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.