Denzel Washington Squandered In "The Equalizer"

The talents of Denzel Washington are undeniable, his radiant, mischievous smile and fatherly gaze lending an inherent multi-dimensionality to every character he’s ever played. Even at his most terrifying (“Training Day”), he remains likable, consistently bringing a sizable dose of humanity to his films, rain or shine. Few will be surprised that “The Equalizer” – a spectacularly violent revenge-actioner that reunites the star with his “Training Day” director, Antoine Fuqua – doesn’t rise to Washington’s level, but lesser films have more successfully coasted on his charisma. The pic’s bloodlust clashes loudly with its refusal to take any chances, making for a painfully straightforward and frequently predictable thriller whose primary redeeming feature is a leading man that deserves better.

Loosely based on a television series of the same name that ran from the mid to late 80s, “The Equalizer” features Washington as Robert McCall, former special-ops who faked his own death to return to a life of normalcy. Now living alone, he works at a Home Depot-type big box store, takes sincere interest in the personal lives of his co-workers – including an dreadfully drawn fat-guy-trying-to-get-healthy sidekick – and hanging out at the same diner every night with books that go hand-in-hand with his current life circumstances. He lives the kind of stereotypically normal life that nobody who wasn’t an ex-assassin would identify as “normal,” but his cover remains intact, nonetheless.

In striking up a friendship with a troubled young prostitute named Elina (Chloe Grace Moretz), McCall unknowingly opens a door back into the darkness. Attracting crime like a magnet, he witnesses her being beaten, ultimately unearthing his penchant for violence like an old, dusty suit. It’s still a comfy fit. He clearly thrills to the kills, timing them on his watch like an obsessive track coach, with Fuqua’s direction suiting the action well. Crisply staged and stylishly shot, the action beats make smart use of slow motion, astutely showcasing McCall’s literal eyeing-up of his foes. But most of the film’s blood is spilled for naught. Our lead quickly discovers that Elina’s captors aren’t the real threat, nor is the pic’s barrage of faceless henchmen.

The main villain, Teddy (Marton Csokas) – sent in to clean up McCall’s initial executions – is suitably intimidating, slickly dressed and laden with tattoos that hint at a devil-worshiping background that’s never explained. He’s an appropriate foil for McCall, getting off on violence even more than our antihero, but McCall’s superhero-esque physicality gives the picture an inevitability that it never shakes – it’s a game of cat and mouse in which the identity of each is painfully obvious. In identifying Teddy as “a sociopath with a business card,” Richard Wenk’s screenplay paints a big, red “x” on the character’s head, removing all doubt as to where the film is headed. Moreover, what good is a film that has no idea what to do with Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman? Both are wasted in brief cameos.

Strangely, the film’s best moments are all allusions to offscreen occurrences. If Fuqua and company do one thing well, it’s the frequently humorous beats of implied violence, all of which go a long way in building the legend of McCall and are more effective than the mountains of onscreen mayhem. The bad guys are uniformly irredeemable scumbags, making their demises innately satisfying, but they’re all the more fun when we don’t see them – a blessing, but also a curse for a film that seeks to thrill purely on a visceral level.

Comic book fans will draw plenty of comparisons to Marvel’s “Punisher” character, and they’re well earned. Indestructible hero doling out harsh vigilante justice isn’t a proprietary idea, but as presented here it’s an obviously deliberate riff on a forty year-old character with tens of millions of fans. But since Washington’s foray into homemade torture is more successful than any cinematic iteration of “The Punisher” to date, those fans will have little to complain about.

Fuqua’s film ends up in a creative gray area that – if Washington’s star power is enough to make it a hit, which seems likely – keeps the piece from disaster while leaving plenty of room for improvement in future installments. Any picture that so enthusiastically embraces a climax in which its hero walks away from a giant explosion, utterly untouched, obviously possesses some self-awareness, making the its pervasive self-seriousness all the more disappointing. As a whole, “The Equalizer” is a firm foundation for a would-be franchise, but just as its star deserves better, so do audiences.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: September 26, 2014
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references)