The Equalizer

The Equalizer (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Antoine Fuqua’s interpretation of the television-based “The Equalizer” is a type of action-thriller that offers no surprises, but it works anyway because of a script that strives to tell a story instead of presenting one breathless action sequence after another and a magnetic lead performance by Denzel Washington. It is certain to entertain fans of vigilante justice movies because the line between good versus evil is so thick and the two camps being a mile apart, it leaves little moral ambiguity in between. And sometimes that’s good enough.

Washington, as expected, delivers a character who is worthy of our curiosity. Aided by carefully calibrated opening scenes that highlight McCall’s isolation, perhaps even loneliness—a trait that we never really hear him admit himself, as a widowed man whose purpose in existing relies on his every day habits, there is plenty to unearth about the protagonist. This is why later scenes that touch upon his past, particularly Washington’s short but rich conversations with Melissa Leo, are obvious standouts.

Action pieces are appropriately brutal and beautifully choreographed. There is a sense of humor mixed in with violence, especially in how McCall employs common household items to render his enemies incapacitated or dead. When one thinks about it further, however, it is sort of a mixed bag because our hero’s quest for justice is dead serious but the manner in which conflicts are resolved is quite tongue-in-cheek which sends a conflicting message. I got the impression eventually that the screenwriter Richard Wenk chose this approach in order to remind the audience that the experience is supposed to be fun. But it is already fun—bad guys getting their comeuppance. Just because the villains get pummeled with a hammer doesn’t mean the audience should, too.

There are story elements that come across rather episodic. Perhaps it is intentional, but from a cinematic point of view, it is jarring at times. For instance, McCall works at a hardware store and he helps a portly co-worker to lose weight and gain confidence to become a security guard. The tone of this subplot is comical and when placed side-by-side with Russian mafias and corrupt cops, it is a strange combination. Still, there is amusement to be had in these scenes and it creates a portrait of McCall as approachable and human. Perhaps the film might have improved if there had a bridge between such extremes.

There is one casting misstep that I felt diminished the picture—problematic because the performer pushes the central plot forward. Chloë Grace Moretz plays a teenage prostitute for the Russian mafia and she is most unconvincing. Watching her play a whore with dreams of becoming a singer is like pulling teeth. The way she relies upon behavior and cosmetics is thoroughly distracting; not for one second do we believe that the character is desperate to leave her occupation. Washington steals their scenes right from under her. Unlike Moretz’ approach, Washington knows that one of the surefire ways to convince the audience is the eyes.

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