An unfazed tough guy walking away from an massive explosion in slow motion, it’s a tipping point reached long ago—this sequence has become a well-worn cliché in the visual vocabulary of pop culture even beyond cinema. Hell, it’s even been celebrated and mocked by the Lonely Island Guys in song. So it’s perhaps both a testament and symbol of Antoine Fuqua’s fortunate/unfortunate filmmaking modus operandi that the director not only embraces the hackneyed sequence, but also attempts to top it and create the most gloriously excessive walking-away-from-explosions scene ever made. Like a shock-and-awe-inducing supernova milked for all it’s worth (and them some), the sequence is concurrently hysterical, impressive and not very self-aware, which eventually typifies Fuqua’s senselessly over-the-top, but intermittently enjoyable “The Equalizer.”
The movie begins in quiet repose. Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall, a man of silent ritual. Somewhat of a mystery to his co-workers at a Home Depot-esque hardware store chain, he’s encouraging to some youngsters, but lives life at a friendly distance. Haunted by his past (natch), McCall can’t sleep, so he ceremonially frequents a local, open-all-hours diner every night to read and pass the hours. In the establishment, he meets and eventually befriends a cocky young prostitute named Elina (Chloë Grace Moretz, smeared with an uncomfortable amount of make-up), who eventually lets down her guard to reveal a human sensitivity and aspirations for something more.
Their friendship grows, but when Elina is smacked around by her pimp one night in front of McCall, this is something he cannot abide. It’s not so much that something has snapped in the man when it happens, it’s more that a line has been crossed, and a fury is about to be unleashed. Someone’s about to get equalized (the movie not-so-subtly says).
But what McCall doesn’t account for after his eruption of ferocious retribution has rained down on the pimp and all his thugs—a rather hilarious video-game-esque sequence of brutality—is that these thugs are connected to high-up Russian mobsters.
Soon, a Russian mob fixer named Teddy (Marton Czosaks) is dispatched to the United States to deal with this bump in their operation. Naturally, McCall—turns out he’s ex-special forces/black ops of some kind—is underestimated by his enemies. The Teddy-lead investigation into who bumped off their men spawns a whole new larger set of problems, not only with the mobsters, but the crooked Boston P.D. as well. What ensues is a bloody trail of broken limbs, cracked skulls and gouged-out extremities.
Not particularly sophisticated, the searing intensity of revenge in “The Equalizer” is still occasionally arresting (and even entertaining) in its stylish hard-R violence. The same acts of rage are also frequently ridiculous and unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny. Fuqua’s camera appropriates that familiar, silly and overly complicated method of the protagonist pre-visualizing their entire fight scene before it happens and then going through the motions of that entire brawl afterwards. The stylishly fetishized scene is both pointless and stupidly fun.
Written by Richard Wenk (“The Expendables 2,” “The Mechanic”), “The Equalizer” is as familiar and rote as can be on every narrative level. But what saves it from being as dull and uninspired as what’s on the vapid page is the surfeit of brio and swagger that Fuqua brings to the material. Fuqua, as made clear in this movie, is an utterly humorless filmmaker. But his commitment to overkill can be so excessive it transforms into something impressive.
Denzel is once again in typified Denzel Action Mode, super serious, lean and trying to maintain the lid on his simmering volatility. As Teddy, the flamboyant Russian mobster, Martin Czoskas broods menacingly and he mostly succeeds. But as Chloe Grace Moretz appears in the movie for all of about 10 minutes, “The Equalizer” demonstrates that it’s barely even interested in its damsel-in-distress impetus, and the movie acts largely as an excuse to enact a revenge fantasy (the movie also co-stars Haley Bennett and David Harbour as a hooker and a crooked cop, respectively).
Cartoonishly violent, “The Equalizer” is both occasionally entertaining and frequently tedious. And forget theme, allegory or subtext beyond righting wrongs and revenge. There is one lost opportunity of reflection in the picture too. McCall takes a trip to visit former CIA colleagues (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo). Instead of using this tangent to explore the consequence of his actions, violence, or even question the nature of his deeply dark side, the sequence is simply used to reveal McCall’s past (at this point, deep into the picture, it’s inferred that McCall is no ordinary civilian, but his true identity hasn’t been revealed).
So now we know he’s a super-soldier and this is why he kicks so much ass. As mindless as it all is, Fuqua demonstrates some seriously capable visual chops that can be thrilling. Perhaps with the right script Fuqua can deliver an awesome and classic action movie (though it’s hard to say whether restraint can be taught to someone who displays no penchant for it). But expect the movie to connect with audiences who want a “bad-ass” experience. And don’t be surprised if “The Equalizer” takes the filmmaker out of the ghetto of helming B-movies like “Olympus Has Fallen” and puts him in consideration for more sought-after jobs.
At just over two hours, “The Equalizer” takes forever to get in gear and probably should have stayed at a lean 90 minutes; there’s that much fat. At the same time, the length does add for enough asides to make one vaguely care for McCall and deepen what he values and cares for, even if it’s simpleminded ideas of justice, friendship, et al.
Marked by its fondness for excessive extremism, and therefore broad and preposterous, once you’ve accepted “The Equalizer” for what it is (over-the-top, severe to the point of amusement) its taut third act of mostly wordless violence and action is fairly engaging stuff, well shot and well orchestrated. This is not to say you should give a pass to the movie’s big, loud and dumb approach, but it’s certainly not an incoherent mess like the Michael Bay-lensed action of late. There’s a sinewy precision to the visual fury and it’s sometimes uproariously awesome.
In case you’ve been awed by its concluding set piece in a hardware superstore (gruesome power tool deaths!) “The Equalizer” cannot resist the temptation to remind you how prosaic its story is with a needless little coda that ties up all its ribbons sentimentally. Still, low expectations may permit you to enjoy this picture, especially if all you seek is to numb yourself at the movies. “The Equalizer” might be the most occasionally enjoyable bad movie I’ve seen in a long time. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.