Last week, I talked briefly about the 1980’s cult TV show The Equalizer about retired spy-turned private eye. This week, I went to my local cinema to check out the 2014 adaptation starring Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Robert McCall (Washington) is a retired spy trying to live a normal life working at a meager hardware store. His dreams are haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he spends most nights wandering the city and visiting the same diner night after night. On one such night, he befriends a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz). She gets put in a hospital by her stereotypical Russian pimp. McCall, in an emotional burst murders the absolute shit out of the pimp and his associates- who all happen to be high-ranking members of the Russian mob. Now McCall is embroiled in danger and must unearth skills and secrets he had long since buried.
The film hits most of the same notes as the original show, but misses a lot of the heart. Let’s talk about some things that I enjoyed:
I’ve always enjoyed Denzel Washington, and he is one of the few things that keeps this movie together. The film devotes plenty of time to building up Robert as the conflicted retired killer, and most of why it works is because of Washington’s magnetism. Despite actually being older than the star of the TV show, Edward Woodward, was when he started, Denzel carries a subdued intensity about him. He definitely works well with Fuqua at the helm.
Marton Csokas- better known as “the bad guy from Kangaroo Jack” is delightfully hammy as ruthless Russian mobster, Teddi. Teddi as a character is entirely and unabashedly flat. He’s the dark foil of Robert McCall. Retired from Spetsnaz and joined the mafia as the big scary guy they send in when they need problems fixed. If Teddi’s arc was more fleshed out (or if he had an arc to begin with), it’d be more interesting to see.
The action is brutal and visceral. McCall uses a gun exactly once in the film- most of the time he utilizes his environment and improvised weapons. This ultimately culminates in McCall stalking some Russian hitmen in his Home Depot-expy, using the most brutal MacGuyvering ever (including hanging a man with barbed wire). He also uses that same visual scan thing from Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s neat how they portray his honed senses.
Now, despite McCall’s brutality, he still manages to gain our empathy and even sympathy (again, as opposed to The November Man). Much like the original series, it’s clear that McCall is actually hindered by his skillset- it’s all he knows. He has this Obsessive-Compulsive tick where he times everything he does to try and optimize it. It’s clearly a destructive relic of his spy career.
The cinematography is also spectacular in the film- honestly I think it’s some of the most interesting framing I’ve seen in a long time. It is a shame that it’s part of a film with so much wasted potential…
The film isn’t bad, mind you- it’s actually got some really good parts, but all in all I think it fails to deliver. First off, the whole plot is set in motion because of Chloë Grace Moretz’s hackneyed “hooker with a heart of gold” performance. She’s brutally beaten by her pimp in the first 20 minutes and then… checks out of the hospital, gets on a bus, and isn’t seen again until the last 3 minutes of the film.
In the series, it was all about the client. Most of the screen time was devoted to their problems and the episodes mainly centered around them. If this movie were an episode, the credits would have rolled after Moretz got on a bus. TV McCall was realistic (or cynical) enough not to try to dismantle an organized criminal empire that spanned the globe. Movie McCall does just that.
Finally, and this is an acute but serious peeve of mine- the movie NEVER DROPS “THE EQUALIZER.” Never. At the very very end, we see McCall reply to an email (at least they’ve made it more modern) from someone asking for help. But one of the most iconic things from the show was the newspaper ad (which assumedly now would be on craigslist):
“Odds against you?
Call the Equalizer.”
They don’t have it in this. They don’t ever mention “the equalizer.” Which, admittedly wouldn’t have made sense without the newspaper ad about equalizing the odds. Honestly, I kept waiting for that the whole movie, and was legitimately upset they didn’t include it. It wouldn’t be a hard thing to do. Have the final shot of McCall at a laptop (just like the actual final shot), but have him publish that three-line ad on line and then BOOM- cut to title card. It’s the perfect way to end it. Having The Equalizer without the ad is like having a Get Smart movie without the gadgets.
You know what? Let’s not talk about the Get Smart movie…
Final thoughts? King Kong got shit on this movie. It’s certainly not as good as it could have/should have been. But I definitely don’t regret watching this film. It was engaging enough thanks to some of the better elements. I probably wouldn’t go out and see it again, but I’ll definitely catch it again when it comes out on dvd/netflix.
Be sure to check out my other column Trope-ic Thunder, where I discuss science tropes in the media.
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