Released: 26 September 2014
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $73 million
Stars: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, David Harbour, Johnny Skourtis, and Chloë Grace Moretz
Robert McCall (Washington) is a simple man of routine, an unassuming widower living a quiet life in Boston, who is unwittingly drawn back into his mysterious and violent past when Alina (Moretz), a teenage prostitute he has befriended, is attacked. Before long, McCall’s peaceful life is turned upside down when Alina’s handlers, bankrolled by the Russian mafia, send sadistic enforcer Teddy Rensen (Csokas) to find who is responsible for the gang-land style murders McCall has orchestrated.
The Equalizer began life as an American crime drama that aired between 1985 and 1989; the series starred British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a former covert operations officer who offered his unique services as a troubleshooter, protector, or an investigator. The series ran for eighty-eight episodes back in the eighties but development of a cinematic retelling didn’t come about until 2010, when Russell Crowe was originally attached to star in the title role. By the end of 2011, however, Denzel Washington had replaced Crowe and director Antoine Fuqua came onboard for this dramatic reimagining of the former spy turned problem solver. Though somewhat sub-par compared to films of a similar nature, such as Taken (Morel, 2008) and John Wick (Stahelski, 2014), both of which portrayed retired, aging specialists brought back into action, The Equalizer was a pretty decent box office success, making over $190 million worldwide against its $73 million budget and Washington played against type by starring in a sequel in 2018.
I should stress going into this review that I never watched the original Equalizer television series; I was just a baby when it first aired and I don’t recall it ever being on TV when I was growing up so my first exposure to the concept was with this big screen reimagining. However, I have long been a fan of action movies and have a particular fondness for the sub-genre films like Taken have inspired that sees older actors taking on roles of retired hitmen or government operatives brought back into action. It’s a bit of a hit and miss sub-genre, to be honest, but mostly these sort of films land pretty well with me and, while not quite as good as some of its counterparts, The Equalizer does more than enough to impress in this regard.
As The Equalizer is the story or Robert McCall, the film revolves around (and is largely carried by) a haunting, subdued performance by Denzel Washington; a man of strict habit and routine, McCall is a friendly, hardworking widower who works in a garden centre. Though his past is a mystery to his co-workers (and, largely, to us, the audience), it has little bearing on his demeanour; he’s always willing to help others (he’s actively spotting and offering advice to his friend and co-worker, Ralph (Skourtis) to help him lose weight for a security guard job) and is a wise, sympathetic listener. However, McCall is clearly haunted by his past, in particular the loss of his wife; unable to sleep, he often sits and reads quietly in a 24/7 diner, meticulously bringing his own tea bag and utensils as he makes his way through book after book. It’s there that he meets Alina, who works under the name Teri, whom he encourages to eat healthier and to pursue her dreams of being a singer. After Alina is roughed up by her handlers, though, McCall attempts to buy her freedom and, despite his better judgement and the promise he made to his wife, is sucked back into his old violent ways.
When he makes the decision to dish out vigilante justice, McCall transforms into a cold, calculatingly efficient combatant; his heartbeat slows and he seems to absorb everything about his surroundings and targets, visualising exactly how he will dispatch them and estimating the time it will take him to do so. While age has clearly made him slower at this, he’s still formidable and skilled enough to overwhelm entire rooms full of younger, armed individuals without breaking a sweat or even breathing heavily. The way Washington transforms his demeanour into an unblinking, unflinching, cold-hearted machine is mesmerising; he almost becomes robotic in his movements, with a nearly precognitive awareness of his surroundings thanks to his ability to “read” a room and the intentions of others.
Of course, he’s not just about physical punishment; thanks to his scrupulous attention to detail, foresight, and over-preparedness (and his clear signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder), McCall is able to plan accordingly to stay one step ahead of his foes (renting a back-up apartment, for example, using his mysterious resources to get information and laying traps in the film’s finale). An intelligent, shrewd individual, he exudes a quiet self-confidence that never borders on arrogance and always offers his enemies the option to walk away before letting himself loose.
Opposing McCall is a Russian enforcer who has the potential to be every bit his intellectual and physical equal but finds himself outmatched every turn by the aged operative; adorned in intimidating tattoos and driven by an intense sadistic streak, Rensen is an equally cold, self-confident individual with a vindictive mean streak. Despite his assertions to the contrary, however, he is ruled by his emotions and ego far more than McCall, which lead to him losing his cool and growing increasingly frustrated at the inability of himself and his underlings to track down and end McCall.
Much of The Equalizer’s pace and early going is, smartly, devoted to setting up McCall’s rather normal, perhaps even mundane lifestyle; we walk through his daily routine, see the many little habits he performs on an almost ritualistic basis, and are introduced to him as a kind-hearted, easy-going individual. Obviously, there is more to him though; Washington’s eyes and demeanour tell more of a story about his mysterious, violent, and painful past than words ever could, meaning that much of The Equalizer is an exercise in subtlety and establishing a mood rather than non-stop action.
When McCall does take action, though, the complexion of the movie shifts dramatically; suddenly, McCall transforms before our eyes into this merciless, unstoppable killer who dispatches even armed foes with ease and grace. It isn’t until quite late into the film that McCall comes up against an opponent who offers him a physical challenge but, even when shot or stabbed or injured, McCall is smart and savvy enough of a veteran to know how to patch himself up and he never once loses his cool.
In fact, the opposite is overwhelmingly true; when his eyes widen and his heartbeat slows, McCall becomes this blank slate of efficiency, never blinking or flinching or, seemingly, breathing as he effortlessly takes command of every situation even when he is injured since he has scrupulously taken into account every possible outcome for each scenario. In the finale, he puts his knowledge of the layout of his workplace to good use to set up some gruesome traps and thin out Rensen’s numbers before finally confronting the Russian hitman with nothing more than a nail gun.
The action of the film this escalates over time, getting bigger and more brazen the more McCall indulges in his long-retired skill set; when he takes out Alina’s handlers, he unwittingly throws a wrench into the Russian mafia’s Boston operation. Before long, he’s confronting corrupt cops in the mafia’s pocket, disrupting their entire money-laundering operation, blowing up much of their merchandise, and eventually travelling to Moscow to take out their big cheese, Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). It’s not exactly a non-stop thrill ride but it is an extremely intense experience; fight scenes are gritty, visceral, and methodical and, while McCall is largely unmatched, he’s still vulnerable enough to be hurt at times and clearly conflicted by his actions.
The Equalizer is as intense and methodical as its titular character; largely a character-driven piece that leaves us with more questions than answers regarding McCall’s mysterious past, it’s an engaging piece of vigilante cinema whose action escalates the more McCall rediscovers his penchant for violence. It’s not quite on the level of Taken or John Wick, to be fair and, from what I can gather, is quite a departure from the original television series but there’s plenty here to keep you engaged and invested and seeing Washington literally transform into this efficient, precise killer is always a blast.
What did you think of The Equalizer? Did you watch the television series back and the day and, if so, how do you feel the film holds up compared to it? What did you think to Denzel Washington’s performance? How do you feel this film holds up to others of its kind? Which film did the “retired hitman called into action” concept better? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.