Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Denzel Washington plays a quiet, haunted man living a solitary existence. He has a dark past with some sort of shadowy government agency, which has gifted him with deadly skills, but he’s trying to live quietly on the straight and narrow. He is drawn to a sweet, troubled youngster. That youngster is hurt/kidnapped/threatened, and Washington’s character decides that he can’t stand by, and uses his skills to find and kill the people responsible. Along the way, he uncovers police corruption, drugs, and other kinds of high-level political intrigue as he fights, tortures, and shoots his way to saving the young person’s life and trying to redeem his past sins. While Washington himself is effective and the villain is suitably sinister — if a bit over-the-top — the film drags in parts and suffers from being overlong. Additionally, the film’s hyper-stylized direction is often distracting and overwrought, as if the film maker was more concerned with showing audiences his skills with color palettes and slow-motion effects than actually telling a story. Sound familiar?
Congratulations, I hope you enjoyed Man on Fire. What’s that? Oh, you haven’t seen Man on Fire? Oh, don’t worry about it — you can just head to the local multiplex this weekend and see The Equalizer. They are the same damn film. Sure, Tony Scott directed the former, and Anton Fuqua the latter. In Man on Fire, Washington is Creasy, a personal driver for young Dakota Fanning, in The Equalizer he is McCall, who works at a hardware store and befriends a young prostitute played by Chloe Grace Moretz. The earlier film is set in Mexico City with Washington fighting drug lords , this one in Boston with him fighting Russian mobsters. They each have a quirk — alcoholism in one, OCD in the other. The stories are shockingly similar. This isn’t a case of A Walk Among The Tombstones, which is marketed to look similar to Taken, but really isn’t. This really is that similar.
But. We’re not here just to talk similarities, but also to talk the quality of the film. The Equalizer is absolutely, thoroughly, 100% OK. That is the least offensive criticism I can offer for it. It’s fine. It’s… it’s tolerable. It’s not bad, though there are some bad points to it. The bad? Fuqua’s stylized direction is glaring at times — slow-motion walks away from explosions, slow-motion gunfights with water pouring down, slow-motion fight scenes with graphic violence, all with darkly hued filters over everything. He’s rarely content to just let the scene unfold with a couple of nifty tricks of the trade. He adds too much to it. The film’s depictions of women is abysmal — there are essentially five women in the film, and they’re mostly victims. Two prostitutes — one is beaten severely, the other strangled to death. One is a side character’s mother, who is abused by crooked cops and then saved by McCall. Another is a co-worker, who is robbed and then saved by McCall. The final one is played with quiet strength by Melissa Leo, in a part that in a better world would have been more substantial, but is for the most part negligible in terms of impact on the story. The last criticism is that the film drags. It takes the time to set up McCall nicely — a hyper-organized, efficient man who sticks to every conceivable routine in his life, but then it goes with that just a bit too long. Once the plot eventually moves forward, it strangely bogs down while McCall and his nemisis, the vile and psychotic Russian fixer Teddy hunt each other down in a series of machismo-filled face-offs. I’m fine with a slow build, but the build has to at least be interesting.
Washington is great, of course. He’s done this before — this is basically the same character just with Russians and Massholes and shittier weather. Moretz is fine, playing a spunky victim who gets the crap kicked out of her by pimps twice, and then basically disappears for the third act. Marton Csokas is a study in overacting as the malevolent Teddy, panting and gasping orgasmically as he kills people, covered in devilish tattoos, and diligently giving the crazy eyes whenever the camera is on him. But there isn’t much there, and the story — despite trying to have an international feel to it by linking to Washington’s international-man-of-murder past — never feels as big as it tries to. In fact, it would have worked better if it had stayed small, which is sort of what the original television series did — a fixer who helped local people in big binds. Instead, here we’re expected to believe that he — after killing dozens of people, exposing crooked cops, bringing down the entire Russian mob and blowing up an oil tanker — is just going to go back to the goddamn hardware store?
The Equalizer is one in a long line of B-level “assassin finds redemption” movies that pepper the last couple of decades. It’s not a particularly original movie, but that would have been acceptable if it had brought something new to the table. And other than a final 15 minutes which is basically like the Final Destination of action scenes, where McCall innovatively finds new, gruesome ways to hunt down his antagonists, there is little here that makes it worthwhile. The story fails to resonate and the whole film simply feels rather hollow, and even its rather grisly violence is never particularly affecting. I suppose if you haven’t seen Nikita or The Replacement Killers or Leon or The Long Kiss Goodnight, you can watch this one, but… truth be told, forget that. Just rent one of the ones I just mentioned, and call it a night.