The Equalizer is an action movie that thinks it’s dark drama poking fun at an action movie. There’s genuine moments of close quartered self-reflection with Antoine Fuqua‘s camera jammed tight in Denzel Washington‘s expressive face followed up by explosions so absurd they’d look ridiculous in a Michael Bay joint. It’s tense, silly, righteous and totally too long.
As this actioner-that-wanted-to-be-more slogs on – slog being the only word that suits this two-plus hour standoff – it quickly loses credibility, but points to an even more blaring truth: it’s as utterly confused about it’s own identity as the late Michael Jackson. But like Jackson’s greatest, The Equalizer – in most part thanks to the ever reliable Denzel – is a certified “thriller” with plenty of high octane and thoroughly entertaining action to match the ludicrously over-the-top, teenager-pandering ‘splosiongasms. There’s greatness in fits and starts, preceded at every turn by some of the most ludicrous turns in recent cinema. For every two steps forward, it takes a step back, but at least that’s better than the opposite.
The man who needs nothing more than his first name, Denzel is Robert McCall, a Home Depot-lite worker who is quite clearly more than he appears. At first glance, he’s an ultra-tidy lost soul/coffee shop bookworm more interested in getting through his bucket list of novels than the carnal pleasures that occupy the minds of the cretins swarming around him. At his preferred tea sipping spot, Robert often rubs shoulders with the wig-swappin’ Teri, a young and supple prostitute played by Chloe Grace Moretz. He updates her on his progress in “The Old Man and the Sea” and she swoons. She weeps, “If only I didn’t have to polish so many knobs, I would have loved to learn to read,” or something along those lines. Her corrupt innocence is played for such sympathy it’s hard to relate. As Robert Rodriguez sought to remind us last month with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, young + dumb + whore = not a great character.
After Teri gets roughed up by her Russian pimp, Robert puts on his badass shoes and confronts a room full of mob men about buying her off. You know, so she can read Hemmingway and stuff. The ten thousand cash he offers doesn’t cut it though, as her Eastern Slavic hustler can still sell her as a virgin. And therein lies the real stinger. Not only is the guy a chick-beating, steroid-blasting pimp but he’s also hocking fake virgins. Woo be unto him. A sympathy shudder of pity unto his clientele. With dollar signs still singing in the eyes, the Russian jerk-o learns the hard way that Denzel Washington…er Robert McCall ain’t to be messed with, beginning a mile long trail of body bags that leads all the way up to the peak of corruption. Cuz when Denzel pops, he just don’t stop.
Eventually squaring off against Denzel wearing a Robert name tag is Marton Csokas as Teddy, a ruthless, excessively tatted up member of the Russian crime syndicate flown from Vodkaville, Russia to Shmucktown, New York to deal with the recent calamity that is Dead Pimps R Us. Don’t be fooled though, Teddy is no snuggly bear. Teddy’s introduction sees him choking out a prostitute colleague of Terri’s to figure out what went down at his club, now bad guy corpse storage facility. He’s menacing without ever raising his voice, both a salient businessman and a rancorous murderer and as he squishes windpipes like Go Gurt tubes, he’s pretty chilling. He’s Dexter Morgan sans plastic wrap, John Doe without the sadism. Beneath his blanket of tattoos, Csokas is a genuine terror, his fatal eyes and sharp suits deadly in equal measure. It’s his straight-faced characterization locked against Denzel’s that keeps Fuqua’s knack for MORE! from descending into absolute lunacy.
As Robert and Teddy circle each other like a Jets v. Sharks knife fight, the stakes rise to absurd levels, allowing for some genuinely great action sequences as well as some so illogical and wacky you’d think it were inspired by an episode of The Looney Toons. Several moments stick out – the dock-side Rube Goldberg explosion most of all – that could have been easily omitted to make things more cognizant and pertinent to the gritty, grimy realism that director Fuqua seems to want in fits and starts. It’s as if he wanted to make “Black Bourne” one minute and “Bad Boys 3” the next. That internal battle is The Equalizer. The mysterious “who dat now?” elements to Denzel’s character are so dragged out they resemble William Wallace‘s public execution by drawing and quartering. Had they been more fleet-footed and subtle, they could have actually been quite nice. But it’s Fuqua’s tendency to let the little fire-crusted flourishes fly fast and loose that really drag the whole thing down by its heels.
Coming in well over two hours, The Equalizer is a movie that would have greatly benefited from an extra session or ten in the editing room. The final tool-filled showdown has some genuinely thrilling moments – because what’s better than turning a Home Depot into a house of terrors? – but as the minutes drag on and on and on, we involuntarily lose interest in the next power tool-fueled assault. Nail gun to the face? Check. Barb wire noose? Double check. We don’t even get to see what he does with that sledge hammer. A tighter, faster edit would have brought so much more life to something that sorely needs more of exactly that.
But Fuqua never squanders his greatest asset, Denzel, showing that he knows how to milk every last drop out of his magnetic star power. Gone is the toothy, chatty Denzel we’ve seen more of in the last few years, his charisma tampered down to muted levels, allowing a darker, quieter, more dynamic side to rise free. His joyous moments are accented by pangs of regret. When he rages, it’s through a fog. Faced off against Csokas, there’s actually some serious acting that takes place. It’s that much more of a shame when Fuqua feels the need to throw a bucket of blood and a circus of explosions right in their faces.