Even though the original TV series ran for four seasons during the eighties and has been available on DVD for some time, for the majority, The Equalizer remains a show that most remember by name but can’t quite recall the details. That’s a good thing. In some respects, the newly released film version is The Equalizer in name only. There’s little connection between the big screen casting of Denzel Washington as Robert McCall and the small screen version of Britain’s Edward Woodward, other than the ability to get things done, smartly and efficiently.
“Gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what” McCall explains to young prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz). It sounds like the kind of sage advice an older person of experience might say to someone just starting out, but it’s the explanation McCall gives to the meaning behind Hemingway’s The Old Man of the Sea, one of the several classic novels the retired intelligence officer will read throughout the movie.
When the film opens, McCall has left his days as a field operative behind him. He’s retired, lives alone, and works in the lumber section of a Home Depot type warehouse called Home Mart. At night, he’ll take his book and a teabag from his favorite brand of tea – his meticulous attention to detail is uncompromising – and walk to a corner diner where he’ll sit at the same table, arrange the cutlery just as he likes it, and either read or engage in a brief conversation with young Teri. Everything he does, every move he makes, is precise, orderly and deliberate. It’s McCall’s way.
Teri’s life is not quite as orderly. She’s a teenage prostitute working for an abusive Russian pimp who one night takes his abuse to the extreme. When Teri fails to show up at the diner, McCall learns it’s because she’s in hospital, hanging on to life by a thread. Upon seeing Teri’s battered and bloodied condition through a hospital window, something within McCall quietly boils. No one’s asked for his help but he’s going to give it all the same, and with deadly results.
Looking something like an older version of Jodie Foster’s twelve year-old in Taxi Driver – it’s as if Travis Bickle never rescued her and the teenager is still in the game – Moretz’s Terri is McCall’s call to action. She’s no longer part of the story; she’s the introduction, the gateway to what follows.
You sense a certain initial reluctance on McCall’s part for him to return to the man he used to be. When he confronts the pimp there are no threats. McCall actually offers the Russian $9,800 for Teri’s release from her employment. As expected, the offer is rejected. It’s at that moment when McCall stands in front of the door, ready to make his exit that he hesitates. He thinks about it, and then thinks some more. He simply can’t leave. He turns, sizes up his options, checks where the pimp’s henchmen are positioned in the room, eyes what weapons they’re carrying and calculates how long it will take him to dispense all five. Having worked out his every move with the same kind of precision he moves his cutlery around the table or anything else that needs tidying up, he mutters “Sixteen seconds,” sets his stop watch and proceeds to wipe them out in a shockingly violent and bloody manner. This is no normal Home Mart lumber sales associate, even if he mumbles “I’m sorry,” after killing everyone. When a co-worker at the lumber warehouse notices a cut on McCall’s knuckles the next morning and asks what happened, McCall tells him, “I hit it on something stupid.”
At a running time of 131 minutes, the dark looking film is too long and could easily have used a fifteen minute trim, including an epilog that stretches credibility. The film forgets to say when. It may take a while for The Equalizer to get off the ground before that first confrontation with the Russian pimp and his men, but that’s fine. Only those with low-attention span will complain. Watching McCall’s highly organized day to day life, his helpful exchanges with his co-workers, plus his late night visits to the diner where he gets to read, eat, drink tea, and exchange a few friendly words with Teri allows us the luxury of getting to know the man without actually knowing anything about him. But that’s not the issue.
Once McCall springs to action, the violence comes hard and heavy, and it’s ugly. You get the sense that once the ex-operative opens up his own particular can of worms, it’s not only McCall who appears to savor watching his victims die before him, director Antoine Fuqua seems to enjoy the bloodlust, too. When a corkscrew is thrust through the jaw of a henchman, the camera lingers on the victim’s open mouth a few beats longer than required, just to make sure we don’t miss seeing the pointed metal poking through on the inside. But in its favor, the film never lags, there’s just too much of it.
Washington’s McCall gives Liam Neeson’s agent from Taken a run for his money as he uses those special skill sets to help the helpless while asking for nothing in return. He’s a likable man with a smile, a positive attitude and a friend to anyone at work who reaches out to him, but when sitting face to face with the enemy, as he does with the formidable and smart Russian bad guy (Marton Csokas), a cold, lifeless, unflinching steely reserve surfaces. We know nothing of McCall’s baggage, other than he once worked for The Agency, but we don’t need to know. From the way he acts, the calculated manner and extreme violent approach with which he does everything, it’s best his past remains a secret. It’s something Washington does so well.
The fade out suggests there could be more. In the TV series, McCall would aid those in need by placing an ad in the newspaper stating: Odds against you? Need help? In the film, Washington’s McCall uses his laptop while a copy of The Invisible Man sits by his side.
I’m quite sure there are people like these bad guys out there; men who contribute nothing to our world but forcibly take and make life miserable and terrifying for the rest of us. It would be comforting to know there are also men out there like McCall.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 131 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)