The Equalizer

The Equalizer - 2014Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz

Antoine Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to a Best Actor Oscar in 2001’s Training Day, and so it’s understandable that there’s been a certain amount of anticipation surrounding their reunification on this update of the old Edward Woodward-starring ’80s television staple. However, while The Equalizer has its charms, we probably shouldn’t expect anyone involved to be stepping up to the podium at the Dolby Theatre next year.

Washington is Robert McCall, a quiet man leading a quiet life, dividing his time between his job at a hardware chain store and a Nighthawks At The Diner-style greasy spoon, where he spends the wee hours reading classic literature. There’s a volcano smouldering under the still landscape of Washington’s stoic features, though, and it erupts after Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young prostitute McCall has befriended, is brutalised by her Russian mob pimps. McCall quickly and savagely disposes of the thugs, but things escalate when criminals further up the food chain dispatch the psychotic Teddy (Marton Csokas) to deal with McCall.

The Equalizer feels like a film pulling in a number of different, incompatible directions, as though everyone involved in its construction had different ideas about the kind of movie they were making. Long, occasionally plodding stretches of character work and world-building are punctuated by bursts of grotesquely over the top violence, and the contrast is an uncomfortable one. When McCall takes out the trash, he tends to eschew guns and what have you for garden tools and improvised weapons in a manner that would do Dexter proud. By the time he’s hunting Russian mobsters through a darkened hardware store in the third act, it’s almost cartoonish.

That’s a shame, because the film spends a lot of time and effort setting up its little universe, and the drift into caricature wastes all the early heavy lifting. Although McCall’s relationship with Teri is largely played out on the surface, we spend enough time with her to assume that she’s going to be important down the track, but she’s really just there to set things in motion. Likewise, McCall’s little vigilante side missions to help his co-workers seem to indicate some kind of compulsion to action or absolution, but this idea is never really fleshed out. It’s not that the film is being too subtle – the way the books McCall reads comment on the story indicates that subtlety is not a concern here – but rather that it seems to have little interest in following the threads it picks up, other than the fairly rote “up the food chain” action movie structure.

For all that, it’s enjoyable enough. Washington’s trademark cold fury serves him well here, and the action is well executed. Still, with a sequel already in the pipeline, let’s hope that they have something meatier in mind for the next film in the series.