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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘The Equalizer’ is unfortunately uneven

Published: October 3, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

At some point, probably after the massive success of the Christopher Nolan “Batman” trilogy, Hollywood decided that action movies weren’t allowed to be fun anymore. Radical concepts like humor suddenly disappeared, and every hero had to be a permanently scowling ex-something-or-other out for revenge. Gone was the time of the wisecracking everyman, and in came the era of stone-faced, buff, white guys.

Take, for example, this summer’s American reboot of the “Godzilla” franchise, which took a series about guys in rubber monster suits kicking each other, and played it straight. Godzilla was a minor character compared to a story about a generic buff white guy trying to make it home to his wife, who appeared maybe twice. Similarly, 2013’s “Man of Steel” took Superman, darkened his color palette, and forced America to watch the world’s first superhero frown his way through two hours of Christ allegory.

So when I sat down to see “The Equalizer,” I didn’t expect much more than Denzel Washington frowning his way through two hours of grit and gore. Imagine my surprise when the film, Washington’s second collaboration with director Antoine Fuqua (who directed Washington’s Oscar-winning performance in “Training Day”), was not that at all. Rather, it is a return to the classic action films of the 1970s and ’80s.

Washington plays Robert McCall, an aging Boston warehouse worker well-liked by co-workers and with an appreciation for classic American literature. McCall strikes up a friendship with Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young call girl. When Teri is put in the hospital by a pimp, McCall kills her bosses. With his passion for action reignited, he starts protecting the innocent on the regular. Unfortunately, sadistic Russian mobster Teddy (Marton Csokas) is sent to clean up the situation, and McCall’s vigilantism leads Teddy straight to him, as well as his loved ones.

“The Equalizer” immediately shines above Fuqua’s previous action film, the frowny “Olympus Has Fallen,” by having Denzel Washington as its lead. Despite the fact that he plays what is essentially the same character in every movie these days, Washington’s undeniable charisma make McCall an instantly likable character. Though McCall is left underdeveloped by the goofy screenplay, Denzel Washington brings a level of grit to the role that is authentic and compelling.

Nevertheless, the film falls into the same traps that so many current action movies do, with an overly complicated plot and ridiculous dialogue that is supposed to somehow be threatening. The screenwriter is a clear fan of 1974 gun-nut fantasy “Death Wish,” creating side characters, mostly women who die horribly in full view, as props for us to root for the hero. The film is so convinced that the audience needs multiple reasons not be on the side of the Russian mafia, that we spend at least four or five long scenes with Teddy beating people up.

Overall, the film is too long, but this would have been forgivable if the story was not so thin. We never learn about McCall’s cool-guy past besides vague mentions from his old boss (Melissa Leo, in a bizarre cameo). And though the action scenes are fun and varied, it’s all wrapped up in about two minutes when the film suddenly becomes a mix between “Home Alone” and the “Dead Rising” video game. Chloë Moretz disappears about half an hour into the story never to be heard from again, and the film takes far too long for the hero and the villain to even meet each other. Even then, if you’re not distracted by Marton Csokas’ accent changing from scene to scene, “The Equalizer” goes on random tangents that further improve McCall as a Batman-like figure on the streets of South Boston.

Despite all these, “The Equalizer” is worth seeing. Despite the grim script, Antoine Fuqua seemed to be having a good time making it, and the cinematography and direction were stylish enough to keep me guessing. Washington is great, clearly channelling his best action role, John Creasy in “Man on Fire,” a movie I like so much my viewing of “The Equalizer” was probably biased going in. If the story had cut the fat and trusted that the audience knows that the Russian mob is bad, and that protecting the innocent is good, “The Equalizer” could have been great. As it stands, it’s just fine.