Silver Screen: The Equalizer **
Two thrillers released just a week apart, The Equalizer and A Walk Among the Tombstones, bear a striking similarity to one another. They each sport a commanding, overqualified lead actor and a handsome aesthetic suggesting a higher level of craft than is usually found in an otherwise straightforward genre picture. They’re both also as old-fashioned as their battle-hardened heroes, one of whom spends his nights reading classic novels in a family owned diner while the other proudly refuses to carry a cell phone. Old-fashioned can be good, as in their slower-paced approach, focus on character, and blissful lack of technophilia. (It’s sweet relief to see an action movie that doesn’t feature at least one scene of a character furiously hacking his way into a computer as a solution to any given conflict.) But each film is also old-fashioned in its paranoid-curmudgeon worldview where old men are right, young men are mostly criminals, and women are the domain of the prop department. The movies even share an actor, David Harbour, who in A Walk Among the Tombstones plays a brutal killer and in The Equalizer plays a brutal killer who is also a cop, just to confirm that they are in fact different movies.
The Equalizer has the patient rhythms and careful composition of a more thoughtful and nuanced movie, but it turns out to be like sitting in a high-backed chair at a white-tablecloth restaurant to eat a frozen pizza. The opening scenes present a meticulously crafted portrait of a meticulous man, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), an urban ascetic whose obsessive-compulsive disorder— he does a lot of counting, rearranging, and door closing— seems to be a manifestation of his intense self-discipline. Thanks to Washington, an actor of supreme control, it’s immediately compelling stuff, which makes it especially unfortunate halfway through the movie when it gives way entirely to ridiculousness and shows its roots as a 1980s TV action series.
McCall, like the actor who portrays him, is clearly working a job unbefitting of his résumé. He’s the paternalistic, beloved sales associate at a franchised home-improvement store who volunteers to help his portly coworker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) train for the security-guard exam. He also keeps a close eye on a pretty, barely legal, or maybe barely not-legal prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) who hangs out in the same clean, well-lighted diner where he spends his nights reading Hemingway and drinking tea. When the Russian mobster who pimps her out slaps her around, McCall can’t stop himself from intervening and confirming what we’ve suspected: This guy, incidentally not unlike Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, has a very special set of skills.
The unveiling of McCall’s inner badass makes for a nifty scene. Director Anton Fuqua slightly overplays the character’s hypervigilance when he freezes the action to give us his super-slow-mo perceptions of the scene, like he was borrowing Tobey Maguire’s spider-sense, although at least it helps square the latter half of the movie when he becomes a full-on superhero. Still, this first action sequence, before the movie has become a disjointed melee, packs real punch. The deliberation early on helps to build a steady pressure that’s almost agonizing before it explodes in a graphic, lovingly choreographed scene of brutality that’s staged like one part dance and one part fixed fight.
The nagging sense that Fuqua is going to succumb to his movie’s baser tendencies is confirmed almost immediately thereafter when he cooks up a cockamamie excuse to replay the closeup bloody details of the previous fight, with all the subtlety and elegance of a homemade Boner Jamz porno mixtape.
McCall’s dispatching of several key cogs in the Russian mob’s street-level operation rouses the ire of the oligarch at the top of the scheme, a generic bossman who dispatches an even more generic henchman who’s at least played by a suitably villainous actor (Marton Csokas, bad guy extraordinaire). He sets an army of thickly accented thugs with machine guns on a hunt for the lone man responsible for the massacre at the mob hangout.
The Equalizer is strangely structured more like a season of a TV show compressed into two-plus hours than a film. Once McCall lets loose, so does Fuqua, whose previously patient approach to the material shifts five gears ahead. Suddenly McCall is spotting crimes and busting heads all over town. Ralphie’s parents’ restaurant is shaken down by a pair of crooked cops (including our switch-hitter, David Harbour), who become the targets of another of McCall’s elaborate revenge schemes. And because this is a brutal world where everyone is either a crook, a victim, or Denzel Washington, a stickup boy walks into his Home Depot in the middle of the day with a pistol and steals another coworker’s wedding ring. This little diversion is McCall’s version of an Encyclopedia Brown case— he solves it quickly, except he uses a borrowed sledgehammer.
The sledgehammer incident introduces what either becomes The Equalizer’s running gag or its quick-fix approach to any difficult turn in the plot. We see McCall borrow the hammer, we see him give the ring back to his friend, then we see him return the hammer. No explanation necessary, right? Sure, not so much here, but later Fuqua will exploit this trick to show, say, McCall walking into a heavily fortified safehouse and killing a dozen or so people, or McCall managing to fly all the way to Moscow and infiltrate a Russian mafia boss’s inner security ring. It’s cartoonish, which isn’t necessarily bad, except it’s the opposite of the movie we started watching, which built momentum slowly at first but then never stops.
If you’re a woman in The Equalizer, you’re either saintly and dead (McCall’s wife), a victim (McCall’s coworker, Ralphie’s mother), or a prostitute and a victim (Moretz’s tarted-up plot device and her dead hooker friend, played by Haley Bennett). The only woman with a speaking role who isn’t visibly victimized and then avenged by McCall is Melissa Leo in a go-pee-and-you’ll-miss-it scene that only serves to fill in McCall’s mysterious backstory and explain how he so easily fixes problems between edits. This is a man’s movie, but mostly in the wrong ways. It’s especially a bummer to see the talented Moretz, whose very real precociousness used to be foregrounded over her sublimated sexuality at least, be full-on objectified in a pushup bra and hooker heels. It’s like seeing your niece on the wrong website— gross and awkward for everyone.
Washington’s gravitas is the only thing tethering the movie to the ground, at least for as long as it holds. The kill-crazy action rampage the movie becomes during the second half wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad way to go, even if it’s less-interesting than the movie promised in the first half hour. But the disjunction between the two prevents either from working.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.