When a former special ops expert comes out of retirement to help a teen prostitute, things get violent.
Based on the ‘80s TV series, Antoine Fuqua directs The Equalizer as a modern combination of ‘70s thriller and contemporary action flick – to devastating results.
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) lives a quiet life in a quiet Boston neighborhood. He works at a Home Mart store and gets along with his fellow employees really well – he’s even helping one, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) get in shape for a test that would qualify him as a security guard.
He suffers from insomnia and is a bit OCD – when he goes to the nearby Bridge Diner, he takes his own, carefully wrapped tea bag and arranges the cutlery just so. He’s also working his way through the one hundred greatest books – which leads to his chatting with teen prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) about his books and her desire to become a singer.
When she’s beaten by her boss (no mere pimp) and hospitalized, McCall discovers that he’s formed a kind of paternal attachment to her and seeks to free her from her employment by offering the local Russian mob boss, Slavi (David Meunier), $9,800. When his offer is rebuffed, he takes action – revealing himself to be coolly, efficiently deadly. His pronouncement that, ‘You should have taken the money,’ establishes that he never loses his sense of humor – even in the most troubling of circumstances.
The deaths of Slavi and his four ‘colleagues’ lead to the arrival of a fixer, Teddy (Marton Csokas), who quickly and bloodily announces his presence. We learn that he works for Vladimir Pushkin, a Russian crime boss who has so many connections in Mother Russia that he is unassailable.
In the meantime, McCall discovers a problem for Ralphie – his mom’s diner is being shaken down by crooked cops. Again he takes action, and events are set in motion for more epic violence – that plays into later events…
Written by Richard Wenk, The Equalizer balances insane violence with intriguing character studies. We learn about McCall’s past only after we’ve gotten to know the guy he is now. When violence erupts, it seems at odds with who we’ve seen him to be – until we meet Brian and Susan Plummer (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo), who McCall visits, as she puts it, ‘not to ask for help, but permission.’
McCall’s past is then quickly revealed and we begin to understand what he’s capable of. Unfortunately, Teddy never gets that memo and there you go.
Wenk’s script takes the bones of the TV series – retired agent comes out of retirement to help those who cannot find help anywhere else – and builds on it in unexpected ways. Fuqua, who developed a great working relationship with Washington on Training Day, unleashes his star in every respect – mental, physical and emotional.
For all the violence, Fuqua knows when to take it offscreen – leaving it to our imaginations. He also knows just how to exploit the script’s emotional moments to full effect – and, in Teddy, presents a cold evil that has a tragic backstory, but simply ignores it to get on with his job.
Washington, who is actually older than Edward Woodward was when the TV series premiered, pulls out all the stops here. As he moves into the world of the Russian mob, he goes from this genial guy who trades banter with his fellow workers to the brutally efficient operator he must have been for much of his adult life. The shifts between facets of his character are seamless and he certainly does the vast majority of his stunt work so we never lose our belief in what he’s doing. It’s a performance that betters his work in Training Day by a logarithmic factor.
Csokas may not have as many colors to him as Teddy, but he certainly embodies the soulless fixer with a quiet energy that makes his explosiveness work. If he was any less evil, or effective, Washington’s work to make McCall believable would be wasted.
Moretz continues to impress with a key – even pivotal – performance as Teri, who wants to be Alina, the singer. She’s street smart, yet vulnerable – toughened by life, but not enough. Moretz makes us believe that she’s someone who mistreatment could spur McCall to action.
Last week, I praised A Walk Among The Tombstones as a super ‘70s-type thriller – which it is – but The Equalizer is much better on every level (and even features David Harbour as another unsavory character). So far, it’s the best thriller of the year – by a considerable amount. And considering how good Tombstones was, that’s a feat.
Since I opted for a medium drink, the Big Drink Scale won’t work here except as a means of comparison – I had a bit of diet cola left when the credits rolled, so I would’ve had about a third of a Big Drink left. Not bad for a 131-minute movie.
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Photos by Scott Garfield/Courtesy of Sony