Denzel Washington loves doing action movies. I’m not exactly sure why. He’s a high-caliber actor capable of a wide-range of diverse characters, but he seems to prefer starring in films like 2 Guns, Safe House, Unstoppable, The Book of Eli, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. And there’s nothing wrong with his prerogative, although some of these movies have been better than others. With his latest actioner, The Equalizer, Washington has found his best action vehicle yet as it blends hard-boiled, tense fisticuffs before the climax goes absolutely bonkers in the best way possible.
Robert McCall (Washington) enjoys a quiet, rigid life. He wakes up early, times his morning routine, works at a Home Depot-like store, is friendly with his co-workers, eats a simple dinner, but despite his well-regimented routine, he can’t sleep. He spends his evenings at a late-night diner reading classic books and conversing with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young prostitute. When her Russian monster pimp beats her half to death, McCall decides to take revenge and unleash the violence that lies beneath his mild-mannered surface. This act results in the Russian mob bringing in violent fixer Teddy (Martin Csokas) to find this mysterious avenger. As for McCall, he tries to deal with not only Teddy, but also right other, unrelated wrongs.
For the majority of the film, The Equalizer is welcomingly low-key. Director Antoine Fuqua has scaled the picture back to the level of a 90s action movie—few digital effects, close quarters combat, and relying on a gritty tone that’s never too dour. As someone who has never been much of a Fuqua fan—even his most popular movie, Training Day, loses its pull in the third act—The Equalizer is a refreshing and exciting entry into today’s CGI-driven action marketplace.
Although his second collaboration with Washington features a far more subdued protagonist than Training Day’s Detective Alonzo Harris, McCall is compelling his own fashion. He’s a 21st century warrior monk living a peaceful, isolated life where he’s not aloof (he spends some of his free time helping a co-worker who’s trying to lose weight), but demands order. It’s almost off-putting at first as he acts more like a motivational speaker spouting lines like “Progress not perfection”, but it’s balanced by his little actions like making sure every item on a table is organized at right angles.
Washington excels at these kinds of roles, but McCall feels like the culmination of the best aspects of the actor’s performances in this genre. He’s a little sad, but not depressed. He’s patient. He’s fearless. And he is the master of the dismissive laugh. When McCall steps into a room full of Russian gangsters, he goes into “Equalizer vision”, picturing how he’s going to kill everyone in the room, and we have no trouble believing he can do it. Washing has been a credible action lead for sometime, but this time he mostly loses the condescending attitude of his recent characters. He gives us a giddy thrill when we know some bad guys are about to get equalized to shit.
Even though the movie needs to rely on a subplot for the story’s culmination, it still feels like there’s quite a bit of fat on the film since the movie spends far too much time Teddy’s sadism. Csokas is good in the role, but all we really need to know is that he’s a formidable foe. We don’t need to watch him slowly slog through his investigation. We want to get back to McCall driving the action and unleashing righteous fury.
And if you’re patient, oh the fury you will get. For the majority of its runtime, The Equalizer is street-level. It’s dealing with corrupt cops and armed robbers. Once he decides to help Teri, the “Equalizer” is unleashed (no one ever calls him that, but it’s a fun name), and it’s not just about the big takedown. But when the big takedown does come, it’s unlike anything that came before (I won’t spoil what happens). It would be jarring if it weren’t so damn enjoyable. The climax is the ideal of a gritty, hard-R action flick.
The Equalizer scored some of the highest test-screening results in Sony’s history, and while those test-screenings aren’t a metric of quality, they’re spot on when it comes to the movie being a true crowd-pleaser. It’s Washington at the top of his game, Fuqua finally cracking an action film from start to finish, and centering on a memorable character who knows how to solve problems big and small. It’s a bit reductive to say that this is Washington’s Taken. Yes, they both feature serious actors playing stoic action heroes, but The Equalizer has a style all its own, but while Liam’s Bryan Mills wants to play the savior, McCall can’t stop chaos. But he can deliver some thrilling retribution.