It was hard to miss The Equalizer when it first began airing on TV in the 1980s. The opening, set to a propulsive theme by Stewart Copeland, presented a montage of dread-inducing scenarios, mostly involving women being stalked and terrorized. After a nearly a minute of dark figures cornering ladies on subways and dark alley ways, along came the headlights of a sleek car. Out pops McCall, a trench coat wearing man, holding a gun, ready to take down urban scum: The Equalizer!
As embodied by the wonderful, middle-aged Edward Woodward, the show was (for its time) a violent, edgy statement on then-rising crime rates and vigilantism in New York.
Now, we have the film adaptation that keeps the title and character name of McCall but nothing else. Most of the original concepts and the moral questions on vigilante violence are gone. The TV series seemed like a televised expansion of the controversial Death Wish and a commentary on the 1984 “subway shooter” Bernie Goetz. By contrast, this movie dials down the provocative questions raised by the material, tosses out the pivotal killer-for-hire father/disapproving son angle and makes the anti-hero glitter in water-drenched slow motion, while dispatching a bad guy with a nail gun.
The Antoine Fuqua directed remake is closer to a Liam Neeson revenge thriller, in which an acclaimed actor is reinvented as a gun-toting killer. That Denzel Washington is playing McCall is what makes this so compelling.
McCall works at Home Mart (Home Depot apparently disapproved of their name being used in such a gory movie). He’s awfully nice, caring for his co-workers and, off hours, is quiet, alone and mysterious. His nightly conversations in a diner with a prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz), in which he witnesses the abuse she takes, stirs his previously unseen violent side. Taking vengeance on her pimp is just the beginning, as a slew of villains strike back at McCall, who, by what we see here, could kill them all with one hand tied behind his back.
Washington is a famous advocate of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a quality that comes up in his characterization. McCall is the kind of role model who actively helps those in need and wants the best from everybody. On the other hand, he’s also an ice-cold killer.
Playing the kind of role usually reserved for Jason Statham, Washington makes the contradictions in McCall intriguing, as he clearly means well but displays an OCD-like behavior and might be deranged.
Fuqua’s enthralling Olympus Has Fallen is a superior example of good trash and he and Washington are nowhere near their extraordinary collaboration on Training Day. Washington’s The Book of Eli is a much better heroic action vehicle. Still, even though this gets remarkably ugly and ridiculous in the last half, Fuqua makes some good choices.
McCall’s confrontation with an evil Russian gangster (Martin Czokas, providing maximum villainy) in a fancy restaurant is a great scene. So is McCall’s infiltrating an illegal operation, a seen-it-before bit with a hilarious cutaway shot, marked with the line, “Mr. Pushkin thanks you.”
The hooker-with-heart-of-gold subplot is wisely tossed aside at the mid-point, as Moretz strains and fails to match Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
There’s grit but little in the way of social commentary or depth. Literally, this is the kind of movie that opens with a Mark Twain quote and ends with Eminem on the soundtrack. This is crowd pleasing and too commercial to be controversial. But we should be wondering how, on the same day, a shining example of the Boys and Girls Club could help a friend get a job and stick a corkscrew in an attacker’s throat.