Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Equalizer Begs Us To Ask, “If You Replace Jason Statham With Denzel Washington, Do You Get A Better Movie?”

The Good: Decent acting, Good pacing/direction
The Bad: Very predictable plot, Very generic performances and character arcs
The Basics: The Equalizer is no better than most action-adventure films; it’s just dressed up to get a classier audience.

Last weekend, the movie everyone in the United States seemed most excited to see in the theaters was The Equalizer and it’s easy to understand why – at least in the abstract; Denzel Washington is in a film during Oscar Pandering Season. The logical conclusion is that Washington is giving a dynamite performance in a great film that will be this year’s Oscarbait for the esteemed actor. It seems that most critics and the widespread population took the hook and swallowed the bait, but the truth is, from an objective perspective, The Equalizer is not a great film. It is not even a good film . . . but the audience that has been lured into watching it is blind to that because of how it is packaged.

Some years ago, a con was pulled on the Evangelical Christians that was absolutely brilliant. Mel Gibson made a gore flick and sold it as a celebration of a story the Evangelical right loves and The Passion Of The Christ (reviewed here!) grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, largely from an audience that would never shell out money on a gore/horror movie. In a directly analogous way, Columbia Pictures has managed to sell a Jason Statham-style revenge-based action film to an audience who would vocally balk at ever seeing such a film. But for those who have seen a good Jason Statham film – and they do exist, Redemption (reviewed here!) is one! - The Equalizer is painfully predictable. This is a formulaic vigilante film wherein a good, quiet man reveals himself to be a man with exceptional skills for killing and self-defense. But just as Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammer appearing in The Expendables 3 (reviewed here!) did not make that an inherently better movie, Denzel Washington’s willingness to appear in The Equalizer does not suddenly make it into a higher level of movie.

The Equalizer is dressed up well by putting Denzel Washington front and center. The viewer goes into the movie with the bias that the film has to be smart because Denzel Washington is a smart man, a great actor and the assumption is that he would only choose to take the project if it lived up to a certain level. The thing is, Denzel Washington’s part of Robert McCall is exactly the part one would expect Denzel Washington to play if he were to appear in a Statham-like action movie. Of course Denzel Washington would play the likable antihero who kills his way through the obviously unethical villains who are tormenting and abusing others. If you were going to put Denzel Washington into The Equalizer, all of his pre-established and revealed talents would dictate that he would be Robert McCall. Just because he is cast in an action film does not mean that Washington gives a great performance; he gives an obvious and predictable performance in The Equalizer that is purely the function of good casting.  In short, there is nothing in the role of Robert McCall that requires Denzel Washington to do anything we have not yet seen from him before.

Robert McCall is a Boston resident working at a big box home improvement store, living a generally quiet life. He is helping his friend and co-worker Ralphie stay on target to get his security guard certification and in the evening, he dines alone at a small restaurant, reading a book. In the restaurant, he encounters an underage prostitute, named Alina. When Alina strikes up a conversation with him, Robert tells her about his reading project and he tries to encourage the girl to take control of her life and believe in her ability to become anyone she wants. One night when Alina refuses to take a call from her pimp, she is smacked around and after Robert comes to her aid, Slavi severely beats Alina. When Robert visits Alina at the hospital, he talks to one of Alina’s fellow prostitutes about how brutally she, Alina, and the rest of Slavi’s hookers are treated.

To try to save Alina’s life, Robert attempts to buy her freedom from Slavi. When he refuses to let Robert buy her freedom outright, Robert kills Slavi and the four other goons working for the Russian mob. That leads the Russian mobster Pushkin to send Nicolai (under the name “Teddy”) to Boston to investigate the murder and get his business back on track. When Ralphie abruptly quits the Home Mart, Robert suspects something more than a fire in his family’s restaurant is going on. Robert exposes a ring of corrupt cops who are extorting local businesses as part of a protection racket. As Teddy starts brutalizing his way through underworld contacts and Pushkin’s network of corrupt cops, he becomes aware of Robert and he smartly realizes he may have met his match. What follows is a game of cat and mouse as Robert decimates the corrupt cops and the mob while Nicolai hunts him and tries to end his life.

To be clear: there have been great movies with strong antiheroes or entirely composed of villains - Payback (reviewed here!) and The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) jump instantly to mind. But The Equalizer is not one of them and just because Denzel Washington plays a character who, on the surface, has no apparent regard for human life does not make Robert McCall a good performance. Does Denzel Washington play him well? Yes, but given that McCall is characterized instantly as smart, self-disciplined and ethical, the role is the obvious choice for Washington to play. In short, Washington does all he can with the role, but we’ve seen him play roles that are smart, self-disciplined and ethical before. Given how fit Washington is, it’s no surprise that he can run, fire a gun and punch with the best of them in a more physical than cerebral performance. If one wanted to see a great performance from Denzel Washington in The Equalizer, the key would have been to cast him as Nicolai. If Washington could make us believe he is a coldblooded killer whose only purpose is to enforce the will of a ruthless businessman without thought or regard to human life, that would be an acting stretch. Denzel Washington as avenging angel? That’s par for the course for his caliber of actor.

Regardless, The Equalizer suffers from a huge volume of problems that similar films are plagued by. Robert McCall is a floor-level worker at a big box store living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States, but he is able to afford to eat out every night? AND he has $9800 in savings that he can make liquid on a moment’s notice?! If McCall had left the CIA directly, one could make the argument that he had a pension, but more than a decade after he was apparently killed in action, we’re expected to believe he and his wife (when she was alive) were able to make his survivor’s benefits last?! And are we honestly to believe that the Russian mob has an amazing health care program for its prostitutes?! The climax of the film makes absolutely no real-world sense: there is no way that Alina could walk out of the hospital and have so much cash at her disposal (as opposed to crippling medical bills).

Beyond the mountain of minutiae that adds up to smother the movie and make it into a film that can only be taken seriously if one disengages their intellect, The Equalizer suffers because it is predictable and obvious. From the moment McCall attacks Slavi’s men, The Equalizer degenerates into the most obvious possible crime drama action movie. If you’ve seen any vigilante-centered action movie, you’ve seen The Equalizer.

Director Antoine Fuqua dresses The Equalizer up nicely and casting Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo and Chloe Grace Moretz all but guarantees that the film will get some consideration come Oscar time, but the film is no better than similar movies that appeared during Summer Blockbuster Season.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Dragons Of Camelot
10,000 Days
Hit By Lightning
Stonehearst Asylum
John Wick
Listen Up Philip
The Best Of Me
The Judge
Dracula Untold
The Maze Runner
This Is Where I Leave You
The Giver
Guardians Of The Galaxy
The Zero Theorem


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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