Here’s a zany idea, take a moderately successful 1980s TV crime drama staring a British actor (Edward Woodward. the compelling condemned lieutenant in Breaker Morant) as a retired “C.I.A.” agent living in New York City who “fixes” peoples’ problems, drop in Denzel Washington and transpose the setting to Boston. The result would seem likely to be pretty weak tea that, without Washington, might be something heading for the vast realm of VOD obscurity without a theatrical release. And still, even with the Oscar-winning actor, is a payoff possible?
The good news for this iteration of The Equalizer, however, is that moody stylist Antoine Fuqua has the helm. He and Washington blew audiences’ minds back in 2001 with the bad cop fable Training Day. There, the synergy of their collaboration shone through brightly, and here, it goes a long way, too. The bad news, or not so good, is that the script is penned by Richard Wenk, a guy who’s made his jam by doing Expendables films and The Mechanic remake. It’s within his milieu, sure, but those testosterone-infused retreats were never going to make members of the Screenwriters Guild take pause during awards season.
The film begins with a slow, ponderous buildup. Our man of intrigue, Robert McCall (Washington) appears a restful, avuncular sort toiling away at a Home Depot (rebranded Home Mart) where his easy manner makes him everybody’s BFF. At home, he’s a bit OCD—everything’s extra neat and in place and his routines are run by stopwatch timing. He also doesn’t sleep much, so he hits an all-night diner where he reads his way through the 100 greatest novels. (In an odd surreality, he brings his own tea and cake and never orders.) It’s there that he meets Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young street walker waiting for Johns to come by and pick her up. The whole set up—the dinner, McCall’s tacit observations and Moretz’s post pubescent sexuality—shout Taxi Driver into the dark slicked night.
But McCall is no Bickle. He’s got skills and a plan. After Teri gets beaten to a pulp for giving it back to an abusive trick, Robert pays her Russian pimps a visit in the swank eatery they run their operation out of. It’s in the backroom that much scene chewing goes on between the unassuming Robert and five heavily armed strongmen. When the talking stops, only Robert walks out. It’s here that Moretz pretty much exits the film (she’s still laid up in the hospital), and we realize that Robert is very skilled at killing. But the Russians aren’t done. They’ve got the cops in their back-pocket, and the pissed-off capo over in the motherland sends his very best over to Boston to exact revenge. The imported muscle who goes by the cuddly, non-Russian name of Teddy (played with aplomb by Marton Csokas, who looks like Kevin Spacey if in a bout of ’roid rage) has no patience for non-answers and is aptly described by one knowing participant as “a sociopath with a business card.”
In short, Teddy’s an admirable adversary for Robert, but while Teddy gets his A-game together, Robert dithers about with other miscellaneous good deeds like helping a corpulent co-worker (Johnny Skourtis) get in shape for his security guard exam and shaking down the cops shaking down local mom-and-pop shops. Pretty pat stuff, but Fuqua and his cameraman Mauro Fiore (Avatar and Training Day) make Boston hum with gritty darkness and foreboding, capturing not only the rampant criminal past of the city and also the current sweeping gentrification. The plot however, is redacted dossier thin and ultimately reduces Robert to little more than a superhero sans a costume. Nice additions come in the form of Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman as Robert’s former handlers for the vague, un-named government agency and the spatial use of Home Mart during the grimly brutal finale—anything that MacGyver or the TV Equalizer ever did is sheer Disney by comparison. It’s so messy, you can almost hear the PA intone “clean up need on aisle 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.”
On the whole, The Equalizer never finds any sense of confluence, but in parts it can be thrilling, even rapturously macabre. Moretz seems to be occupying shoes that are too big for her just yet, but she’s also relegated to a role that’s strictly garnish. Washington, who has the ball, takes off with it confidently—whether he’s running cliché right or thespian left, he finds just enough daylight to make us care.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chloe Craze Moretz, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, Johnny Skourtis and Marton Csokas
Release Date: Sept. 26, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter