I remember it like it was yesterday: large yellow letters spelling “The Equalizer” over a picture of a man standing by his car in silhouette, its headlamps blazing through the misty night, with light slowly spilling onto actor Edward Woodward’s face. As an 11-year-old, I didn’t have many television shows I could really call “my own,” but “The Equalizer” was one of them. Week in and week out, I would watch as Woodward, playing a character named Robert McCall, would use his smarts and his skills to help the helpless. What made “The Equalizer” special is that it balanced its violence by making McCall’s methods creative and his reasoning compassionate.
29 years later, Hollywood rebooted this character and the series name into a high-powered, surprisingly soulful action vehicle. Much in the same way that the series used a respected actor in its main role, The Equalizer stars Denzel Washington and reunites him with Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, a film which featured one of Washington’s most notorious (and multi-award-winning) performances. Here, Fuqua channels his inner John Woo, making Washington’s McCall into a very Chow Yun-Fat-esque reluctant killer and protector, complete with stylized slow-motion shots to show off how cool McCall is under pressure.
Thematically, Fuqua’s The Equalizer isn’t that far off from its origins. However, it takes its time and has some fun setting up the Bob McCall character, delving into his life as a friendly, helpful employee at a Home Mart (it’s as close as you can get to the Home Depot without having to call the copyright lawyers) in South Boston. We see him as a solitary, fastidious figure, adhering to strict routines – he’s up before his alarm clock goes off, he maintains his hair to a close crop, he eats only what he needs to fuel him for the day, and he spends his leisure time reading books and having tea at the local diner. But that tea has to be brought from home in a meticulously-folded napkin (which he uses on his lap after unwrapping it) and made in a special way; even the sole diner worker knows how he has to have it. In that diner, he holds fleeting conversations with a young girl named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) about the books he’s reading while observing small things about who she is and what she might do for a living, seeing how she spends her time at night scantily-dressed with too much makeup on her face.
Richard Wenk’s screenplay is full of character moments dedicated to immersing us in McCall’s life – assisting fellow Home Mart employee Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) lose weight for a security guard exam, other employees playfully guessing what McCall did before joining their ranks – just before it gets radically turned upside down by Teri’s sudden appearance in a hospital’s intensive care ward, brutally beaten nearly to death. This is where we see McCall’s past, which has been merely hinted at by an obsession with timing and his careful attention to detail, come roaring back as he finds the men responsible and removes them from Teri’s life forever.
However, there’s one small problem, as these men weren’t just Teri’s pimps – they were also the Eastern hub of the Russian Mafia, the head of which has sent over enforcer Teddy (Martin Csokas), a man who gets sent somewhere to take care of problems. So begins the unstoppable force heading toward an immovable object, it seems. McCall’s cunning and seemingly limitless resources seem to be the only thing keeping Teddy a half-step behind him. This film is equal parts shoot-‘em-up and an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse, with each side trying to be the proactive one, not the reactive one. As we all know, though, the villains are no match for McCall’s machinations, as his combination of lateral thinking and brute force seem to be more than the Russians are equipped to handle.
It’s these kind of smarts that save The Equalizer from being a rote revenge drama. Washington creates a solid, memorable everyman, keeping a certain stalwart normalcy throughout everything he does, whether it’s inspiring someone to haul a tire twenty yards or giving a bad guy a “you did this to yourself” look before dispatching him. McCall seems to have run from his past, only to make peace with it and make it a part of him and his everyday life. It’s a theme that also carries over to Teri, even though she isn’t in the movie all that much; she’s a muse of sorts, the impetus behind this stage in McCall’s growth. They’re two old souls at respective ends of the age spectrum who happen to awaken the best of each other, even if “the best” for one of them means killing opponents in stealthy, violent ways.
Fuqua’s direction is taut, albeit a bit indulgent. Having directed the John Woo-produced The Replacement Killers in 1998, it’s no surprise that Fuqua emulates some of the best of Woo’s staples – the hero shots of Washington walking through sprinkling water; the brutal, yet wonderfully choreographed gun and hand-to-hand combat; the wise, yet hesitant savior who doesn’t want to have to do what he does, and his inherent strength and courage of his convictions. He also gives Csokas a lot room to seethe and preen, rolling around in the bad guy muck and letting the awful stench come steaming through the screen, making Teddy a cuttingly believable villain.
The Equalizer is neither an insult nor a compliment (or a complement) to the late Edward Woodward’s 1985 television series; instead, it has moved into the realm of modern action cinema, standing alone as a more sinister and gory companion to something like The Dark Knight. Both films are about ordinary men, unaided by superpowers, trying to make their city a little safer using whatever means they have at their disposal. The wealthy Bruce Wayne may have his toys and gadgets, but the lowly Robert McCall has only his smarts and anything he can grab. Both rise to the occasion to defend the innocent and the helpless, and they both look damn good doing it.