Film review: Denzel Washington team adds sizzle to The Equalizer

Denzel Washington stars as The Equalizer, a retired commando who takes matters into his own hands after witnessing mob violence. Publicity photo. Denzel Washington stars as The Equalizer, a retired commando who takes matters into his own hands after witnessing mob violence. Publicity photo.

Let it hereby be known that director Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington are the only team in Hollywood capable of making middle-of-the-road action scripts into movies that are way better than they have any right to be.

Before Training Day became the legendary character study it is and the first film in decades to feel truly dangerous, it was just another police corruption slog with a white dude in the lead; Gary Sinise, Tom Sizemore, and Bruce Willis were considered for the role of Alonzo Harris. Enter Fuqua and Washington, and the ho-hum yarn about a crooked cop who owes money to the Russian mob becomes a crackling examination of power dynamics. In fact, we’re willing to bet you even forgot about the whole Russian mob thing; it’s so good that it overcomes the weakness of its own central plot.

While the Fuqua-Washington reunion in The Equalizer does not reach the same heights of Training Day, the fact that it is the best possible version of itself might be just as impressive. A super-violent update to the 1980s show of the same name starring Edward Woodward, The Equalizer casts Washington as Robert McCall, an unassuming, charming man living out his days in a barebones East Boston apartment while working at a home improvement store. A late-night regular at his local diner, McCall befriends and attempts to mentor a teen prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz). When his kindness results in even worse treatment for her, he decides to do something about it—peacefully at first, then bloodily, then even more bloodily, then spectacularly bloody.

One would be forgiven for hearing that description and visualizing a remake of Death Wish retooled as a latter-day Liam Neeson vehicle, and in some ways you wouldn’t be far off. It’s an old guy revenge flick, with bad guys so evil that there’s no justice for them but death. Washington’s version of McCall could be seen as a variation of Neeson’s “man with a certain set of skills.” Fuqua is able to make his version rise above the rest with crisp direction, punchy dialogue, and incredibly gratifying action scenes that may be the first to truly understand Boston’s layout and potential for suspense (hint: it’s not a high speed car chase kind of town).

But the two main things that separate The Equalizer from other films that Netflix is likely to recommend based on a positive rating are McCall the character, and Washington as the man portraying him. As we see McCall in action, it becomes clearer to both the audience as well as the Russian baddies that he’s not what you might expect. He’s not a regular citizen who’s just had enough, a retired cop, or any other excuse you might go into the film expecting. (I could go into more detail here without spoiler’s remorse, but it’ll be more fun to guess as you watch.) He’s not out for Death Wish-style “street justice” that’s really just reactionary, Curtis Silwa-esque vigilantism. He’s not out to kill anyone in his way, he’s out to disassemble the criminal chain of command, and will only kill you if you mean to harm him or anyone else. He’ll even let you live if you decide to do make it up to the innocents you’ve wronged.

Given that this is a franchise, there were likely talks with at least a dozen action stars of approximately Washington’s age to play McCall. All of them would have sucked. Bruce Willis would have smirked and mugged his way through the whole thing. Liam Neeson would have watered down McCall’s optimism. Denzel brings intelligence, drive, and morality to a character that might have gone either campy or glum. Despite the surge in self-aware angry old men actioners these days—The Expendables, The November Man, too many Die HardsThe Equalizer is the only one that makes wading into familiar territory worthwhile.

Playing this week

The Boxtrolls
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Dolphin Tale 2
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Drop
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

The Giver
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Gone With the Wind (Wed.)
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Guardians of the Galaxy
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Let’s Be Cops
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Maze Runner
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

My Old Lady
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

No Good Deed
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Skeleton Twins
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

This Is Where I Leave You
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Movie houses

Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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