Watching The Equalizer brought back memories of other, older films that influenced it – movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, where characters played by Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson became iconic images of the gritty, vengeance-seeking antihero. That’s not to say that Antoine Fuqua’s latest flick should be held in the same regard as those two, but there’s no denying that it delivers what it promises – unflinching, gratifying violence conducted by an cool-headed, justice-seeking vigilante who’s willing to kill.
Simply put, Denzel Washington carries the film; he is the reason why it clicks. I don’t want to call it a one-man show because that would imply a disservice to the rest of the cast and crew, but this is a role that is tailor-made for him, and he knocks it out of the park. Robert McCall is very much a man who is in control, and Washington’s approach to the character is a perfect fit. There is no other modern actor who commands authority like him, especially when he’s not even saying anything. When he does speaks, he delivers his lines with such directness and sharpness that demands attention. He intimidates with a cold, steely gaze, and yet turns on his charisma to suddenly become an affable guy.
Considering that Washington is at the forefront here, the supporting cast have to work with whatever they have, and it’s not much. Unsurprisingly, there are hardly any round characters – the only one who comes close is Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), an aspiring security guard whom McCall helps. But even then, despite the good-hearted humor he brings to the film, he doesn’t get much screen time. Everyone else is a flat character, including main villain Teddy, whom Marton Csokas appears to have a lot of fun with by doing whatever he can to make the character as despicable and fearsome as possible.
The most disappointing aspect of the film concerns Teri, Chloë Grace Moretz’s character, and how the story treats her. While Moretz is fine in the role, the character herself is very underutilized. When watching The Equalizer, another Denzel Washington flick, Man on Fire, came to mind. Both share a similar plot structure (which I don’t mind), and so I figured that Teri would play a role in this film that ran along the lines of Pita (Dakota Fanning) in the other. The key difference here is that whereas Pita is a fully fleshed out character, Teri is not. While Teri technically has a character arc, it’s rushed, and the film doesn’t give her enough time to become someone I care about as I did with Pita. Regrettably, Teri is a mere plot device mean to kickstart a chain of events. She isn’t the only the one to be used as a device – the same goes for Melissa Leo’s character, who is used to move the story along and doesn’t get fleshed out.
Despite being advertised as an action thriller, The Equalizer is a slow burn for the first hour. It can get initially somewhat frustrating, since the film seems unsure of whether the narrative should focus on McCall’s individual acts of heroism or the main conflict. However, it pays off since it takes the time to progressively reveal details about McCall’s personality and life to the point where his presence can be sensed in every scene, which perfectly suits Washington’s performance. What’s more, it builds up the feeling that McCall will drop the axe on the baddies, which we know is coming.
When McCall does get forced into action, the Equalizer becomes downright fun. This is a pure, hard-R film, and the action sequences are gritty and violent. It’s not just guns being used – McCall uses whatever he can get his hands on to fight, and that includes the likes of corkscrews and shot glasses. Better yet, the film doesn’t restrain itself; the violence becomes increasingly pulpy and ridiculous, but never dissatisfying – there’s always pleasure found in watching goons get taken out with extreme prejudice. The only thing that detracts from these sequences is that they are occasionally darkly lit, making it difficult to distinguish who’s who and what exactly is going during certain scenes.
The story itself is rather conventional and, if I may say so myself, predictable. It doesn’t pull any big surprises because the subplots give away who will play a bigger role in the overall narrative, and it certainly doesn’t help that McCall is a very intelligent person who does what he can to stay a step ahead of everyone else. But perhaps that’s to be expected for a film like this.
Hearkening back to the ’70s and ’80s, where we saw plenty of films featuring iconic uncompromising antiheroes, The Equalizer is fun, unadulterated entertainment that succeeds on a visceral level. Questionable storytelling decisions aside, it covers for most of its shortcomings with Washington’s terrific performance, whose influence goes beyond just the role itself.
* All photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures