After receiving joking acknowledgment in The Wolf of Wall Street last year, awareness of ‘80s TV series The Equalizer is probably now as high as it was ever going to be. It’s hard to imagine any fans of the series clamouring for a film version more than two decades later, and even harder to say whether they’ll approve of Antoine Fuqua’s adaptation, which carries over the names of the series, but little else. A one-man A-Team,the titular Equalizer is Robert McCall, an ex-covert operative with a particular set of skills he uses to atone for a shady past, one hard-luck case at a time.
The original series was set in New York, while the film version has driven a few hours up the I-90 to move the surroundings to Boston. While the change of leading man, from proper Brit Edward Woodward to all-American-ly handsome Denzel Washington, is the most notable update to The Equalizer, the one that best captures Fuqua’s spin on the material is much subtler. In the original series, McCall rode around in a slick Jaguar XJ6. For 2014, McCall’s ride is the sleekest, sexiest MBTA bus $50 a month can buy. For both its awareness of the racial and economic makeup of America in 2014, and its initially measured pace, Fuqua’s Equalizer distinguishes itself as a superior breed of old man action movie.
Washington, now pushing 60, is just the latest venerated actor to launch a would-be action franchise this year. Working in his favor is that, unlike Kevin Costner, he has an established career working in modern shoot ‘em ups, and unlike Pierce Brosnan, he never really left the genre. It speaks to Washington’s versatility that he’s no less believable or charming as a meditative military badass in 2014 than he was as a civilian everyman five years ago in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or another type of ruthless wetworks man ten years ago in Man on Fire.
For a long stretch, The Equalizer doesn’t play like all the other Taken imitators. If anything, a better line of comparison can be drawn to Gran Torino, with The Equalizer keeping the age of its star always in mind. McCall is introduced shaving away the white film of hair that has sprouted on his head overnight, before heading off to a day job. His working-retirement routine ends daily with a light read at a local 24-hour diner. McCall’s in the middle of “The Old Man and the Sea” when we first see him, but if you think the only literary pummeling The Equalizer has to offer is purely metaphorical, just you wait.
And I do mean wait, which is all to the film’s benefit. Keeping things at a low burn, Fuqua sets up a varied supporting cast of players in McCall’s life. Chloe Grace Moretz isn’t exactly what you’d call believable as a Russian working girl that befriends McCall, but the slow play approach to their relationship develops an intimacy you’d think Richard Wenk’s theme-laden dialogue wouldn’t allow. There’s simply nothing to tell you McCall can kill six guys quicker than a yellow light changes, so when he does just that, in order to help get Moretz’s Teri out of trouble, the effect is shocking and brutal.
The call to arms marks the point where The Equalizer starts slowly veering towards being any other generic geriatric action picture, just a much coarser one. Fuqua’s got style to burn, so the shoot-outs and fistfight that follow in the wake of McCall crossing the Russian mob are anything but typical (though Fuqua does succeed in topping the “cool, ridiculous walk away from explosion” trope he perfected in Shooter). Sequences occasionally employ kinetic zooms and blinding lighting to give us a McCall’s-eye view of a dangerous situation, but Fuqua can easily establish a battleground sans hyperactive trickery just by taking the time for a wide shot.
In essence, there’s a smart, methodical movie here that’s fighting a very cool, dumb one, and the balance tips towards the latter the longer The Equalizer runs. Fuqua and Wenk shade loathsome corrupt cops with occasional flashes of humanity, but the Russian baddies are pure cutouts. Marton Csokas is initially intriguing as a Spetznaz killer out to get McCall, introduced talking down an insubordinate instead of outright killing him, but by the next scene, he’s brutally beating a man to death “to send a message.” The sequence, like much of The Equalizer’s action, hits an uneasy middle ground between violent realism and over-the-top absurdity. Once McCall “reactivates,” he attracts more random crime in a week than most see in a lifetime, but he’s so unflappably capable, you never doubt he’s going to come out on top.
Fuqua does manage to reestablish a balance for the big finale, a tense, lengthy game of cats and mouse through a hardware store that plays like an R-rated episode of McGuyver. When he slows things down, like in an unnecessary but terrific scene between Washington and Melissa Leo as another ex-operative, Fuqua brings grace and precision to a genre largely bereft of it. Eventually, The Equalizer can’t stop itself from indulging in the same brainless thrills its contemporaries offer, but between Fuqua and Washington, looks damn good pursuing them. Any hack can just film a guy getting hung from a barbwire noose; real pros can make you think there’s poetry in it.
A nicely measured start gives way to familiar, grisly action, but The Equalizer proves to be a superior breed of old man action movie.