Toronto Film Review: ‘The Equalizer’

'The Equalizer' Review: Denzel Does 'Death

Denzel does 'Death Wish' in this ultraviolent, mostly unsatisfying update of the cult '80s TV series.

Denzel Washington balances the scales of justice — and challenges Liam Neeson for a slice of the middle-aged action-hero pie — in “The Equalizer,” an ultraviolent update of the 1985-89 CBS drama series that featured Edward Woodward as a former government agent turned pro-bono avenging angel. But in making the leap from small screen to large, and from pre-Giuliani New York to post-recession Boston, director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk (“16 Blocks”) have also traded the series’ elemental underdog appeal for a “Taken”-style bloodbath that pits Washington against a surfeit of central-casting Russian gangsters and corrupt Beantown cops. Ponderously overlong and not even half as much fun as it should have been, “The Equalizer” still gets a lot of mileage out of Washington’s unassailable star presence, which should translate to solid if not spectacular returns upon the pic’s Sept. 26 release.

Although he shares a character name and skill set with his TV predecessor, Washington’s Robert McCall is otherwise, literally and figuratively, an Equalizer of a different color: a childless widower (instead of a divorcee with an estranged son) who takes public transit (rather than tooling around in a sleek black Jaguar) and maintains his anonymity by working as a sales associate at a Home Depot-type superstore (in lieu of advertising his special services in the classified ads). In an odd flourish that at times makes Fuqua’s film feel like a cross between “Death Wish” and “Reading Rainbow,” this McCall is also a passionate bookworm, who spends his long, lonely nights leafing through Hemingway and Cervantes in one of those retro, backlot diners where everybody knows your name — especially Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), the gold-hearted Russian hooker with recording-artist dreams, who makes small talk with McCall whenever she isn’t being roughed-up by her thuggish pimp.

When a battered Teri ends up in the hospital clinging to life, something long dormant in McCall begins to stir, though by this point we’re already more than 30 minutes into “The Equalizer” — an overly generous assumption of how long the audience for this kind of movie is willing to wait for the ass-whooping to begin. That’s doubly true when what we get instead is a protracted setup emphasizing McCall’s camaraderie with his fellow stock boys and cashiers, including a jovial, overweight aspiring security guard (Johnny Skourtis) whom McCall puts through the paces of a vigorous diet and exercise regimen.

The helpful tips about good, clean living abound, but when the retributive violence finally kicks in, it does so with a brutal, sickening thud. The scene in which McCall dispenses with a half-dozen Russian heavies in under 20 seconds, establishes the character’s handiness with ordinary household  objects (particularly a pair of corkscrews), but it also sets a skull-crushing, eye-gouging ante that the movie can never hope to top — though it certainly tries. McCall has done a lot of things in his life he isn’t proud of, he explains in one of the film’s quieter moments, but to judge by the evidence onscreen, he still takes a certain pleasure in watching his victims gasp their last, blood-choked breaths, which Fuqua likewise lingers on for maximum unpleasantness. (The violence in “The Equalizer” is meant to be more serious and less exuberantly splattery than in a Tarantino movie, but in fact it’s just as over-the-top, and a good deal less thought-provoking.)

As the body count rises, fleeting details of McCall’s past begin to emerge (cue cameos by Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo as former colleagues at “The Agency”). Then reinforcement arrives in the form of Teddy (Marton Csokas), right-hand hitman to elaborately tattooed Moscow oligarch Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich), who doesn’t take kindly to the ruptures McCall has caused in his international criminal pipeline. Csokas is a fine actor, with a purring, privately amused voice that sounds a touch like James Mason’s, but he’s visibly bored playing an accented assassin with ice in his veins and vodka on his breath. And because Teddy seems to have a bottomless supply of devoted (but ineffectual) minions at his disposal, the longer “The Equalizer” stays onscreen, the more it comes to resemble some endless game of post-Perestroika whack-a-mole.

Fuqua and Wenk envision Boston as such an irredeemable pit of corruption that they don’t even bother to give McCall one of those honest-cop antagonists who sympathizes with our vigilante hero but still wants him to play by the rules. The closest they come is the all-mobbed-up officer Masters (David Harbour), who agrees to help McCall, but only after the latter gently persuades him with a combination of garden hose and carbon monoxide. What keeps the film watchable through it all is Washington, arguably the last of the classical movie stars, who manages to bring almost every role he plays excitingly to life (even one as dreary as this). McCall may not be a patch on the actor’s corrupt L.A. narcotics detective in Fuqua’s “Training Day” —  a character Washington pushed toward the mythic — or, for that matter, the alcoholic CIA alum turned mercenary he played in Tony Scott’s vastly superior “Man on Fire” (2004). Still, in scene after scene here, the actor locates something vital in the character, a fraught moral compass spinning behind McCall’s seemingly impassive eyes. But Washington deserves better, and so does the audience.

In terms of production values, “The Equalizer” marks a rebound for Fuqua after the shlock shenanigans of last year’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” though cinematographer Mauro Fiore’s arty, pseudo-Eastwoodian lighting is so dark at times that, combined with editor John Refoua’s frantic cutting, it’s nigh impossible to tell what exactly is going on. In one of the film’s cornier touches, only after McCall has (momentarily) rid the city of its evildoers does warm daylight finally break through the unrelenting gray skies.

Toronto Film Review: 'The Equalizer'

Reviewed at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, Sept. 2, 2014. (In Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 131 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with LStar Capital and Village Roadshow Pictures of an Escape Artists/Zhiv/Mace Neufeld production. Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan. Executive producers, Ezra Swerdlow, David Bloomfield, Ben Waisbren. Co-producer, Lance Johnson.

