“The Equalizer,” which is sorta-kinda based on the eighties TV show, takes its time getting going, and remarkably, gets away with it. Denzel Washington is one of Hollywood’s few leading men who can command attention even when doing very little. As Robert McCall, a kindhearted and quiet-spoken worker at a Home Depot sort of warehouse store in Boston, he literally lives his life by clockwork, timing his entire day on a stop watch.
He’s a model employee though, hardworking and conscientious, and plays on the softball team. He gently mentors co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), who wants to go from clerk to security guard, and encourages a teenage Russian prostitute, Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz), also a fellow regular diner patron, who dreams of being a singer. Alina routinely asks McCall about the books he’s reading – all literature that was suggested to him by his late wife. McCall’s synopses foreshadow what’s coming. As to Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” he observes: “The old man has to be the old man, the fish has to be the fish.”
We see trailers. We know what’s coming. Our natures are in our DNA, in the Gospel According to The Equalizer. McCall is really a former CIA operative who faked his own death so he could retire, the near cliché modern variant on the gunslinger who’s hung up his guns. The first half of the movie builds suspense with old-fashioned, Hitchcockian effectiveness, like a coiled snake in tall grass. When Alina is savagely beaten and hospitalized by her Russian mobster pimp, McCall offers him cash to buy her freedom. When his offer is rejected, the mobster’s office is full of dead people within 30 seconds.
Once the action actually starts, “The Equalizer” becomes a bit more ordinary. Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in “Training Day,” but also helmed last year’s ghastly Fox News paranoid, conspiracy theory “Olympus Has Fallen,” is a director who knows his way around an action sequence. The money shots in “The Equalizer” are flashy and well-executed, grisly and uncompromising. He may slightly overdo the device of editing together close-ups of everything in a scene that’s about to factor into the coming fight scene, similar to techniques used in both Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies and the Benedict Cumberbatch “Sherlock” TV show, but his explosions are intoxicatingly ambitious. Fuqua may be as humorless as action directors get, yet some of his more over-the-top flourishes are almost unintentionally humorous if only by virtue of their excess. Key action takes place in the warehouse store, full of tools and building equipment. Do we have to spell it out?
And he’s cast this well. Martin Csokas (“The Lord of the Rings” movies, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”) provides commendable menace as a sociopathic troubleshooter for the Russian mob who emerges as a foil for McCall. His investigation into who killed the Russian mobsters leads down a bloody trail of mangled mobsters, crooked cops and R-rated violence. Melissa Leo has a likeable cameo as a former CIA Director and McCall’s old boss. She’s terrific, and after “Olympus Has Fallen,” Fuqua probably felt he owed her one. That would be hard to argue with.
None of this, by the way, bears any particularly resemblance to the original show, in which British actor Edward Woodward played a retired spook who drove a Jaguar through the streets of New York, and had an expensive arsenal of weaponry behind a false wall in his apartment.
Washington, at nearly sixty, has no difficulty at all convincing a movie audience that he’s sufficiently bad ass to be laying waste to the Russian mob. Apart from the fact that the man appears to be in great shape, he exudes a quiet, confident, self-assuredness Bruce Lee would have envied. This is the advantage of casting a serious actor in an action role. He has the attitude. If there’s a problem here, and most likely, audiences won’t think there is, is that you never quite believe the gangsters ever really stand a chance, even when McCall takes his periodic lumps.
Given its two hour plus length, “The Equalizer” might have managed a little more insight into the dark back alleys of its main character’s psyche. The screenplay, by Richard Wenk, who wrote the underachieving “Expendables 2” and “The Mechanic,” is better than his previous scripts, but nonetheless isn’t overburdened with surprises. Washington’s undeniable star presence gives this all a little more gravitas than the script probably deserves. The result may be cartoonish, but entertaining at least. Does it need to be said that the denouement sets up for a sequel?