and insomnia by night. While reading “Old Man and the Sea” at his favorite 24-hour diner, he gets into an on-the-nose discussion about the book’s (and ultimately, the movie’s) themes with call girl Alina (Chloe Grace-Mortez). Soon, McCall finds himself invested in the girl’s well being when she is beaten by her pimps — who turn out to be muscle for the Russian Mob.
McCall’s earnest attempt to buy the girl’s freedom ends with one thug getting a shot glass through the eye, and another fatally stabbed with a corkscrew. From there, McCall briefly goes back to his normal job — while cleaning up the streets — before the Russians send over an Equalizer of their own (the wasted Marton Csokas) to put Denzel down.
It’s not a shock that the bad guys do not succeed. What is surprising, however, is how hard the movie works to build up Csokas’ character as a threat, only to have him and his group of increasingly-stronger-but-ineffective thugs so easily taken out. As a result, the villains pose no credible danger to our hero, which leaves large sections of the film lacking any real tension or stakes. The only fun — if you can call it that — is waiting to see if the next set piece is as inventive with its kills as the previous one.
While that type of storytelling is satisfying on a purely “got my matinee ticket price’s worth” level, it is a disappointing waste of talent and potential, especially in regard to Denzel. The Oscar-winner’s recent trips down the road of middle-aged badasses have left the actor playing exaggerated versions of himself, but with McCall, Washington invests the brooding vigilante with an admirable amount of restraint and vulnerability — enough that we can almost forgive the movie for not quite figuring out how to effectively capitalize upon it, especially when McCall emerges from most scrapes either relatively unscathed, or looking like he suffered a really annoying paper cut.
Director Antoine Fuqua excels at keeping the geography of his action scenes straight, but his best work involves a scene that opts more for verbal jabs than physical ones, as seen in a chilling exchange between McCall and his nemesis at a dinner table, where Washington gives one of his best monologues in years.
Alas, the restraint and discipline seen here is quickly thrown out the window in the overlong third act, which pits McCall against the bad guys inside the hardware store which employs him. The ominous music that kicks off the climatic showdown overstays its welcome and stops working once the lyrics kick in, morphing into white noise scoring one gruesome, slasher movie-esque kill after another. The methods McCall employs to dispatch the bad guys are commited with a sadistic relish that would make Jason Voorhees blush. There is a fine line between vigilante and murderer, and McCall is just one hockey mask away from crossing it.
And therein lies The Equalizer‘s biggest problem. Fuqua and Richard Wenk’s screenplay are seemingly too concerned with delivering polished, borderline vigilante porn in between attempts at providing a larger (but completely hollow) commentary on how we use violent means to end violent men. The movie celebrates violence in the name of street justice while simultaneously lamenting it.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t smart enough to have its cake and eat it too, as it’s unable to realize that such aims are futile to begin with, especially when your hero lingers an extra-satisfied beat too long after pushing a power drill into the base of a man’s skull. Bad men doing bad things is acceptable as long as it is happening to worse men, The Equalizer seems to argue with each action scene. It’s not okay to linger too long on the main villain slowly squeezing the life out of an innocent man, because “violence is bad.” But it is apparently acceptable — and worth rooting for — when McCall informs that same villain that he is prepared to go full “Death Wish” on him, even if it means breaking the promise he made to his dead wife about the whole “not killing for recreation” thing.
Ultimately, The Equalizer isn’t sure it it wants to be a slightly more elevated riff on the Taken and Man on Fire model, or a brooding tale about the consequences of being a man fighting for the side of right, but fueled more by bloodlust than serving justice.
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