When The Equalizer was announced, as a project, I wasn’t exactly surprised. The majority of Hollywood action movies fall into two categories; Super heroes and the recycled ideas from yesteryear. When it was announced that Denzel Washington was to play Robert McCall, directed by Antoine Fuqua (a favourite director of mine) my interest meter rose to “excited”.
I have to say that the trailer didn’t do much for me as a fan of the TV show. I say “fan” as an overused word, when in fact I just liked it. The elements that thrilled me, in my late teens, involved the supporting characters Mickey Kostmayer (The always excellent Keith Szarabajka), Robert Lansing’s Control, and later on, Jimmy played by another dependable character actor, Mark Margolis. The helped give McCall depth, which was necessary as Edward Woodward played McCall very straight and disciplined. His performance was mistakenly described as “wooden” on occasion, which was untrue. Woodward was a very warm human being and to be that character required him to act very differently to his nature. I can’t say the show was ground breaking but it had charm and was possibly the first popular TV show to have an older action hero as its main character. I can probably be corrected on that. It also ran into trouble for being violent. It was a product of it’s time during which New York was suffering pre-Giuliani. It was no surprise that The Punisher comic book was about to become popular during this period because he was doing what fellow New Yorkers were afraid to, stand up against the criminal elements.
The tone of The Equalizer was quite vengeful. I recall an episode where a woman is strapped to a bomb. McCall rescues her and seemingly the perpetrator is escaping. The woman says to McCall:
“He’s getting away.”
McCall replies “No, he’s not” as he frees her from being tied to a chair. We hear an explosion as the criminal gets blown to bits from a car explosion that McCall has rigged.
For most of the series, I liked the fact that you didn’t quite know exactly what McCall did for the CIA. That aspect has been carefully preserved in the film.
The trailer made the film look like just another action film but branded with the name of a TV show, yet I did like the way in which McCall guessed how much time it would take to beat the living shit out of the bad guys. I should have had more faith in Fuqua, because the film itself is thrilling.
It opens quietly and atmospherically as we’re introduced to McCall. Here is a man who lives in a Spartan apartment and has become a creature of habit. He has a job in a hardware store and at nights goes to read a book in the same coffee shop. He lives life by ritual; evident in the way he sits in the same place, unwraps a napkin of cutlery, takes out all but the spoon and tends to a cup of tea. Also a regular of the coffee shop is cute teenager “Teri”. Like most teenagers, she likes things that are bad for her and McCall sometimes brings her cake from the birthday celebrations at his workplace. She becomes drawn to him because she sees in his eyes her own feelings of loss. They strike up a guarded friendship and begin talking during their visits to the place. He’s well aware of what she does, but doesn’t judge her or even mention it.
We’re treated to scenes establishing how well liked McCall is at work. He takes fellow worker, Ralphie (played by relative newcomer to movies; Johnny Skourtis) under his wing, as he’s training to be a security guard. These establishing scenes work well, as it’s easy to write a part in a revenge thriller and make the protagonist too dark and unlikeable.
When McCall learns that Teri has been brutally treated by her pimp, he utilises his skills to face the pimp and his entourage and violently end their operation. By doing so, he incurs the wrath of the Russian mob who send their best enforcer to Boston , to investigate. This puts all the people that McCall cares about in danger, leading to a bloody inevitable climax. In between this, we see McCall helping out families against corrupt cops making this feel like the origin of the TV character, which the final dénouement pays off.
For many years, I saw Denzel Washington as a “serious” actor who appeared to take roles in more high brow or cerebral projects like Glory, Much Ado About Nothing, The Pelican Brief, and Philadelphia (to name but a few). Lately, he’s proven himself to be a powerhouse of an action star. The Book of Eli is a good example, where he performed in widescreen action shots with little or no edits. His performance as Robert McCall is no disappointment. He truly nails the part of an ex-CIA operative atoning for the past.
Chloë Grace Moretz has already proven herself to be an energetic, and exciting actress in projects like Kick-Ass. She puts in a believable performance that harks back to Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, although a bit older. Fuqua is careful not to over sexualise Moretz but keeping it obvious as to what profession she’s in. Moretz gives a sensous performance without it being dirty or explicit. She’s sympathetic and we can see why McCall is motivated to seek revenge for her. We’re put into the mind of McCall whereby she is seen as being in a bad place at the wrong, and is capable of so much more, given the opportunity.
