Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay: Richard Wenk. Based on the T.V. series by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim.
Runtime: 132 minutes.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour.
Plot: Robert McCall makes an honest living at a local hardware store, doing whatever small acts he can to atone for a mysterious past. But he is pushed over the edge when a young girl he meets in a late night diner is beaten up by her pimp. Trying to buy her way out, McCall is mocked by her Russian handlers and takes violent action to settle the score. The result brings the mafia’s fixer into town, and a game of cat and mouse begins.
Review: Zach Galifianakis, on his show Between Two Ferns (the unachievable gold standard for film critics), once asked Bruce Willis if he was aware that ‘other actors turn down films.’ He got one of those trademark Willis icy stares for his trouble; but Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer is incontrovertible proof that Willis does indeed turn down parts. I’m not saying that Denzel Washington is worse in the role, on the contrary in that he brings a seriousness and gravity that Willis never would, but that this film is trademark Willis from its script, to its direction, to its casting the hero as a reluctant rescuer of the downtrodden but mainly women. It’s got Willis’ smirk and sleepwalking line delivery all over it, and it generally feels like you should be watching it at midnight when there’s nothing else is on and you think ‘sure, why not’ before you contemplate the deeper reasons why you are wasting your life (we’ve all been there, particularly with Willis films). That can be fun and stupidly enjoyable, in that way half-hearted Willis efforts are when you’re in just the right mood.
The Equalizer, going so far down that lazy path, pulls back and in the final hour starts wanting to take itself morally seriously and articulate some sort of ethical code. McCall’s trademark is that he always gives the bad guys a choice; although it’s the exact choice that Jean Paul Sartre critiques in his tale of the young man who asks him whether he should join the resistance as completely in bad faith (the lesson being that in choosing to ask Sartre, a member of the resistance himself, whether or not to join he had already effectively chosen and needed to take ownership of that fact). Well, what do you know – the bad guys always choose to be bad guys, in a manner that lets McCall push the responsibility for the violence he is going to enact onto them instead of taking ownership for his own response to their crimes. It is textbook transference; but we wouldn’t expect that psychological insight to be interrogated here.
One gets the feeling that Washington gave extensive notes to the director and scriptwriter on what’s more his style; making this mixed result hard to digest. The actions scenes thrill the first time, they don’t the second (and some even get replayed in flashback, literally minutes after you have just seen them), creating a film that seems entirely composed for the trailer that will sell it rather than the over two hour length this unwelcome guest stays on your screens and possibly shits on your living room rug. Several respected actors, bafflingly Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, turn up to collect a pay check because apparently you can’t eat Oscars. Ever wonder why this and every other blockbuster script seems exactly the same? Blame Blake Snyder, as it is literally a formula now and more tiresome than Madlibs (although basically the same). Screenwriter Richard Wenk follows it doggedly, although we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t suspect that a committee of producers and Washington’s agents didn’t have a strong hand in this collapsing effort.
Let’s be honest; writing a review of this film is absolutely pointless. Everyone who wants to see this film already has, and everyone else with a brain that functions outside of work hours is most likely going to avoid it. The former only really wants to know ‘how many killings’ there are, to quote The League of Gentlemen; and the latter are only likely to turn up if David and Margaret scandalously and unexpectedly cum in their pants discussing the film on air. (There you go, I’m capable of being equally dismissive, dickish, and alienating to both parties. I really think I have a potential career as a professional reviewer.)
Opening with a dubiously sourced Mark Twain quote, not the only element that throws doubt on the scriptwriter’s googling skills, one senses that Wenk spends a lot of time on inspirational quote sites to get himself through the working day. Please, someone send him a hang in there cat poster and gently remind him that opening quotes are for films that contain actual meaning only. It’s not his only desperate grab for literary respectability within the film either, as he has McCall reading his way through some arbitrary “100 Books” list in a thin excuse to clothe his script in some cheap cultural resonance. His wife was done with 97 of the books before she died, we later learn, and when invading his apartment in the third act a thug comments ‘guy’s got a lot of books.’ So when we first meet McCall it’s theOld Man and the Sea (it’s about honourable but pointless struggle, respect, and an old guy, see!) then later it’s a suspiciously thin edition of Don Quixote (a knight in shining armour, from a simpler time but out of place, tilting at windmills, see!).
McCall’s three defining attributes, some in a pointless callback to the T.V. series, are that:
- He’s a perfectionist, adjusting his tableware in the clichéd “broken mirror meaning madness” equivalent of Hollywood characterisation, and times stuff on his watch while being dissatisfied with said time;
- He dishes out aforementioned inspirational quotes to the fat co-worker and the prostitute he’s trying to help sort out their respective lives (‘hey, progress not perfection,’ ‘You gotta be what you are in this world, no matter what,’ ‘Dont doubt yourself, son. Doubt kills,’ ‘I think you can be anything you want to,’ ‘Move the damn tire quicker and get me out of here, you worthless fat fuck of a cliché’ – o.k., I was yelling that last one, not Denzel); and,
- He’s the George Bellows of hyper-real violence with everyday objects (I can google too!).
To round out the cast we have Marton Csokas looking like a taller, tattooed Kevin Spacey meets a taller, tattooed Dmitri Medvedev; attempting God knows what accent and claiming the result is Russian. He’s a fixer, working for a Russian mob boss and oligarch who runs the whole show, Mr. Pushkin. I love that last touch – I picture Wenk holding his new iPhone 6 aloft and saying ‘Siri – Russian names!’ then taking the first one offered because, you know, he’s incredibly lazy. Chloë Grace Moretz is here as doxy-in-distress Alina, and won’t be replacing Julia Roberts anytime soon. And other actors too, but who cares because they’re not memorable enough to make any good jokes about. I mean the last act of the film actually has McCall travelling to Moscow to finish off kingpin Pushkin with the implicit authorisation of the US government; though sadly not on Pushkin street, as that’s only ulitsa I know how to ask for directions to in Russian apart from Ulitsa Sezam (which sends you somewhere else entirely, that is either kid-friendly or a local sex warehouse). See, I’ve just made a bunch of Russian language jokes, and proven most of you can google just as well as the screen writer and director can.
[Unless you’re a native Russian speaker; in that case The Equalizer holds a wholly different pleasure for you. Tired of native English speakers like myself making fun of your awesome accent? Then get a load of the attempted Russian dialogue in this film; as Americans saying anything beyond’ Ya doljen igrat' tol'ko na rodnom yazyke’ sounds fucking hilarious.]
Apart from counting out the seconds like a cross between Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Raymond Babbitt from Rainman (they don’t show whether he flew with Quantas to Moscow or not, let’s just assume), McCall engages in one of the most pointless and simply logistically flawed interrogation scenes you are likely to see on screen – connecting a hose to the tailpipe of a car and periodically gassing the low-level henchman with carbon monoxide like he isn’t just going to fall asleep and die, but doing so with some sort of magical remote control that winds the windows up and down so he can chat in between asphyxiations. Said henchmen doesn’t think to simply turn the keys in the ignition to off. Watertight, Wenk, well done. You’ve probably earned more money from that script than I’ll earn in my lifetime. Capitalism!
Yep, with it’s day/night duality reflecting the two sides of McCall’s life, our crusader without a cape stabs, thrusts, bludgeons, strangles, garrottes, shoots, glasses, sucker punches, cow drops, crunches, and just generally murders his way to a clean conscience. I watched The Equalizer; and now I’m so, so tired. Such a self-serious film, yet it could have been so much fun.
Rating: One and a half stars.