A film like “The Equalizer”, as entertaining as it is, is the kind I never thought I’d see from Denzel Washington. Over the years, Washington has attained a level of general likability and star power that most Hollywood personalities would kill for, as a highly respected, award-winning actor, and a massive box office draw. Whether through dramatic autobiographical roles ("Malcolm X," "Cry Freedom"), assured badass roles ("Training Day," "Inside Man"), and everything in between ("Mo’ Better Blues," "Remember the Titans"), Washington’s name alone is a brand endorsement that’s enough to put meat in seats, and he’s done it all without reliance on sequels and franchises, which is even more impressive.
So having seen the adaptation of the 1985 Edward Woodward-starring series, it’s surprising to note that it’s the first franchise-ready project Washington’s ever been a part of, right down to a “see you next week” ending that’s destined for TNT reruns.
It’s ridiculous and hyperbolic in the same way that Liam Neeson’s career-reviving turn in “Taken” was, but the team of Washington and Antoine Fuqua, director of “Training Day,” is still a (forgive the pun) killer combination, and its deliberate pacing and stylized action are distracting enough to make up for a derivative story, and worrying “father knows best” message-mongering.
It’s funny how influential the superhero model has become to contemporary Hollywood, because the story of Robert McCall (Washington) plays out like a superhero origin story. McCall is characterized as the everyman’s hero; a hard-working, omniscient father figure who helps his young friend Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) lose weight, to make security guard status, while everyone at his job talks about how mysterious he is, and where he possibly could’ve come from.
McCall is an ex-Special Forces operative, attempting to live a quiet life in Boston as a worker for a Home Depot-like hardware store. While at a diner he frequents one night, a young call girl Alaina, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is beaten badly by her Russian bosses, which coaxes McCall out of his imposed pacifism to dispense some justice. His altruistic beatdown comes at a price, however, when the pimp’s boss sends a clean-up man named Teddy to track McCall down, who decides to go all “Man on Fire” on the Boston arm of the Russian mafia and save Alaina’s life.
There’s something to be said of this crop of action thriller, built around hypercompetent reclusive male figures who solve women’s problems, help side characters achieve goals, and are five steps ahead of the rest of the world, and the fact that awards-caliber actors like Washington are joining the ranks of Baby Boomer wish fulfillment pictures like this. The comparison to Liam Neeson’s trajectory from award-winning actor, to b-movie mainstay, has been made in the past, but Washington seems to have transcended that distinction because of the fact that he careens so consistently between pulpy fun stuff like “The Equalizer” or “Man on Fire,” and serious-minded features like “Flight." But like I mentioned before, it’s too ridiculous to be taken that seriously, and, for the most part, it really is the stuff that action-thriller dreams are made of.
Richard Wenk’s screenplay paces the reveal of McCall’s origins well, and it’s great to see Washington cut loose as a combatant with Sherlock Holmes-level environmental awareness throughout.
Fuqua’s directorial hand is able to wring every bit of slickness out of the premise that it can, with McCall taking out crooked cops in alleyways, and turning a hardware store into a playhouse of death. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with only Grace Moretz’s wounded soul, Alaina, and Marton Csokas as sociopathic guard dog Teddy, leaving any impression. That being said, Teddy has a moment in the film where he calls someone he’s interrogating a clichéd character, which is hysterical, given that there’s no character more cliché in a thriller than the Russian spy.
All that really matters about a movie like “The Equalizer” is if its slick action and A-list star deliver; and they do. It isn’t the smartest movie in the world, but it’s as good a way as any to kick off the fall movie season. I just hope that Denzel doesn’t get too comfortable, and keeps challenging himself. I’d rather not see Air Marshall Denzel Washington ham his way through "Non-Stop 3."