The Equalizer (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Equalizer (2014)

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Robert McCall is a simple, unassuming man, who works at a local hardware store.  He makes friends with his coworkers and strangers he meets at a diner.  One night, Robert finds out that members of the Russian mafia beat his friend and left her for dead.  Robert is hiding a secret past of his own, and starts protecting the neighborhood with his skills.  Antoine Fuqua directs The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington.

Making it professionalSometimes, a running theme in a director’s body of work takes some time for me to recognize. Antoine Fuqua was the perfect person to adapt The Equalizer for the big screen, and that’s not just because of his stylish take on action films. Fuqua’s movies have, for a few years now, been concerned with a deep distrust of existing authorities and the hierarchies that surround them. Training Day had its power-mad cop existing beyond the law, Shooter rooted itself in a conspiracy, and Olympus Has Fallen dealt with the way the entire United States has so engrained itself in foreign affairs that it has to remain beyond judgment lest the world topple.

The Equalizer is firmly in this mindset, reuniting Denzel Washington with Fuqua to tell the story of a man who uses his extensive special ops training to destabilize systems oppressive to minorities and the lower class. Robert McCall (Washington) is not the guy who swoops in wearing an American flag bandanna while shouting catchphrases to anyone within earshot. He’s the man who wants to learn about the people he fights for then figure out ways to improve their lives without resorting to violence.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a Fuqua film if Robert sat around and talked through everyone’s problems over a slice of pie. I’d like to watch that movie someday, but The Equalizer at least differentiates itself by being just a bit smarter than the usual action fare. I was most interested in Robert’s fight when I got to see how directly it affected the community. But Richard Wenk’s screenplay spends so much time padding out each of its chapters with a lot of exposition and less on the intriguingly framed action that presents Robert as a hero of the people.

Fuqua is still an excellent stylist, and I loved this shot of Teddy's influence spreading over the city like a devil.

Antoine Fuqua is still an excellent stylist, and I loved this shot of Teddy's influence spreading over the city like a devil.

Wenk’s basic construction of The Equalizer feels a lot like television. This makes sense, to a point, as The Equalizer is based on the television show of the same name from the ‘80s. The Equalizer essentially exists in 30 minute chunks that could have been cut off from the rest of the film and run as an individual episode. The overarching plot moves steadily as Robert defends his community and helps them grow, but almost all the supporting cast rotates out at the end of the 30 minute cycle. This results in a lot of jarring recalibration of the plot as details about the big bad, a Russian enforcer named Teddy (Marton Csokas), and the supporting players are constantly reintroduced.

It’s odd to experience, and results in a lot of navel gazing and flat exposition with each cycle. This left me feeling flat-out bored during a lot of The Equalizer. Robert levels his gaze at the next problem, Teddy wonders about this mysterious vigilante, and the community fades in and out. I wonder why the structure was chosen this way, because the community comes off feeling like a list of problems Robert can check off instead of people.

Issues with the structure aside, part of the reason lies in Washington’s performance. The last time he teamed with Fuqua, Washington was an evil lord of the streets. Washington goes for the opposite approach this time and, even though he’s ostensibly the hero, is just as chilling as he was terrifying in Training Day. He has this way of looking at his opponents as though they were experiments - creatures doing things they shouldn’t be capable of doing. When he moves he expends as little energy as possible, and in action scenes is a patient observer of everything around him. He’s a predator who is over-matched to his environment, and as a result Washington has this way of draining energy from the screen because his success feels like an inevitable fact.

Washington continues to be an excellent, and chilling, presence in Fuqua's films.

Denzel Washington continues to be an excellent, and chilling, presence in Fuqua's films.

I liked his performance, though I’m tired of every special ops protagonist saddled with a scene that shows how attentive they are to details (see Taken for another example of this). What interested my more was how The Equalizer establishes Robert as a hero of the lower class. The targets he goes after are typically affluent white men while protecting teenager girls, his Hispanic coworkers, and the hardware store he works at. It may seem odd that I’m calling Robert a hero of the people and he’s defending a chain store, but it goes back to defending a group of people who still have to do things by hand and don’t get the protection of the system if something goes wrong.

This all leads to a climax that basically has Washington becoming the murdering god incarnate of the lower class. He uses improvised weapons made of wood boards around the shop, a nail gun to cripple his opponents before finally killing them, and, in the most disturbing kill, a power drill. Considering ours is a country that still allows those in power toss breadcrumbs to those less fortunate, then kick them for trying to defend themselves, I found the end to be an effective sequence.

The Equalizer ends on such a great note but it’s not one that elevates the film but shows how weak the rest of its parts are. Unlike its toned and energy-efficient protagonist, The Equalizer is a bit too flabby and too structured. I loved having something to think about when those fights started, I just wish there was more to ponder and less to endure between the fights.

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Tail - The EqualizerThe Equalizer (2014)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Screenplay written by Richard Wenk.
Starring Denzel Washington.

Posted by Andrew

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