(SPOILERS) Why adapt source material if you’re then going to discard the very thing that made it unique? That’s likely to be the first question asked by anyone who has seen the ‘80s TV original of the big screen version of The Equalizer. The answer in this case is surely “Because it has a really cool title”. The latest formulaic Denzel Washington action vehicle is pretty much what you’d expect from a formulaic Denzel Washington action vehicle; technically accomplished, shallow and glossy. The Equalizer also comes equipped with a ready supply of revenge/vigilante movie tropes. Its biggest problem is that amid the cobbled together succession of clichés that inform its wherewithal, no one remembered to include a modicum of wit or self-awareness. Which means, when there isn’t a steady eruption of ultra-violence to distract, this underwritten concoction’s hackneyed hues are over-powering.
Perhaps Denzel thought he needed to mix it up after last years raucous and frequently very funny 2 Guns. But without Shane Black-style arch dialogue or fleshed-out characters this becomes just another identikit picture about a mild-mannered, deadly man who unleashes fury on the (really) bad guys when roused. Tony Scott delivered something not dissimilar a decade ago in Man on Fire, and Antoine Fuqua (who worked with Washington on the superior Training Day) is nothing if not a poor man’s Tony Scott. A competent shooter (who made a competent movie called Shooter) with a modicum of slick style, his pictures are notable for being utterly devoid of personality and humour. You knew a Tony Scott movie when you saw it, even a shitty one, for its sheer vibrancy and excess. Fuqua only ever seems to be going through the motions although, with this and Olympus Has Fallen, it looks as if he is eking out a not-necessarily-to-be-sought-after signature as a new brutalist. Olympus was so over-the-top in its neck-snapping abandon that it reached levels of near-hilarity. Similarly, the biggest chuckles in The Equalizer – aside from Denzel being Mr Cool in tumultuous situations – come from the sadistic glee with which Fuqua captures the absurd desecrations Washington’s Robert McCall inflicts on his prey.
This is the birth of the Equalizer, however, and at first McCall appears as a distressingly perky old-timer working a dead-end job in a Home Mart hardware-house. In order lend some definition to McCall’s wafer-thin character, he has OCD; the kind of crude hook an undiscerning actor will consider makes the job worthwhile. McCall visits the same corner shop café every evening for a meal. He arranges his table and cutlery just so, puts a special tea bag in a cup of hot water. He reads books that proffer amazingly apt summaries of McCall himself; The Old Man and the Sea (“Gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what” is his book group appraisal), Don Quixote (“It’s about a guy who is a knight in shining armor, except he lives in a world where knights don’t exist any more”) and finally The Invisible Man. Now there’s an idea; how about Washington remakes The Gemini Man? He could even re-use his watch.
McCall nurses a platonic friendship with young prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz, not wholly convincing, but trying, bless her), so you know he’s a trustworthy guy. He trains overweight colleague Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) to pass his security guard exam, so he’s also in possession of a warm and giving heart. But he has a mysterious, cryptic past, as Teri observes during their stodgy dialogue exchanges.
McCall decides to take matters into his own hands when Teri’s nasty Russian mob pimp (Justified’s David Meunier) puts her into hospital. You see, he’s just like Clint in Unforgiven only with none of the nuance. He promised his wife he would put away violent things, but now she is gone there’s nothing stopping him spreading maximum carnage. And besides, these guys are evil bastards. And they’re Russian! The worst! How fortuitous to have Denzel’s encapsulation of the Land of the Free on tap, putting it to those depraved vodka-binging interlopers. How dare they? They have no respect for foreign borders. Today the Ukraine, tomorrow America!
It would at least be something to be able to read a meagre subtext into this, such as McCall’s unfiltered excesses symbolising the unassailable rectitude of US foreign policy. After all, the man behind this is Russian oligarch Vladmir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). Why, that’s sounds very similar to… Putin may not be keen on the oligarchs but what’s that to Richard Wenk, the screenwriter who penned The Expendables 2 and The Mechanic? Really, though, the level of invention here tells us it’s purely that Russians are in season as Hollywood villains again (see also Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). And with McCall an ex-CIA guy (the TV series never made this explicit), it’s only appropriate he should have a Spetsnaz opposite number with whom to lock horns and butt heads.
Martin Csokas’ Teddy is aforesaid Russkie, a tattooed psychopath with a Hitler haircut, one who works for Pushkin. Teddy steers a path of icy calm (at first) that mirrors McCall’s, and Csokas is clearly having the most fun among the cast. We’ve seen him in everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Bourne Supremacy to this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2; his Dr Kafka was an OTT highlight, albeit much derided by many. As ruthlessly efficient as Teddy is, he’s no match for McCall, even with a batch of uncouth goons at his side. There are a couple of effective scenes between Washington and Csokas that don’t involve blood baths, where the two actors are able to surmount the hokey dialogue; best of these is an impromptu restaurant tête-à-tête in which McCall lets the over-confident Teddy know he has the lowdown on him.
