In this age of nostalgic irony, action movies have taken a bizarre turn. The superstars of the ’80s have become post-modern shadows of their former glory, cheekily winking and nudging their way through one bombastic throwback after another in an attempt to pay wry homage to an arguably dying genre. In today’s action world, it seems you just can’t be a badass without a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor and self-aware nods to your audience.
The Equalizer takes all of these modern action movie tropes and throws them right out of the window, like so many machine gun toting bad guys, in order to get back the basics of kicking ass and taking names.
Since the film is based on a fairly acclaimed but largely forgotten CBS series from the late 80s/early 90s, it would have been more than easy to turn The Equalizer into yet another gimmick fest (“Check out our wild ’80s hair!” “Look at these crazy ’80s clothes!!”), but instead, the filmmakers thankfully choose to play it straight.
The Equalizer re-teams perennial superstar Denzel Washington with his Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua. The magic from their previous outing, which earned Washington his first Oscar for best leading actor (and second Oscar overall), is still alive here, and Washington gives his best performance in over a decade.
Like the TV series that inspired it, The Equalizer focuses on Robert McCall (Washington), a simple man with a shadowy past who just wants the best for the people surrounding him. He spends his days working in a massive hardware store, doing his best to inspire his co-workers to meet their full potential, and his nights reading through classic literature and dispensing motivational wisdom to his young, street walking acquaintance Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) at the local diner. His life of simple solitude comes to an end, however, when Teri is beaten near to death by her ruthless Russian mafia pimps. Unable to stand the thought of “the little guy” being taken advantage of, McCall embarks on a continually escalating quest for vengeance against the bad guys.
That’s pretty much it. On the surface, it sounds like another forgettable action flick that fades from memory as it fades from the box-office. Indeed, not much about this film feels new, and you pretty much know what’s going to happen before the first reel even starts. However, thanks to a solid script from Richard Wenk (best known for 16 Blocks and the self-aware meta-fest The Expendables 2) and brilliant direction from Fuqua, The Equalizer is elevated to a level far beyond what it has any right to achieve.
The film is further bolstered by amazing performances from its cast. While it’s unclear if Washington will earn himself another nod for this role, it’s certainly a powerful reminder that he’s far from past his prime – still one of our best actors working today. A long-shot nomination wouldn’t come as a shock. The young Moretz, who deserved more screen time, also shines as the naïve young prostitute; balancing out the supporting cast is Marton Csokas (fresh off of roles in The Amazing Spider-man 2 and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) with a truly frightening turn as the villainous Teddy, whose friendly sounding name belies the terrifying sadism of the role.
It should be said that The Equalizer is often graphically violent. If you’re not the type of person that can handle a few broken necks and crushed skulls, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Also, coming in at about 130 minutes, it just barely overstays its welcome.
Overall, though, it’s is a fantastic thrill ride – a film that never tries to be anything other than what it is and, through that, becomes greater than it ought to be. Despite its simplistic plot and overall predictability, Fuqua and Washington have once again struck gold, delivering a film that satisfies in all the right ways.