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The Equalizer: Not Enough Good to Equalize the Brutality, Language

<i>The Equalizer</i>: Not Enough Good to Equalize the Brutality, Language

DVD Release Date: December 30, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: September 26, 2014
Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout, and some sexual references)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 131 min
Directors: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo

Director Antoine Fuqua’s reboot of The Equalizer bares little resemblance to the 1980s TV Series it's based on. To do that, it should've been made about ten to fifteen years ago with Anthony Hopkins in the lead. But more importantly, it also would have needed to stick to the show's basic premise, which this doesn't. Instead, this new Equalizer plays like your standard run-of-the-mill adult crime thriller, complete with the sadistic levels of brutality that pass for entertainment nowadays, which are then cloaked in the “virtue” of so-called vigilante justice. I guess it’s okay to get off on gory violence so long as equal (and graphically creative) karma is meted out.

Fuqua and star Denzel Washington (Flight) have collaborated before in similar territory with 2001's Training Day, a gritty tale of police corruption with more complex characters and themes on its mind, and it led to Washington taking home the Academy Award for Best Actor that year. The Equalizer has no desire to even broach those same ambitions. Instead, it feels like the studio just pulled some generic script off the shelf that was collecting dust, hired an Oscar-winning team to give it the illusion of merit, and then re-branded it with an old TV property in the hopes of possibly increasing its marketing value by five to ten percent. And while the end result is exactly the kind of reliable mid-range budget genre piece that serves as Hollywood’s bread-and-butter between its blockbuster seasons, it’s also immediately disposable.

The basic conceit of the TV series was that retired U.S. covert ops specialist Robert McCall would balance the scales of justice for those helpless and aggrieved. He did this free of charge in an effort to atone for the sins of his professional life. In this update, Washington’s McCall is also a retired op, but instead of turning his talents into an altruistic agency of retribution he’s simply trying to lay low and live a simple life, working on staff at a local Lowe’s-like DIY supply store. But his troubled soul can’t sleep at night, and the diner he haunts ends up being Grand Central Station for the local Russian Mafia that needs a lethal killing machine like McCall to take it out.

This doesn’t happen by the mob’s victims coming directly to McCall for his services. Rather, he decides to take it upon himself to serve as an unsolicited Guardian Angel for those around him with whom he’s close. At first, the criminal acts his friends suffer initially appear unrelated – a co-worker robbed here, a local business torched there, a young prostitute he’s befriended at the diner being pimped and beaten – but ultimately they’re all revealed to be (conveniently) connected to the Russian Mob. So what begins as Random Acts of Vengeance evolves into a full-blown one-man takedown.

And if anybody can do it, it’s Robert McCall. His special ops skills are accentuated by a meticulous and precise zen-like state of OCD (which is visualized with a familiar style that is equal parts high gloss and kinetic grit).  Like any supercop, McCall sees everything in slow-motion, zeroing in on all the important traits and weaponry of his opponents while also sizing up his entire environment, enabling him to then quickly take out an entire room full of armed thugs without suffering nary a scratch. His only weakness is that it takes him about ten seconds longer than it used to. Apparently he loves to time everything out in a recurring and kitschy stopwatch motif (which debases the seriousness of the carnage to nothing more than a mere exercise – a trait common to this kind of gratuitous mass appeal pulp).

At 131 minutes, The Equalizer churns on much longer than its uninspired narrative needs to, much of which is taken up in the first act’s very slow build. I’d be tempted to give Fuqua credit for carefully establishing characters, relationships, and tone (while testing the patience of its core audience in the process), especially as its carried well by the talents of Washington and the ensemble, if it were not for the sole clichéd intent of making McCall’s gruesome payback "personal." But I guess that’s what allows filmmakers and audiences to justify the rather ignoble bloodlust that drives this kind of entertainment.

The Equalizer pretty much covers all the beats and bases you’d expect, which makes it a very disturbing form of contemporary cinematic comfort food. The requisite stylistic flashes are all there, as is the violence. Profanity is constant, killing and tortures are often needless, the mano-y-mano faceoffs between McCall and the Mob Leader are laced with obligatory threats delivered in hushed whispers dripping with machismo, and the mobsters’ torsos are properly and excessively tattooed. The final showdown even takes place in the maze of a warehouse, natch, complete with a triggered sprinkler system that rains down water at high over-cranked frame rates for full slow-mo effect. 

Fuqua stages the various cat-and-mouse dynamics with an assured hand that creates an immediate tension, and literary references are layered in to give it all some weight and dimension (a technique that is, in itself, a cliché), but its boilerplate plot reduces everything to yet another “game” between cop and villain, which ultimately elicits nothing more than a yawn and the occasional watch check.

The Equalizer is slightly elevated by the presence of Denzel only to be undercut by a completely humorless sensibility. In short, it’s no better or worse than the countless other movies like it that have come before, which is what – despite its high production values – makes it so instantly forgettable.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Some tobacco use/cigarettes smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: The F-word is spoken regularly throughout, including a use of The Middle Finger. The S-word is used a few times, along with other milder profanities. Several uses of sexual slang, crude profanities, a few vulgar references to sexual acts. Essentially, strong language throughout.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: No sexual content, although one character is a prostitute who’s clothes are tight and somewhat revealing. 
  • Violence/Other: Frequent depictions of brutal physical violence, including numerous (and often bloody) stabbings that utilize a variety of devices: knives, spears, corkscrews, power drills, glass, etc.  Many stabbings are to the neck and head. Other instances of brutal physical violence, people beaten to within an inch of their lives, graphically depicted. Several instances of gun violence and its effects on people’s bodies. Gory photos of victims of gun and knife violence.  Instances of torture and threat of physical violence. McCall tortures and threatens to kill a man via gas poisoning. A woman is strangled to death. Other women are beaten and threatened.

Publication date: September 26, 2014