A film review by Craig J. Koban October 3, 2014 


2014, R, 131 mins.


Denzel Washington as Robert McCall  /  Chloë Grace Moretz as Teri  /  Marton Csokas as Teddy  /  David Harbour as Masters  /  Bill Pullman as Brian  /  Melissa Leo as Susan  /  Antoine Fuqua

Directed by Antoine Fuqua  /  Written by Richard Wenk

THE EQUALIZER opens with an unintentionally hilarious and pretentious Mark Twain quote regarding the nature of man, which tries, I think, to set up this action thriller as one of utmost solemnity.  The resulting film, though, is so unrelentingly silly that you kind of have to do a reflective double take on the inclusion of that title card quote.  To be fair, THE EQUALIZER primarily exists as a methodically nasty and violent engine to exhibit star Denzel Washington murder-death-kill his way through multiple adversaries in the most cartoonishly graphic manners possible using weapons that could be found at a typical hardware store.  On those very levels, THE EQUALIZER emerges as a slick and fiendishly entertaining grindhouse thriller.  

Empty and unwholesome?  Yes.  But involving and displaying strong craftsmanship?  Yes. 

Of the dozen or so people that I asked, almost nobody remembered the TV series that this film is based on.  THE EQUALIZER originated as a 1985-1989 CBS show featuring Edward Woodward as a retired intelligence officer that uses some swift vigilante justice to help those desperate in need.  The show had a cult following and was notorious for its then scandalous levels of violence, but the time between the series’ premiere and the current film adaptation is so long – not to mention that the show never emerged out of its level of fringe popularity – that modern audiences will, no doubt, go into the film relatively cold.  Having watched the TV series, I can attest to the fact that THE EQUALIZER film – outside of its title, main character name, and basic premise – has very little to do with its source material.  In some ways, that’s probably a good thing. 

Washington plays Robert McCall, a man with a shadowy past in the CIA that, for reasons never fully explained, had to leave – he actually faked his own death, so make that permanently leave – to live a quite and unassuming life as a merchandiser at a local big Box retailer that looks suspiciously like Home Depot (it’s called Home Mart in the film, clearly because the actual retail chain probably didn’t want their name associated with the carnage that’s about to come within their walls).  When he’s not laughing it up with his co-workers, Robert spends his evenings alone, drinking tea and reading books at a local diner at wee hours of the morning (he appears to have insomnia and acute OCD symptoms).  He also seems to have befriended a local teen prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz, a gifted young actress somewhat marginalized in a relative throwaway role). 



Unfortunately, Teri’s life is one of hardships, which is driven home for Robert when he learns that she’s been beaten bloody and senseless – and put in IC at a local hospital – by her Russian pimp (David Meunier).  Driven into a Travis Bickle level of impulsive vengeance, Robert decides to take on the man that left Teri nearly for dead by paying him a visit, but when his peaceful mission of paying him off to leave Teri alone fails to materialize, Robert defends himself…by murdering the pimp and his entire goon squad (he makes grisly use of a cork screw at one point).  Unfortunately, Robert’s actions inadvertently catches the attention of the Russian underworld, and within no time a sadistic and ruthlessly cunning mafia enforcer named Teddy (a wonderfully slimy Marton Csokas, who looks like the love child of Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe) decides to use every means necessary to locate and take Robert out.  What Teddy doesn’t realize is that nabbing and killing Robert is no easy task. 

THE EQUALIZER was helmed by the very competent Antoine Fuqua, who before this made the finest DIE HARD film not containing John McClane in OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and previously worked with Washington most famously on 2001’s TRAINING DAY, the film that netted the star an Oscar.  Interestingly, Fuqua is more interested in developing the Robert character and his story slowly before getting to the thick of the bloodcurdling action, which is a wise move that pays off well later.  Robert Wenk’s screenplay takes great interest in immersing us in the minutia of Robert’s lonely and haunted existence, which only allows for the film’s action set pieces later to hit us with the appropriate oomph punch-to-the-gut factor.  It’s clear that some will, no doubt, laugh at the limitless invulnerability of the film’s 59-year-old star, but Fuqua stages all of the sequences where he emerges as an ass-kicking angel of death with care and precision to the point where you do buy into his startling lethality. 

It also could be easily said that Washington himself is in a whole other performance stratosphere above this type of ugly and sensationalistic material.  Yet, he's the key reason why we invest in the film as much as we do, mostly because of the manner that he never plays Robert up to tired action film hero clichés.  Steely eyed, perpetually poker faced, and ferociously internalized, Washington’s Robert is a frighteningly calm spoken individual whose quite demeanor masks a simmering intensity that is buried deep under the surface.  What ultimately makes this stealthy and inordinately dangerous assassin work is how Washington makes you believe in the character’s resolve, determination, and unwavering commitment to righting wrongs.  Yes, even when the film engages in excessively head shaking stylistic hubris – like showcasing an unflinching Robert walking away from a massive pipeline explosion that he triggered, one that should have probably burned him alive instantly – Washington nonetheless grounds the character in the otherwise preposterous turn of events in the narrative.   

Washington is also well matched with Marton Csokas sneering and reptilian Russian baddie that gives as good as he takes.  The film manages to take a breather here and there and has some fine dialogue exchanges between the two adversaries as they mutually try to one-up each other with words first.   Of course, there’s a time for words and a time for action, and THE EQUALIZER spirals towards an aggressively barbaric climax set – wouldn’t ya know it? – at Robert’s Home Mart, during which time he must use his wits and a hell of a lot of MacGuyver-like skills to use everything on the store shelves to eradicate his enemies and save his co-workers.  Power drills and nail guns are apparently not just for home improvement projects.   

I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I liked this movie.  Leaving the screening I felt kind of dirty.  THE EQUALIZER is revenge porn, pure and simple, but it gets its intended job done.  There’s certainly a kick in seeing Washington get his ultimate comeuppance against all of those deplorable Russian baddies (is it just me, or have they been returning in full force in American movies lately as the de facto villains of choice?).  Without the Academy Award winning star at the helm, I think that THE EQUALIZER wouldn’t have been half as endurable or enthralling.  Washington may be bullet, knife, and explosion proof in the film, but he at least makes for an always-compelling bullet, knife, and explosion proof character study. 

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