Martin Csokas plays the Russian enforcer, Teddy. Csokas puts in a physical performance that struck me as a more controlled version of Stansfield, in Luc Besson’s Leon . Whilst Gary Oldman went just a little too near the mark of OTT (to be fair he played Stansfield as he was; a drug addled psycho) Csokas plays Teddy as quietly menacing before launching into an ultra violent assault on an Irish mobster. Compare that scene to another where he murders a young woman. Incidentally, the cinematography is chilling in the latter scene and recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window with the viewer as the observer. I was also reminded slightly of Argento’s Tenebrae where the camera travels up an apartment wall, peeking in windows. Csokas has probably been in more projects than you would initially realise. He was recently in Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Dr Kafka, and Sin City 2 as Ivan Kravec.
Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo put in appearances as two retired operatives that McCall visits to gain some information. In my view, this scene is instrumental in setting up a sequel. Otherwise, it seems slightly out of place in as far as the design is concerned. It serves to fill some background but raises more questions than answers, which is why I suspect that the Plummers might appear in a potential Equalizer 2; a movie I thought was greenlit but Fuqua was cagey about, saying that it will depend upon the success of this one. Given that both Washington and Fuqua are to work on The Magnificent Seven, it won’t be soon. Fuqua told us that when approached about the new version of the classic Western, Washington was only interested in what horse he would ride and the guns he would be given: Shrewd man.
In my view, Fuqua is earning his place amongst directors like Scorsese, and Michael Mann. His attention to detail and artful use of the camera elevate his movies. The casting of his movies is always excellent, which helps. Harry Gregson-Williams rises to the occasion in this movie, making good use of the quiet moments by giving us a theme that implies the buried grief that McCall has. Gregson-Williams is one of the few composers in big budget movies that is capable of creating thematic sequences that are memorable after the film has finished and make me want to buy the score.
The screenplay by Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, 16 Blocks) is minimal and effective. By minimal I mean that we don’t get long laborious scenes of exposition. Fuqua fills in the gaps neatly through visual cues that give us what we need to know. Far too many movies bog down pacing by over plotting. There are no issues like that in The Equalizer. Of course, if you need, or have got used, to be drip fed information about a character, you’re going to be disappointed.
For a film based upon an eighties TV show, the movie has a 70s thriller vibe with 80s style editing. Mauro Fiore, who also worked on Fuqua’s Training Day, shows why he gets repeat work with the Director. The movie is stylish without becoming over stylised. I compare one of Washington ’s previous movies Man on Fire. I was irritated with Tony Scott’s ADHD style direction which spoilt a decent revenge flick. The Equalizer marries the stylish (McCall’s “Equalizer-vision when he analyses his opponents) to the more workman like hand-held camera work (subtly used to generate tension during scenes when McCall is being hunted by Russian heavies). Fuqua knows what lens, what camera to use for any given scene and it helps the movie along with being distracted. In the after screening Q&A, Fuqua points this out when questioned on what advice he would give budding filmmakers.
The action, when it comes, is hard and fast. There are plenty of action set pieces to enjoy. Before this gets to seem like a Neal/Fuqua love in, I do have only one small gripe that I can relay without spoiling the plot. Given that the movie’s action sequences, for the most part involve up close and personal violent fights between McCall and the antagonists, one big explosion is a bit out of place. I guess it’s necessary but it jars with the rest of the movie, for me. Like I said, a minor issue that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie. This is definitely in my Top Ten of 2014 movies.
I managed to thank Fuqua for delivering a “Hard R” rated movie, and I meant it with no sycophantic attitude. It’s great to see a violent thriller aimed at adults for a change and not embracing the PG-13 money spinner. With this in mind, I hope people do go and see it so that The Equalizer 2 gets made. There’s more story to tell.
Antoine Fuqua during the after screening Q&A
Thanks to www.DenofGeek.com for hosting the screening, and to Sony Pictures.
The movie will be shown in UK cinemas from the 26/09/2014.