At the start of “The Equalizer,” when we see Denzel Washington working a lowly job at a home repair store (“Home Mart”), pushing around sacks of concrete and wearing an apron, we know something’s not quite right. The actor exerts a natural assuredness that automatically elevates him above such meager work. Washington makes acting look effortless but he also doesn’t have much range. Like Tom Cruise or John Wayne you generally know what to expect when watching a Denzel Washington character; wise, charismatic and oh-so-cool. He’s a lot of fun to watch but this familiarity removes some element of surprise. We don’t know exactly what he’s hiding from or covering up but we know there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s overqualified for that job at Home Mart.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua—who also directed Washington in “Training Day”—“The Equalizer” finds Washington playing a modern day Ronin: humble but deadly. Although that last characteristic isn’t made clear right away. Fuqua chooses to take his time in setting up the character—known as Robert—before letting him show off his skills. Residing in Boston, he lives a repetitively mundane but stable life, obviously hiding a mysterious past. He goes to work at Home Mart, has a cup of tea at a diner while reading and then goes home. He lives modestly--like a Monk—in an apartment containing only the bare essentials.
He offers help whenever he can but with his intellect and years of experience rather than his fists. He acts as a sort of parental figure/role model to the young people in his life—co-workers and other acquaintances—giving them dietary and other kinds of life advice. And they wisely take it. Hell, I would.
Robert appears too content with his simple unexciting lifestyle, perhaps because his older life was chocked full of excitement. But he can’t hide who he is for very long. One night in the diner he befriends an underage Russian hooker Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) and after she’s beaten by her pimp he decides to intervene.
The first half of “The Equalizer” works well as a deliberate, vigilante/revenge style thriller that uses violence sparingly and therefore effectively. Revenge is a peculiar thing suited perfectly for the movies. In real life it solves nothing, on the silver screen it solves everything. And if done well it can be extremely satisfying. “The Equalizer” contains many satisfying sequences featuring Washington sticking it to various baddies. Like all humble warriors or vigilantes, Robert has a strict moral code and sees his acts of violence as righteous and necessary. His approach to fighting is calculating; assessing each situation carefully before acting and showing restraint when necessary. For example, when a man robs Home Mart, instead of kicking the scumbag’s ass right there he waits—a woman and her three young children walk into the store right then—and gets him back later.
Unfortunately, the movie goes off the rails in the second half. After Robert slaughters Teri’s pimp and four of his associates—a scene that made me giddy with pleasure—a can of worms is opened and the Russian mob sends in Teddy--a “psychopath with a business card” as described by one character--to take care of him. I enjoyed the rivalry that ensues between these two professionals and I enjoyed Marton Csokes delightfully campy performance. It serves as a nice counterpoint to Washington’s cool meticulousness. But Fuqua makes things more complicated than he needs to. What begins as a simple entertaining story of vengeance turns into an over-the-top B-movie that has Robert taking on the entire Russian mob, along with a few corrupt cops. At two hours and eleven minutes, the move feels closer to three hours, prolonging a predictable outcome. Fuqua increases the amount of action, making it feel tedious and repetitive. The climactic battle sequence that has Robert killing Teddy’s men with building tools in Home Mart would have been awesome if it didn’t go on so long.
Worst of all, we learn about Robert’s past. Not all of it but enough to spoil the character’s mystique somewhat. This segment could have been axed entirely. We don’t need to learn about his past, or where he obtained his skills. The actions he does, the decisions he makes during the movie gives us all we need. In the end, “The Equalizer” simply has too much fat and becomes too farfetched.
Still, Washington is one cool cat. He may play the same character over and over—he may not be convincing as an average Joe working at a home repair store—but he’s damn good at what he does. Washington’s recent filmography hasn’t been all that impressive but he consistently makes the best of his role. Now he just needs to look for better scripts to complement his immense talent.