“The Equalizer”– 4 stars
As of the release of “The Equalizer” this month, Denzel Washington is 59 years old with his 60th birthday coming this December. Let that sink in for a moment. He is seven years older than Tom Cruise, a year older than Mel Gibson, and the same age as Kevin Costner. Yes, he’s that old and probably looks better and younger than all three of those peers, including Cruise. That guy you’ve been seeing dishing out punishment through diatribes, bullets, blades, and drugs since 2004’s “Man of Fire” has been over 50 years old while doing it. The man is a walking Fountain of Youth.
Because of his virility and ageless looks, we don’t immediately think of Denzel Washington as a member of the Clint Eastwood “Old Man Tough Guy Club” at the movies. When Eastwood was 59-going-on-60 in 1989 and 1990, he was starring in “Pink Cadillac” and “The Rookie” and was two years away from his opus “Unforgiven.” He looked every bit his age and Denzel doesn’t. The man could pass for his thirties still. Truth be told, Denzel Washington is only three years younger than Liam Neeson, the reigning box office title holder of current “Old Man Tough Guy Club.”
Well, before Denzel hits 60, Liam is going to have to give up that crown because Denzel Washington is on a roll. Step aside, Irishman, and go walk among the tombstones. Washington’s recent releases of “The Book of Eli,” “Unstoppable,” “Safe House,” “Flight,” and “2 Guns” have been some of the best financial earners of his career. He hasn’t had a film open under $20 million since 2003. His age may have increased, but audiences still count on and flock to Denzel being the razor edge of intensity and initiative he’s always been. His latest film is no different and it reunites Denzel with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua.
“The Equalizer” is a film remake of a CBS TV show that ran for four seasons from 1985 to 1989. It starred Edward Woodward as a former CIA operative now acting as a hired man of mystery to those less fortunate who cannot help themselves as a way of atoning for old sins. The cult classic show had its homages to the spy and detective genres, but had a edgy and violent delivery that was ahead of its time compared to what shows get away with today.
In this updated feature film incarnation, Washington plays Robert McCall, an unassuming widower working his normal 40 hours a week at a home improvement store in Boston. In the day time, he’s a helpful sage presence to his co-workers, but at night, Robert can’t sleep and goes through a routine of drinking tea and reading a classic novel at a corner diner close to his solitary home. Over the course of several meetings, he crosses paths with a beleaguered young woman named Teri (“Kick-Ass” star Chloe Grace Moretz) who’s in over her head working as an escort for local Russian thugs. She and Robert can read each other well and both see their mutual signs of past loss.
When Teri fights back towards her employers, they beat her up to the point on an intensive care stay at the hospital. Caring for her safety and showing a sense of making things right, Robert confronts the Russian gangsters responsible for Teri’s beating and, needless to say, punches their ticket for a dirt nap, revealing his extreme skill at calculated combat and killing prowess. We know then that Robert is no ordinary Good Samaritan or Guardian Angel. He has a history and a cause.
The trouble is, unbeknownst initially to Robert, he just took out a big chunk of the local Russian mob with local city ties to crooked cops and led by the politically connected and protected Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich of “The 13th Warrior”) all the way back in Moscow. The crime lord sends his best lieutenant and clean-up man, the silently sadistic Teddy (professional movie villain Martin Csokas), to figure out who killed his men and neutralize the threat. Robert may have poked the bear, but he’s prepared to kick it in the teeth right back.
The recent films of Liam Neeson like the “Taken” series are going to be quick comparisons to “The Equalizer.” The Old Man Tough Guy comparisons are certainly there, but “The Equalizer” is better than those box office ploys. Neeson’s films come across as glory hounds where, here, the reunited team of Fuqua and Washington have created something that burns at a much slower, but hotter temperature than those recycled stunts from Neeson. Both Neeson and Washington are enjoyable men of action that bite instead of bark, but this is where acting talent elevates the material (in this case, written by the screenwriter of the unimpressive trio of “The Expendables 2,” “The Mechanic,” and “16 Blocks”) above the stock vigilante vengeance cliches.
Liam Neeson is great at what he does and has crafted a career-revitalizing niche with his recent efforts, but the six-time nominee and two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington is a superior actor across the board. No one else has to step up and deliver anything compelling in “The Equalizer,” outside of maybe Csokas mildly resonating, but lavishly weird villain. No one else needs to take over and back up the lead. It’s Denzel Washington for goodness sake. He can (and always has) silently convey in a walk, a stare, a smile, or a twitch, what guys like Liam Neeson and Jason Statham have to gruffly growl through bad dialogue. You don’t need anything else and the effect is much stronger. If not, his actions go on to speak for the rest.
While the story arch of “The Equalizer” delivers its requisite hard R-rated violence, the film is equally effective at not showing all of its cards. It coyly doesn’t give everything about Robert’s mysterious past away. It doesn’t show all of his brutally helpful actions on-screen. The subtle shades and suggestions are handsomely successful at preserving the lead character’s mystique and the film’s higher plane of purpose. Those are the qualities that set “The Equalizer” above the semi-annual and repetitive offerings from Neeson and Statham that feel like the same movie every time. This film beats those with ease.
Lesson #1: The help that is seen by you and others— Half of the good deeds of Robert McCall are in plain sight. He’s an encouraging and supportive voice to his co-workers and a courteous man of well-placed chivalry to those who are in need. He carries himself as a man who leads by example and will help at the drop of a hat, but stays within the boundaries of a supporting role where his help can used the most. He rightfully knows that the people he helps have to try and help themselves first before his intervention.
Lesson #2: The invisible and unseen help in our lives— The other half of Robert McCall is the extraordinary range between his unseen acts of kindness and equal acts of vengeance in the name of others. He’s not the kind of guy waiting and demanding recognition for his work or even a thank you. He just wants to right the wrongs he sees, even the messy ones. This matches the power of the anonymous donor, the pay-it-forward chain, and the random acts of kindness from strangers that are not commonly committed by people in our lives.
Lesson #3: Sentimentality is not a weakness— Despite his brutal skills, we come to pick up that Robert has an enormous sentimental heart to do what he does for others. It’s that heart that saves him from losing himself to his dark past and his violent actions. Sentimentality is a motivator for him. It’s that sentimentality that separates Robert from those that care nothing, value nothing, and, therefore, live for nothing. He gives of himself to those in need. He knows he has the skills to help. What more could you want in a person?