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THE EQUALIZER (2014) review

September 28, 2014

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written by: Richard Wenk
produced by: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge & Michael Sloan
directed by: Antoine Fuqua
rated: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references)
runtime: 132 min.
U.S. release date: September 26, 2014

 

“Training Day” was the last movie Denzel Washington made with director Antoine Fuqua, earning him a second Oscar, this time for Best Actor (his first was a Best Supporting Actor win for “Glory”), so it makes sense that the movie star would re-team with Fuqua again. Their goal is to kick off a franchise for Washington by making a loose movie adaptation of “The Equalizer”, the CBS TV series that ran from 1985-1989, starring the late English actor, Edward Woodward as a gentleman with a “certain set of skills” that he is willing to offer to those in need usually free of charge to atone for things he’s done in the past that he’s not proud of. It sounds like a perfect fit for the actor and director and, for the most part, the pulpy thriller certainly is, but its reliance on bloody violence and unnecessary gore is off-putting and lazily stereotypical, not to mention the ridiculousness that permeates throughout the storyline.

In the TV series, Woodward’s Robert McCall was based in New York City and one among the differences in Fugua’s adaptation, the initial one is the movie’s setting of Boston. Thankfully, Washington isn’t trying out a Bostonian accent and mostly opts for a Man With No Name attitude before going full-on brutal killer in the movie’s final thirty minutes. Gone is Woodward’s elegant Bond-like persona and instead we wind up with a Rambo-type with a case of OCD. Alas, this must be what the American version of the protector of the oppressed, discarded and unrepresented looks like.

 

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The best moments in “The Equalizer” are the ones which establish who McCall (Washington) is with all his daily eccentricities as he goes out about the machinations of his self-made quiet life. He lives alone in a sparse apartment and maintains a job at a Home Depot-type place called Home Mart (filmed in an abandoned Loews in Massachusetts), while making late night/early morning appearances at a 24/7 diner where he sits and quietly reads classic literature (from the likes of Hemingway and de Cervantes) while sipping a cup of tea using a tea bag he brought from home. Another frequent diner patron is Teri (a permanently pouting Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen prostitute who develops a chit-chat rapport with McCall. When the girl is beaten and hospitalized by her Russian pimp, Slavi (David Meunier) and his goons, McCall sets out to take down the thugs involved.

As he dispenses his own brand of justice with “a certain set of skills” from his mysterious past with the government, he draws the attention of ex-Spetnatz enforcer Teddy (Marton Csokas, teetering on the edge of over-acting), sent by Russian mafia head, Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) to deal with McCall. Teddy arrives in Boston and announces himself a “cleaner” (using lines uttered by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction”) to the corrupt cops on the Russian payroll, like Frank Masters (David Harbour) a cocky SOB who’s in way over his head. Despite his own formidable skills, Teddy doesn’t take into account how far McCall will go to rid the Russian mob’s presence in his city.

 

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Screenwriter Robert Wenk (“16 Blocks” and “The Expendables 2”) uses the exoskeleton from the TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim, opting instead to cater to the kind of stoic and charming character audiences expect from Washington. The actor is good here, bringing distinctive touches like McCall’s meticulous OCD and chronic insomnia to flesh out the role. It’s good news for die-hard Denzel fans, but in a role that requires an actor to disappear into the character, the Denzel-isms on display prevent such any chance of that happening. It’s hard to blame the actor for employing his proven assets, but as cool and smooth as Washington’s McCall is, he’s handicapped by Wenk’s bafflingly sloppy and ridiculously preposterous screenplay that hampers the movie.

As much as Washington and Fuqua are a solid fit, “The Equalizer” flails due to Wenk’s screenplay, which gets more and more unbelievable as the story unfolds. For every “good deed” McCall completes, there seems to be a handful of elements he hasn’t thought out. Sure, he manages to infiltrate and manipulate surveillance to his own use, but it’s pretty obvious he’s leaving fingerprints everywhere and you’d think with his experience of dispensing baddies that would be covered in basic training. The trail of blood and collateral damage that both McCall and Teddy leave behind is the polar opposite of stealth. I guess the Boston police department have better things to do than to figure out how a dude was bludgeoned to death in his construction office or how an entire factory could explode in the middle of the night.

There’s a side plot involving an appearance by a married couple, Brian (Bill Pullman) and Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), from McCall’s shady past as a retired CIA black ops operative. It’s included that to provide vague backstory and to allow a calm before the relative storm McCall is about to unleash. The impression is that Susan is still connected to the CIA and is able to provide McCall with several dossiers on the Russians and Bostonians connected to them, putting allowing her old friend the ability to put puzzles pieces together. Pullman and Leo are always a pleasure to see on-screen, so they are a welcome albeit underused presence and it’s a nice to see McCall interact with neutral people that are close to his age, since everyone else he comes across is definitely younger than he is.

 

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Another subplot that somewhat works is an unspoken mentorship that McCall has with Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) an obese co-worker he’s trying to help get into shape so the twentysomething guy can pass a physical exam to become a security guard at Home Mart. The extent of this relationship is McCall eyeballing Ralphie’s potato chips at lunch (even putting his hands on the dude’s bread to see why his tuna sandwich is crunchy), stressing him to “Do the right thing”, as well as a random workout scene where a sweaty Ralphie drags a large tire with rope as McCall bellows, “What if that tire was me and my life was in danger?”, stating Ralphie would have to drag a buck-ninety. Uh-huh. It would’ve been great if Ralphie dropped the tire right there and ate a bag of chips.

In all of this, I found myself wishing McCall would’ve just influenced Ralphie with daily affirmations and yoga. Actually, I would’ve preferred it if McCall was mentoring a guy who’s issues were internal rather than his weight. Imagine changing someone’s outlook on life from the inside out. But then again, we know what’s been attempted with “The Equalizer” and it’s certainly nothing that life-changing. Do you think Ralphie gets the security gig? Have you ever seen a movie before? It would’ve been less stereotypical and obvious if McCall had to help Ralphie with his anger issues, which would prevent him from passing the psychological test.  But, like everything else in “The Equalizer”, Wenk is more concerned with hitting everything on the nose or…drilling it in our heads.

No, really – that actually happens during the ludicrously gruesome Denzel vs. Russia showdown at the Home Mart. The Savior of Home Mart selects choice hardware to fillet, hang, drill or nail his opponents and even gets poor Ralphie caught in the crossfire. And in the end, still no police involvement, or an appearance by his CIA friend asking him what the hell he’s thinking. Instead, an implausible-yet-predictable visit to Moscow, so McCall can wrap things up.

In their effort to turn Washington into a superhero, Wenk and Fuqua miss out on potent realism hinted at in the picture’s opening. That’s too bad, considering absurd theatrics in an action flick isn’t anything new.  It’s absolutely ridiculous that a 59-year-old man, former black ops or not, can come through all this with just a few scratches.

“The Equalizer” may have the violence and visual flair Fuqua is known for – accompanied by frequent collaborator, cinematographer Mario Fiore – but the fact that it replaces anger with courage in the end, is unfortunate. I would’ve appreciated it if McCall maintained a more zen-like approach to resolving the problems in the world around him, but that doesn’t put butts in seats. Despite the meaningless brutality, “The Equalizer” killed it at the box office, raking in a total of $192.3 million, so you can definitely expect to see more misadventures of Washington’s Robert McCall. Let’s just hope that Home Mart fired him and he’s now working at the DMV or the immigration office, just waiting for someone to go off.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

 

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