Review by C.J. Bunce
The Pelican Brief, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide, Fallen, The Manchurian Candidate, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable, 2 Guns—movies big and small, and all feature the Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington. In each, like with Cruise, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and most recently, Wahlberg, the lead character is really Denzel as Denzel, but each new time round the actor is lurking around in a different environment. In each, he has a new name and a new job, but it’s Denzel—striving to fight his way to the end, to wrestle with anger or grief, or pain, or to just get by.
In the 2014 theatrical release The Equalizer, as retired ex-CIA operative Robert McCall, Denzel gets to be the guy usually played by Cruise, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Willis, or even Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson. He gets to be the Dark Knight, or name any other superhero. He’s not only the good guy, but the good guy with the means.
Have you ever considered taking responsibility for everyone around you–everyone you regularly encounter each day? Maybe for you that’s the shop owner, the barista at your coffee shop, the guy who cleans your office, your family, friends, co-workers? Have you ever considered what it would take for you to stop what you’re doing and assume responsibility for everyone around you? Everyone’s problems, every failing, every pain—it’s all on you. If you see it, you own it. Like the character and TV series the movie is based on, Robert McCall takes charge with that message repeated on each episode of the TV series, and parroted in the film: If someone has a problem, if the odds are stacked against them, if they have nowhere else to turn, McCall will help. He is the Equalizer.
Denzel’s acting work in The Equalizer is great, as you’d expect. It’s among his best. And the character itself is great. Those two elements are enough to get anyone to watch The Equalizer and enjoy the ride. Even the several payoffs in the film are worth cheering for. But the film still has its problems. Unfortunately, as exciting and intense as it is, the movie itself doesn’t live up to its potential.
A big miss is its over-the-top language. Yes, we get it: Bad guys use profanity. But some bad guys also have more to their characters than that. The subordinate bad guys in The Equalizer apparently don’t. They just go too far, and become annoying in their rants, and should make the average person uncomfortable. How did movies get by with gangs and gangster themed movies between the 1920s and the 1960s without all the profanity anyway? The best gangster movies of all time fit in this window of time, yet some writers, producers, and directors found a way to tell their stories without the incessant barrage of empty, angry dialogue with nothing to be said to drive the story forward. It’s particularly relevant when thinking about The Equalizer because there is a segment of viewers of the original series that this show should include as an audience, yet the language would–or should–turn many away. Without the language, you’d recommend the film to anyone. It’s a great action flick with some well-done dramatic elements.
The blame here goes to the script. The villain with the most screen time opposite Denzel is Teddy, played by the ubiquitous actor Marton Csokas (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Noah, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Alice in Wonderland, Aeon Flux, The Bourne Supremacy, The Lord of the Rings, Timeline, Xena: Warrior Princess). Somehow Csokas is a ringer for both Russell Crowe and Jason Isaacs, and he’s just as compelling to watch in action. But his character could have been better realized. Gravity becomes an issue as subordinate villain after subordinate villain is eliminated. Each scene blends into the other because we have no reason to particularly hate the last or next villain on screen, other than Teddy. And the villain we should hate we don’t get to see until the denouement. That’s Russian mob mastermind Vladimir Pushkin, played eventually by Vladimir Kulich (Vikings, Chuck, Angel, The X-Files). The viewer simply doesn’t get enough time with Pushkin, the instigator of the horrors caused from beginning to end. The Tom Cruise film Jack Reacher, another action-packed flick about a has-been tough guy with some mad skills, does it better. In Jack Reacher we actually get to grow to hate the glassy-eyed evil mastermind because we get to know him personally.
But let’s not overstate the low spots. The Equalizer has too much going for it. The set design plays a big part in the film, especially the vibe from McCall’s late night hole in the wall location, which borrows plenty from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Also don’t miss the solid acting in The Equalizer in a smaller but important role from Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick Ass series), and look for cameos by Bill Pullman (Independence Day, Deceived), and Melissa Leo (Wayward Pines, Homicide: Life on the Street, and the original The Equalizer).
According to Sony a sequel starring Denzel Washington is in the works. And we can’t wait to see Denzel open up a can of whoopass in the remake of The Magnificent Seven, also directed by the director of The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua.
The Equalizer is now available on streaming services like Starz OnDemand, and on Blu-ray, available at Amazon.com here.