Loosely adapting the popular television series, The Equalizer reunites star Denzel Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. If only the result was half as engaging as that film. In truth, The Equalizer is a lazy and overly padded bore.
Washington plays Robert McCall, a kindly worker at a large hardware store. He supports and encourages his co-workers. He dedicates himself to helping customers. Suffering from insomnia, he spends the middle of the night reading classic literature in a 24-hour diner. It is there that he meets and befriends Elina (Chloë Grace Moretz) – an aspiring singer trapped into a sex worker career by the Russian mafia. When Elina is badly beaten by her handler, McCall attempts to intervene, and a spiralling series of violent confrontations reveal that he was not always the mild-mannered retail worker he always claimed to be.
The Equalizer is a bundle of genre stereotypes, each played out for what feels like the hundredth time and interspersed with insipid scenes of moody whispering and back-and-forth threats of violence between McCall and Russian mob enforcer Nikolai Itchenko (Martin Csokas). It is not a film entirely without appeal – plenty of viewers will relax enthusiastically into its formulaic blend of fist fights, shoot-outs, and gory misuse of hardware equipment – but it is a crushing disappointment. Both Washington and Fuqua have done much better in the past with similar material. Washington in particular simply reminds one of the much better and more technically progressive Man on Fire (2004).
There is a certain deadpan schtick to Washington’s performance that does work to an extent, but it a presentation that feels over-worn and just that little bit tedious. Csokas is more effective as the blunt and cruel Itchenko, but it too is a performance without anything in the way of depth or texture. It is a bland sort of evil that does nothing to instill originality or panache into the picture. Much more successful on a creative level is David Harbor as the conflicted and edgy corrupt police detective Frank Masters – but even then he has to fight his own material to make any kind of impact.
The plot foreshadows every development in neon lights. Every character to be introduced shows off the mechanical nature of the story that is driving them. Combined with a bizarrely slow pace, The Equalizer becomes dreadfully predictable – actually not simply predictable but surprisingly dull. When the action scenes do come, they arrive in a tired blend of slow motion and extreme violence. Whether a corkscrew, gardening tools, or a power drill, everyday items are regularly co-opted into the kind of salacious violence commonly seen in the Saw franchise – although at least in the case of that franchise there’s a degree of moral repugnance acknowledged in the act. Here it is rather like Looney Tunes for sadists: a chance to fist-pump at the screen while McCall gouges a man’s eye out with a broken shot glass.
You can indulge in cliché and still make an entertaining film. You can find inventive angles in the action choreography, or you can up the quality of the performances, or some other means of shining up and polishing old formulas. The Equalizer fails to do any of these things. It simply goes through the motions for a passive crowd, and provides lowest-common-denominator thrills for an audience that simply doesn’t care what’s on the screen as long as it keeps punching things.