But that’s the essence of the problem with The Equalizer. Effective individual scenes that fail to amount to anything memorable. The best of the action sequences comes early on (relatively; the movie really takes its time getting going, a big problem when the characters fail to engage). McCall brings $9,800 to Meunier to buy out his interest in Alina. This is prelude to McCall’s storm. Surrounded by heavies, he shows nerves of steel and even indulges his OCD by rearranging skull paperweights. When he gets turned down he looks to be leaving, but instead repeatedly opens and closes the office door before going to work, timing his precision-engineered massacre on his watch (there’s more than a whiff of the pre-meditated fight planning in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies). Much shooting and stabbing and snapping ensue, reaching a grizzly plateau when McCall skewers one goon with a corkscrew beneath the jaw that promptly come ups through his open mouth. Delightful!
This is superior to the home store climax, in which Denzel, Predator-like, takes out his superior-armed enemies with alacrity, barbed wire, power tools, and a nail gun. While the corkscrewing and a garrotting were edited to get this a 15 certificate (ridiculously arbitrary, as it feels like an 18), and thus presumably more bums on seats, the Driller Killer moment was not among them. Which means it must be the only example of constraint here (we don’t see it work havoc on Ivan’s cranium). The showdown does go on a bit, a common symptom of modern Hollywood, and that’s after it takes the mob an inordinate amount of time not to kill the first hostage after Teddy gives the order. But to succeed would mean McCall screwed up, so we can’t have that. Ralphie, his useless fat sidekick, even returns to help McCall at a crucial moment and thus prove he isn’t so fat and useless after all (it’s Sergeant Al Powell Syndrome). Fuqua ensures much of the violence is cathartically played out, even if he overdoes it with an “atmospheric” sprinkler system deluge (he also does the walk away from a huge explosion in slow motion, so he's clearly fond of dusty visual devices); Denzel as the unstoppable force, and he makes the unsavoury palatable because these are such unutterably awful blighters. McCall even gives them repeated chances to back out but they refuse, the fools.
Of course, the final act should never have occurred. McCall, remarkably efficient when it comes to premeditating his opponents’ behaviour, and MacGuyver-like in his ability to fashion surveillance equipment out of bits and bobs, manages not to take any notice of Teddy’s warning that he will come for those closest. If he was really good, and not a victim to screenwriting inconsistency, McCall would have sent Ralphie, his mom, and any co-workers away for a fun-packed weekend in the country while he took care of business.
McCall is Batman, just less aerodynamic. That’s why, as soon as he gets back in the game there’s a near-montage of needy souls to defend. Although, his alter ego is more akin to Hong Kong Phooey. Remarkable how these things go. All that time, nothing, and then one day the floodgates open. So he sorts out some dirty cops (they missed a trick in this scene, not having him backlit like Woodward in the TV series titles), and takes care of an armed robber (with a hammer he dutifully returns to the store; what kind of self-respecting vigilante would allow innocents to purchase a murder weapon?). Dear Denzel even returns the stolen ring his co-worker’s grandmother gave her. He just can’t help himself.
In among the dirty cops is the second appearance in two weeks for David Harbour, who gives a colourful turn, full of spleen. His character, Masters, is involved in one of the superior McCall grandstanding sequences in which Mr Equalizer visits a money laundering operation and shuts it down without firing a shot (there is also an oblique reference to a Special Agent Moseley, FBI, on the payroll list McCall accesses, but I can’t figure out why this picture would make a shout out to Midnight Run).
The TV series really wasn’t all that good. It had a superb theme tune courtesy of Stewart Copeland (the most unforgivable aspect of this remake is that it doesn’t even have the artistic decency to recognise a good thing and rework it; further compounding this omission is the bludgeoning score from Harry Gregson-Williams, one remove from a cacophony) and exciting, atmospheric, opening titles, but mostly it was rather dull and plodding. The show had the same basic plot as The A-Team, but with a veneer of edginess. What random stranger needs McCall’s help this week? When they remade The A-Team as a movie, they at least made some attempt to stay true to the characters. But McCall was Edward Woodward; the series was defined by the incongruity of an aging British actor righting wrongs in NYC (the movie transfers him to Boston). Without him, it’s only another non-descript crime-fighting TV show. And, without such unlikely casting, you have another bland but violent vigilante movie, Cskokas and cameos from Melissa Leo and (bland) Bill Pullman aside. So they have that in common; indeed the unselfconscious corniness of the movie is the one element where it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘80s US TV.
A problem with Washington’s work is that he’s so conservative and reliable in his choices. He rarely surprises, and he’s rarely adventurous. On the plus side, you know what you’re getting; all he has to do is glower or turn on the ever-so-slightly-goofy charm. But, even if his movies aren’t, there’s a ponderous feel to his choices. Even though he’s eminently watchable, he tends to make pictures that aren’t memorable, don’t linger in the mind, and don’t really have anything to say or even an interesting way of not saying it. There’s no need for The Equalizer to take as long it does not to say anything or, more perfunctorily, to crunch all the bones it feels obliged to crunch.
But you can’t say Denzel doesn’t equalize the shit out of this move. Unlike the likes of Unforgiven or Man on Fire, where all this violence takes its toll, McCall is positively rejuvenated by his headlong pitch into mass murder. And it seems there could be an Equalizer 2. I’ll believe it when I see it, since Washington has conspicuously avoided sequels throughout his career. By the end of The Equalizer we see how things have moved on since the ‘80s; rather than using a newspaper, McCall advertises online. He’ll probably have a Facebook page and a Twitter account too come Part 2.