While Denzel Washington shares the same name as Edward Woodward’s character from The Equalizer television show, that’s exactly where the similarities end. The word equalizer isn’t even mentioned except for the credits. Further establishing differences between the two McCalls are the digs they occupy. Rather than roll around in a flashy Jaguar, Washington’s McCall takes public transportation and spends his days in anonymity working for Home Depot. He comes home to a fairly bare apartment in a lower-class corner of Boston. Nights when Robert can’t sleep he reads Cervantes in diners. This life is simple and it’s what he promised someone he loved.
His occasional conversation partner at this diner is a young girl named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). She walks the streets, serving the interests of an Eastern Bloc crime syndicate. Robert knows, but doesn’t judge, and the moments of these two sharing chats are some of the film’s best. One night she calls enough enough when a john gets violent and she receives the brutal end of some retribution from higher-ups. Teri’s abuse serves as the catalyzing event of The Equalizer. McCall is trying to be the good man, be the righteous man, but low-level thugs, especially the type to slap around young women, are testing his self-imposed retirement.
Small details about McCall’s past are revealed through short sequences with Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo about his time with The Agency. Much is made clear that the time McCall spent in black-ops has more than adequately prepared him for what is about to come.
Washington, after Man on Fire and Book of Eli, has perfected playing the badass who speaks softly and carries a machine gun. He’s no stranger to coolly walking away with explosions in the background and he sells it convincingly again here. Unfortunately, for all of Washington’s old movie star charisma, this material is slowed down by what feels like steps by Sony to build an action franchise similar to what Taken has been for Liam Neeson.
What made Man on Fire special was that the instigating act of violence was almost forty minutes into the film. Everything before that was a study of Washington’s portrayal of a man haunted by the actions of his past. Creasy was a step ahead of his foes, but he wasn’t the immortal killing machine that Robert McCall is, laying waste to dozens of Chechens—sometimes without even a weapon at his disposal.
His actions have drawn the attentions of very connected Chechen heavy-hitter, sent to dispatch McCall with extreme prejudice. Teddy (Martin Csokas) has Boston P.D. on his payroll and no shortage of minions to set forth. The ease with which McCall puts down so many baddies almost draws viewers out of the film, but the take-downs of such despicable villains are so satisfying, it’s hard to judge.
Reuniting Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua should create another lasting picture, yet the ingredients don’t exactly pan out. Obvious parallels are drawn to Don Quixote, the book McCall is reading, but the degree to which the connections are explained feel like being hit with a hammer. However sledgehammer-subtle such points are, Fuqua’s smooth direction of action sequences more than make up for it. Fuqua restrains himself from going overboard, saving the unnecessarily violent events right until the Die Hard-esque finale.
Denzel Washington has never appeared in a sequel over the course of his 50 film career, but that might change very soon. Especially if audiences enjoy him kicking ass as much as I did.