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THE EQUALIZER Movie Review – Reactionary, Regressive, Retrogressive

Over a career spanning four decades, Denzel Washington has left little doubt about his talents as an actor (he’s won two Academy Awards). He also has left little doubt about his maintaining his status as a movie star, taking a risk-adverse approach to the choices he’s made. It’s paid off handsomely for Washington, not just financially, but in achieving what he set out to do: Within a narrow range, few actors can open a film like Washington can. Of course, that’s come at a cost: Washington’s roles rarely, if ever, challenge his talents as an actor. That’s not inadvertent. It’s a conscious choice repeatedly made over the last decade. Look no further than Washington’s latest movie-star effort, The Equalizer, the in-name-only big-screen adaptation of the little-remembered ‘80s TV series. The Equalizer follows the well-worn, over-familiar path of the vigilante/revenge sub-genre, with all of the reactionary, regressive, retrogressive implications inherent in the sub-genre.

At least initially, there’s a glimmer, a hint of an entirely different film altogether. Washington’s character, Robert McCall, a retired CIA field agent, goes through the paces of a well-ordered, well-structured routine, always waking up at the same hour, going to work at a big-box hardware store, Home Mart (basically Home Depot), clocking out, and returning home. An insomniac, McCall ventures out every night to a local diner for a cup of tea and a good book (“The Old Man in the Sea,” for anyone looking for clumsy connections between McCall and literary characters or faux-thematic depth). Only an underage prostitute, Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), engages him on more than just a superficial level. A protective, supportive McCall encourages Teri to pursue a different course, a decision that ultimately lands Teri in the hospital, badly beaten at the hands of her Russian pimp, Slavi (David Meunier), in part to dissuade her from disobeying him, but just as much as an object lesson to the other young women he physically exploits.

The Equalizer

Once McCall sees Teri in the hospital, he decides to set aside a vow he made to his dying (now dead, always offscreen) wife to reject the violence-filled life that once defined him and slip into Taxi Driver mode. Later, a defeated, fallen Slavi asks McCall, “Who are you?” Near the end of The Equalizer, two other men, destined to meet their respective Makers, ask the exact same question of McCall. McCall never answers (nor does the word “equalizer” ever come up in any context), but he doesn’t need to answer. His actions have already spoken for him and through him, to the audience. He’s a violent man, a violent man who guided only by his conscience, to right wrongs and mete out (vigilante) justice to the unjust. That doesn’t make him less of a hero, at least not in the Hollywood sense where ‘70s vigilantes — all of the Caucasian persuasion, of course (now expanded to the occasional, non-Caucasian movie star) — took up the mantle of the Western (anti) hero except in a modern, urban environment.

Once McCall discovers he’s tangled not with low-level thugs or pimps, but mid-level Russian mobsters part of an international crime organization, it’s obvious he’s going to face his mirror image: A sociopathic, sadistic enforcer/fixer, Teddy (Marton Csokas), a Russian with a past (and present) filled with calculated acts of violence and murder. In his pursuit of McCall, Teddy cuts a veritable swath through rival mobsters and unfortunate call girls (among others). More a caricature than a character, Teddy functions not just as the villain, but as contrast to McCall’s only slightly less brutal methods in dispatching his foes. McCall, of course, always has the ready-made excuse that he’s defending the defenseless (or himself), not torturing, maiming, or killing to restore the profit-generating, illegal businesses that the Russian mobsters rely on for their profligate lifestyles.

The Equalizer

Washington’s Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen, Shooter, Tears of the Sun), and the screenwriter, Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, 16 Blocks), give McCall and Teddy the appropriate number (two, it’s always two) of face-offs before climactic confrontation inside the Home Mart. It’s there too, that The Equalizer, goes into full-on slasher mode. It’s McCall, however, not Teddy, who turns into a merciless, Friday the 13th/Jason-inspired slasher (he’s also inspired by another ‘80s TV series/character, MacGyver). Fuqua, a director who’s repeatedly gravitated toward right-leaning, if not outright reactionary, scripts, casually lingers on McCall’s bloody, gory handiwork, fully earning The Equalizer its exploitation-level R-rating. By then, of course, the audience is completely on McCall’s side, simultaneously witnesses and participants to the supposedly righteous carnage he leaves behind, never once questioning the moral or the ethical implications of his actions. They should, but they won’t.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.