There are films that know what they are and don’t try to do anything more. Many movies think they are one thing and aren’t or try so hard to be another they completely fail. For action this is especially harming. When a film is too serious for its own good or doesn’t realize just how dumb it is. There is something to be said for reveling in your own vapidness. The Equalizer is a movie that does this. Fully content to deliver exactly what it promises (Denzel Washingotn kicking butt) it blows through its pretenses of story and plot to playfully mess with genre conventions and cliches. It makes for a movie that’s smarter than it appears, but still entirely functional as dumb action.
Adapted from the TV show of the same name the film pairs Denzel Washington, as ex-CIA agent and super spy Robert McCall, with director Antoine Fuqua. The two had previously worked together on the fantastic Training Day. Both have a knack for making bad things better and that’s exactly what they do here. Robert, who has worked his way out of the spy game, is working at a Home Depot-like store and living his life without any problems until he befriends Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute, and decides to use his awesome skills of killing people to help her. Unfortunately this embroils him even deeper in a mob war and a top end hitman, Teddy (David Harbour), is sent over from Russia to eliminate him. Teddy isn’t actually ready for Robert. Much like Taken, another film featuring an older super-spy beating people up, the joy isn’t from the suspense of if Robert will win or lose, but from watching a nearly invincible super-spy take down everyone around him easily. That joy is only made greater by the likes of Washington and Fuqua.
We’ll start with Fuqua who directs the film with the kind of cheesy panache that only the brilliantly self aware can. The Equalizer may feature one of the greatest “walking away from an explosion in slow motion” scenes ever and it is all because Fuqua knows exactly how to wink at the camera as he pulls off action cliches. Denzels grimace as he walks slowly away from an ever-expanding explosion for about a solid minute – the camera cutting around him fantastically – is pure art in its cheapest form. The rest of Fuqua’s direction can be easily summed up as the same. Playing with the revenge thriller genre by perfect executing its worst cliches is a challenging task that could easily tip over into bad filmmaking, but Fuqua walks the line wonderfully concluding in a shoot out inside a sprinkler soaked store that could be taken from any B-grade film, but plays out perfectly in this one.
Of course having an actor of Denzel Washington’s caliber tromping around in your B action movie is going to elevate to something more as well. While the character motivation and depth for Washington’s character is huge he layers a level of thought to it that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The man is also a master of deadpan violence and interrogation. If you’ve seen Man on Fire you’ll know what to expect here. There is nothing especially original about the motives, goals or characteristics of Robert McCall, but since it is Washington playing him he becomes special.
The movie is also particularly violent, which only amps up its B-grade charm. Robert’s gruesome manner of killing folks as quickly and efficiently as possible leads to some very disgusting, almost slasher-leverl kills. There’s a fun gimmick to the action of Robert timing himself when he enters into a fight that plays very well. Unfortunately by the end of the film this twist is almost forgotten, and it would have been cool to see it play out more. Not that that ruins a final action sequence that involves barbed wire nooses and nails gun deaths.
The Equalizer is not a quality movie, but it is a great bad one. Director Antaoine Fuqua knows exactly what he is doing with his basic action premise and lands all the cliches wonderfully. It helps to have Denzel Washington delivering your one-liners and threats, but the real charm of The Equalizer is not that it is better than it should be, but that it is exactly how it should be.