Crew

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Screenplay, Richard Wenk, based on the television series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Mauro Fiore; editor, John Refoua; music, Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Naomi Shohan; art director. David Lazan; set decorator, Leslie E. Rollins; set designers, Amy Heinz-Barnett, Sarah Contant, Jeremy Woodward; costume designer, David Robinson; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), Tom Williams; sound designer, David Esparza; supervising sound editor, Mandell Winter; re-recording mixers, Steve Pederson, Daniel J. Leahy; visual effects supervisor, Sean Devereaux; visual effects, Zero VFX; stunt coordinators, Keith Woulard, Lin Oeding; associate producer, Kat Samick; assistant director, Philip A. Patterson; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham.

With

Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, E. Roger Mitchell. (English, Russian dialogue)

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  1. CRITICS ARE OVERRATED AND NARCISSISTIC. I ENJOYED THE MOVIE AND I AM HAVE PURCHASED THE DVD. WILL SEE THE NEXT ONE LOVE SEEING BULLIES TAKEN OUT A BIT GROSS BUT IT IS ABOUT KILLING AND ABUSE BY POLICE THE RUSSIAN MOB EXTREMELY PSYCHOPATHIC

  2. FractionCalc says:

    I like this movie. Although Robert is already a retired agent but he cannot stand on the wickedness brought around on his place by the russian mafia. And when he realized that Alina and other whore was forced against their will and badly beaten, he decided to end this wickedness. It is really a good story for a heroic act. I highly recommend this movie. I give 5 star on this. Thanks.

  3. The Equalizer is NOT Man on Fire. The Equalizer is NOT your typical action flick. Washington’s Robert McCall is not self-destructive or addicted. Though there are great choreographed fights, special effects and fantastic explosions, The Equalizer is more Bourne than Bond. Denzel Washington portrays this ex-CIA operative, who is content to live a meticulously simple life. Quietly contained, but with ever-building intensity, Washington turns in another stellar performance.

    Chloe Grace Moretz, as the teenage prostitute, is a force…

    Antoine Fuqua, the directer who brought us Training Day, which earned Denzel his Best Actor Oscar, helms this movie with a steady hand. His direction of the drama and the action blend seamlessly, drawing us into the complexity of this character-driven piece.

    Robert McCall keeps to himself, content to live his ordinary life; he is every man’s man. But, his steady moral compass, and strong sense of justice lead him back into the fray. This character is not infallible, and he is not looking for trouble. He just wants what’s right.

    This film is a superbly acted, exciting and violent ride! In the pursuit of justice, there will be blood. But this time, you’ll be rooting for the good guy, and I, a fifty years young woman, loved every minute of it!

  4. Lee says:

    I agree David, great, entertaining movie. But I’m a sucker for the strong silent type, trying to live a quiet life til some dipshit pisses him off. think; Shane, Man on Fire, Open Range (Costner is terrific). Love em all. But you need to just check your skepticism at the door and let yourself be entertained.

  5. David says:

    Completely disagree with your rating. A little long, but absolutely entertaining. You know it’s good when every person walking out of the packed theater raves about it on the walk out. Let’s be honest – nobody really cares about a critic’s rating anyway.

  6. Carl Lucas says:

    “post-Perestroika whack-a-mole”

    And they say poetry is dead. Classic.

    • Ben Rakofsky says:

      I disagree. I liked it. This film won’t win any awards and it won’t be liked by a lot of critics, but the violence in this film makes the film and it makes it watchable. It was nice to see that was cost for violence to the hero physically, emotionally, and psychology. Plus it wasn’t violence for the sake of violence so when the violence occurred it meant something. I will agree the villain wasn’t very good.

  7. cam says:

    “That it’s not like the TV show,” is the dumbest criticism anyone can give, which just betrays their age and the fallacy of nostalgia. A “problem” that can be solved as easily as “pretend the title is something else” isn’t really a “problem” at all.

    • Johaannu says:

      It’s not the dumbest criticism at all when the show is 10x better than this by-the-numbers crap. It has nothing to do with “nostalgia.” If the filmmakers didn’t think the show had any value, they wouldn’t be leveraging the show’s title to get people into theaters. Instead of “pretending” the title is something else, simply CALL the film something else – that’s called having faith in your product, instead of having to rely on residual “nostalgia” to sell your crap. If the filmmakers really thought this film had any worth whatsoever, they’d have called it something else and released it in a month when people actually go to movies.

      In other words – you’re wrong. Moving on.

  8. Old School Quality says:

    Hey Scott, have you ever liked a violent film that wasn’t directed by one of your art house buddies (Coens, PTA, etc.)? You don’t have the gene to enjoy commercial, bad-ass filmmaking. It’s tiresome to read your reviews for this genre of movies. Seriously – stick with reviewing the works of your beloved indie darlings. This stuff is over your head… or too far below your belt.

  9. ejody says:

    “… at times makes Fuqua’s film feel like a cross between “Death Wish” and “Reading Rainbow…”

    Can’t.
    Wait.

  10. Rogue428 says:

    Call it “Man on Fire 2” and I’m there. Loved the first one. ;)
    Love the original TV show too, but let’s face it, these reboots are never the same.

  11. LOL says:

    Does it have the Equalizer’s TV theme tune?

  12. JD says:

    Sounds and looks far too much like Man on Fire which I hated so I will not be seeing this.

  13. curious says:

    the best part of ‘the equalizer’ was the sophisticated presence and lifestyle of ‘the equalizer’, how he played against type. without that, why call it this?

    • Johaannu says:

      Why? Because some execs were sitting around a board room one day, and after watching Liam Neeson’s newly found “action film” status, they felt they could so the same with an actor like Denzel. As an insurance, they named it after an existing property that people might remember in order to get them into the theaters, so that they’d remember THAT instead of thinking it was simply another “Taken” film with a different actor.

      Guess it didn’t work.

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