On 'Denzel Washington Films' and 'Liam Neeson Movies'

The Equalizer
(USA, 131 min.)
Dir. Antoine Fuqua, Writ. Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Martin Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Johnny Skourtis, Melissa Leo.
Denzel Washington stars in The Equalizer.
The Equalizer suggests that the line between a “Denzel Washington film” and a “Liam Neeson movie” is slowly becoming a fine one. A “Denzel Washington film,” as my moviegoing companion and I discussed while we semi-eagerly awaited the sneak peek of The Equalizer to start, generally features the debonair Denzel in some suave role that is morally grounded, yet often has a hint of coolness that only Mr. Washington can convey. He might, Training Day aside, play a good guy with a vice or a baddie with a virtue, and the audience generally looks forward to a good performance, some action, and a clean ending.

A “Liam Neeson movie,” on the other hand, generally features wolves getting punched; some daughters getting taken; wives getting taken, too; and signs of age. What sets a “Liam Neeson movie” apart from the pack, The Lego Movie aside, is that the audience generally recognizes some flicker of shame, humiliation, and (strangely) acceptance that Neeson is a long way from Schindler’s List. Washington generally pulls off anything—he even makes Flight worth watching—while Liam Neeson survives on paycheck mode so long as one is paying Cheap Tuesday pricing.

The Equalizer, then, marks a genuine disappointment in Washington’s trajectory. His performance is by all regards fine here as he coolly carries Robert McCall through a blood-drenched revenge saga, but The Equalizer seems like the first time that Washington really mails it in. This material is beneath him.

The Equalizer pulls Washington into Neeson territory as it charts a serviceable ho-hum Hollywood thriller that doesn’t really thrill and piles on stylish action with a healthy dose of inadvertent comedy. Yes, this adaptation of the cult 1980s TV show starring Edward Woodward feels like a dated Hollywood commodity even though director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) peppers it with sleek aesthetics and ambiguous allegorical chords. That The Equalizer reunites Washington and Fuqua after the pair collaborated on Washington’s Oscar-winning turn in Training Day only adds to the disappointment. For all the talent involved in The Equalizer, plus Chloë Grace Moretz, the film comes to nothing.

Washington goes around killing people as an OCD ex-intelligence officer with a Robin Hood-ish moral code in which he robs from the rich and fights for the poor. His comes out of shadows and goes into Taxi Driver mode when a teenage prostitute named Teri (a fidgety Moretz) survives a nasty beating from her Russian pimp. McCall’s first hit is a hyper-stylized exercise in gratuitous violence. McCall has a silly tick where he times all his activities with a wristwatch to chart his progress, and he wipes out a Russian mob using corkscrews and shot glasses in less than thirty seconds. Fuqua shoots the frenzied bloodbath as might Wong Kar Wai, but the dizzying sheen of the sequence only underscores the overall artlessness of it. There really isn’t much to The Equalizer besides bloodlust and revenge fantasy.

Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) do some nifty things in the final act of the film using the singular setting of McCall’s new workplace, a Home Depot-type big box hardware store, which lets The Equalizer showcase McCall’s resourcefulness as a trained killer. Doorknobs, branch cutters, sledgehammers, and nail guns all provide creative tools of trade to take the bloodbath beyond gunplay, but the film’s creativity with McCall’s weaponry betrays what a hollow, empty, and mechanical exercise in gratuitous violence the film ultimately is. McCall kills for sport far more than he does to right the wrongs of the baddies. (And even a granny knows that two wrongs don’t make a right!) The film simply lacks the moral centre of a typical Washington film (even Training Day has one even though Washington plays a ruthless villain) despite his best efforts to elevate the film with his performance.

The Equalizer tries to add some jovial character with a subplot between McCall and his hardware store colleague, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), whom McCall coaches to become a security guard. Ralphie is a goof, though, a ham character of comic relief in a film of otherwise unrelenting sternness and mercilessness. Skourtis’s performance as the silly sidekick invites the words ‘Sofia Coppola in Godfather III bad’ as his gee-golly-gosh theatrics derail any seriousness and plausibility that The Equalizer uses graphic violence for anything other than pure entertainment.

The Equalizer also overstays its welcome for well over half an hour as the slow pace and overall emptiness of the violence struggles to provide a jolt. It’s boring. Fuqua often drags the film out with bizarre long takes and Steadicam shots that suggest that The Equalizer doesn’t quite know what kind of film it wants to be, as it tries to get inside the head of a character that only Washington seems to handle. As the centre of a character study, though, Washington nevertheless remains characteristically likable as he maintains his charisma while channelling the find of a brutal killer. His confidence commands the film as best it can, retains a level of dignity amidst the pandemonium, and thankfully suggests that Washington's star power has not yet been taken.

Rating: ★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Equalizer opens in theatres Sept. 26th.

What did you think of The Equalizer?