Despite The Equalizer (2014) reuniting director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington, Richard Wenk’s lacklustre script – based on the 80s TV show – prompts little more than a disappointingly predictable display of bloodthirsty wrath and vengeance. In a disservice to the actor’s gift for psychological complexity, Washington’s usual wit and charisma are hidden beneath a wooden mask of vacuous discipline. When he isn’t at his drab sales associate job, former black-op Robert McCall (Washington) geometrically arranges spoons at a Edward Hopperish diner. His only relief from loneliness a brief exchange over Old Man and the Sea with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz).
She’s a hypersexualized teenage hooker whose push-up bra belies a heart of gold, and when she’s nearly beaten to death by her pimp, the killing machine lurking underneath our self-effacing working-class everyman is booted up. In less than 15 seconds, our sadistic hero – with the aid of a corkscrew – swiflty disposes of five Russian thugs, but not before a cool appraisal of his situation, visualised in slow-motion à la Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). Singlehandedly taking on the entire Russian mafia, including the corrupt cops in its pocket, McCall meets his match in Teddy (Vladimi Kulich), a suave “sociopath in a suit” specially dispatched from Moscow. Yet for all his capable cunning, Teddy and his inept minions’s attempts to ensnare McCall prove too easily foiled; the highly-disciplined McCall is always, not one, but three steps ahead.
Excluding a face-off scene of coded banter and veiled threats at McCall’s doorstep, Kulich’s boredom at his role’s lack of dimension is almost palapable. Amidst the overdue climax – in this two hour-plus feature – staged in a Home Depot-type warehouse, McCall’s creative choice for co-opting everyday objects (hedge clippers, nailgun, etc.) as weapons proves the most original part of the showdown. The Equalizer‘s veneer of stylized carnage and high production – there is a beautifully captured explosion – fails to mask the darker, often mysogynistic forces at work. The viewer is awkwardly exposed to the the protracted victimisation of women, as when Teri’s girlfriend is brutally strangled by Teddy. After Teri’s own assault, she disappears until the denouement, where she tidily serves up thanks and redemption to a miraculously unscathed McCall.
Unlike the paternalistic savior figure in Taxi Driver (1976), McCall’s mission to avenge Teri – whom he barely knows – appears a flimsy pretext to release the dormant instincts he’s been supressing for years. McCall likes to kill for its own sake and because he’s remarkably good at it. But when he isn’t lingering to observe his victims choking on their own blood, it’s really his self-righteous rhetoric (he lectures a corrupt cop not to “disrespect the badge” and to “do the right thing”) that comes off as unbearably patronising, if not downright annoying. Even through scrims of rain and blood – supported by a thumping industrial rock soundtrack and dizzy editing – this flabbily-paced and formulaic film fails, by a long shot, to elevate violence to the level of mythic gravitas and intensity displayed in Fuqua’s breakthrough Training Day (2001).
Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