Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Equalizer

THE EQUALIZER (Antoine Fuqua, 2014)

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) leads what looks to be a simple, quiet life in THE EQUALIZER, but the ordinary appearance of the man known as Bob to co-workers and acquaintances hides the truth of a past he’s trying to leave behind. As far as anyone can tell, Bob is a retiree who picked up a job at a home improvement warehouse to stay busy. He enjoys the work and finds purpose in mentoring Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), a young colleague who wants to become a security guard. Late at night, when he can’t sleep, he takes a classic novel and a tea bag to a nearby diner to pass the darkest hours.

Teenage prostitute Alina (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz) is also a regular at the eatery in the middle of the night. She and Bob are on friendly terms, perhaps because he displays concern for her well-being while withholding judgment and comments about the occupation she’s been forced into. When Alina isn’t sitting at the counter one evening Bob learns she is in the hospital’s intensive care unit after getting beat up. He pays a visit to her pimp Slavi (David Meunier) and offers $9800 to buy her freedom. When Bob’s money is rejected, he slaughters the roomful of Russians and leaves no trace of his involvement. Clearly there’s a dangerous skill set hidden in the mild-mannered guy who cuts lumber and reads the literary canon. Rather than putting an end to the situation, though, Bob’s actions summon Teddy (Marton Csokas), a Russian secret policeman turned criminal enforcer who aims to get revenge on those responsible for killing the East Coast hub of the Russian mob.

THE EQUALIZER provides Washington with the opportunity to follow Liam Neeson’s success in aging tough guy roles. This potential franchise character could be a superhero suited for the graying population. Opening with a Mark Twain quotation--“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why”--confirms THE EQUALIZER as an origin story. His brute strength and ingenuity in hand-to-hand combat seem to have no equal. Director Antoine Fuqua borrows visual techniques from the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Sherlock Holmes episodes to depict McCall’s virtually superhuman split-second calculations in key situations.

McCall’s appeal comes from Washington’s charisma as a modern knight clad in impeccable dress shirts in place of armor. Washington wears his movie star cool instead of deriving authority and adoration from a costume, gadgets, and special powers. Without seeming arrogant or threatening he commands respect and an innate understanding that McCall is always the smartest and baddest guy in the room. For as violent as THE EQUALIZER is, Washington’s smooth performance makes him seem most volatile when facing down the villains in conversation.

THE EQUALIZER plays like an expanded version of a CBS procedural, and sure enough, it originated as a television series on the Tiffany Network in the mid-to-late 1980s. The story is both padded out and condensed. Seemingly insignificant subplots bear fruit in the end, but often if feels as though a season’s plotline has been jammed into a film exceeding two hours. The climactic showdown delivers gory satisfaction but lacks the tension that should have been accumulating and releasing for a scene of its magnitude. Washington’s untouchable bearing compensates for such shortcomings, making certain that the THE EQUALIZER finishes with a positive balance.

Grade: B-

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