The Equalizer is a slow-burn, B-movie hero origin story propped up by a great lead actor and some unique stylistic flourishes.
In The Equalizer, ex-special forces operative Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) has retired to a routine and quiet private life. His existence is mainly comprised of days working at a local hardware super store, while trying to ease restless nights by reading and keeping informal company with other night hawks at a local diner.
Robert's routine gets interrupted when his most frequent late-night conversation partner - a young prostitute named Teri (Cholë Grace Moretz) - starts being mistreated by her Russian mobster handlers. Before long, McCall finds that doing one good deed inevitably sets him back on a path to a life he thought he'd left behind. Sometimes, the helpless need a guardian angel to protect them from the devils out there - and in those moments, Robert McCall is on hand to equalize the odds.
Based on the premise of the 1980s TV series, The Equalizer movie reboot from Olympus Has Fallen director Antoine Fuqua and his Training Day leading man Denzel Washington may not be the non-stop action thrill ride some are expecting, but this moody and violent action-drama does enough intriguing character and world building to earn Washington a shot at headlining the franchise into future installments.
This is Fuqua's darkest and most moody film to date, visually speaking. He does well at creating a shadowy Noir underworld that contrasts with the daytime blue-collar world Robert McCall steps between. Like Olympus Has Fallen, Fuqua gives this film's cinematography a grainy look that makes it feel like a proper '90s action movie throwback - complete with unabashedly brutal violence and bloodshed. For stylistic flourish, the director arranges slow-motion sequences meant to imitate Robert's timed-precision combat style. The film uses such sequences sparingly (arguably too sparingly), but they are unique enough to give The Equalizer its own cinematic signature that can be utilized in more creative and complex ways in future sequels.
Fuqua does, admittedly, go for a more slow-burn build to his character, with much of Robert's "equalizing" taking place off-screen or in brief snippets. It's a gamble that will put off some viewers expecting a higher action/violence quota but the story (Robert's reluctant return to his violent ways) supports the film's sparing use of violent imagery - and when we get it, it's fittingly horrifying enough to prove why this man has held back for so long.
The script by Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2, The Mechanic) is on par with his other works: passable if unremarkable B-movie genre fare. In this case, Wenk delves deeper into character drama than usual - but on paper, a lot of the Robert McCall backstory is vague, thin, and poorly developed over the course of the movie. In fact, the movie as a whole tends to lose focus and meander a lot in the middle section - when it should instead be fleshing out the finer points of its protagonist.
Denzel Washington makes up a lot of ground lost on the page with a subtle and layered dramatic performance. Even though a lot of McCall's motivations and backstory are poorly explained, Washington's portrayal tells enough of a story all its own in order to make Robert engaging - often conveying a lot of his history (and pains) through a guarded, haunted stare. So, even though the writer doesn't nail down the character, the leading man makes up for it by filling in the details through show, rather than tell. By the end, Washington has completed enough of an arc to make Robert both relatable, badass and still intriguing enough to further explore in future chapters.
The rest of the cast revolves around Washington, but manage to each hold their own against him onscreen. Chloë Grace Moretz is just as good as Denzel at showing her character's story and personality through subtle performance and mannerisms. Teri is at once a hardened street warrior and a vulnerable child, and Moretz carries that balance in a way that feels real, but never like the typical weak victim or damsel in distress. Teri and Robert's bond is interesting to watch, and provides fertile ground for the film's violent narrative to unfold.
As Teddy, the Russian mob enforcer hunting Robert, Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) is fittingly nightmarish. With a combination of meticulous control and savage brutality, he is wildly unpredictable and totally compelling. In other words, he's a the sort of fun, dynamic villain who is a proper foil to the equally meticulous but much more stoic Robert. The other performances are mostly small, side appearances - with Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo in particular showing up with little to do. Other actors like David Harbour (Walk Among the Tombstones) and Johnny Skourtis fill in the supporting characters with solid performances.
In the end, The Equalizer is a slow-burn B-movie hero origin story propped up by a great lead actor and some unique stylistic flourishes. It's not a film that carves out any new niches in the action genre (or even provides much action), but it does just enough to sell the concept of The Equalizer to viewers - many of whom will likely be game for another violent outing with Denzel's guardian angel vigilante.
The Equalizer is now playing in theaters. It is 131 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.