Scott F. Evans
I’m going to heap almost nothing but praise on Antoine Fuqua’s big screen interpretation of The Equalizer, so prepare yourself.
I love this movie. Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk made the smart choice to not do a faithful adaptation or a parody of the mid-80’s CBS television series. Instead this is something of an origin story, on how “retired” spy Robert McCall decides to dedicate his life helping those in need. They’ve altered the ‘James Bond in retirement’ hook a bit, adding a nice element to explain why the character seems to lead such a simple life and why he struggles with it. Even calling this iteration of McCall a spy seems inaccurate, because he’s much more than that. The filmmakers also resisted the urge to make it TV friendly by softening the violence. Make no mistake, the film has a hard R rating for language and graphic violence. This is not your father’s The Equalizer.
Antoine Fuqua needs to work more. It’s true that his films may be hit or miss, but that’s usually a result of shoddy screenplays. Visually, he stands with the best of the modern action directors. The Equalizer is filled with perfectly framed hero shots that showcase exactly what this film is selling. This is everything The Expendables franchise wishes it was. Fuqua’s classic shooting style never overwhelms the narrative with distracting cinematography. Camera movement is coherent and justified. Some of the fight scenes on this one are slightly over edited but they’re never confusing. Viewers are always 100 percent clear on what’s happening onscreen, even if the scene itself is chaotic. He’s also good with actors, consistently getting solid work from his cast. There’s not one phony performance in this entire piece.
As Robert McCall, Denzel Washington delivers another excellent performance. He brings nuance to the character that’s vastly different from the original. Instead of the archetypal suave former government operative, this performance is maybe a more realistic one. He’s done some things in his past and as a result has got a seriously damaged psyche. This McCall is haunted and strains to maintain control of his dark side. But Washington never falls back on clichéd acting choices. He doesn’t show much surface emotion in this film, instead opting for subtle, easily missed changes in facial expression or even smaller shifts in his eyes. It looks so effortless, untrained viewers may think he’s phoning it in, repeating bits from recent bad-ass roles. They’d be wrong. He’s doing something much different from what he did in 2004’s Man on Fire (which The Equalizer most closely resembles).
The supporting cast shines as well. Chloe Grace Moretz turns in a nicely restrained performance as Teri, a prostitute employed by vicious Russian mobsters. She’s essential to the plot, as what happens to her sets McCall in motion, but the trailers oversell her actual screentime. Marton Csokas as the aforementioned vicious Russian mobster Teddy is the other standout star in The Equalizer. He’s able to elevate what was probably, on paper, the standard overly sophisticated Eastern European bad guy role. You’ve seen this part before, and in the wrong hands, it’s every villain in every direct-to-video action movie since Die Hard. But Csokas brings such an efficient ruthlessness to it, the character seems fresh. Teddy and McCall are in many ways mirror images. Two highly skilled men with violent pasts who take great pleasure in their work. But where McCall fights to control that part of himself, becoming a near recluse because of it, Teddy relishes in it and works in an industry that allows him to thrive.
The Equalizer leaves the door open for franchise opportunities, but it works fine as a one and done. Anything after this first outing runs the risk of becoming formulaic and stagnant pretty quickly. That being said, this is the kind of film that Hollywood should make more of. Good, mid budgeted, thoughtful genre films. Not dopey, insanely expensive spectacles that can’t turn a profit until they approach that billion dollar mark or smarter but micro-budgeted indies that can’t compete in the crowded theatrical market. Action romps do not have to be stupid. They don’t have to cost a hundred million plus.
RATING: See this film in theaters. Support quality adult genre film-making.