“The Equalizer,” Reviewed: Cheer Down.

the equalizer (columbia) blog

Throughout The Equalizer (rated R), Denzel Washington looks unhappy to be there. He plays Robert McCall, a taciturn soul who barely gets along with his co-workers at a Home Depot-style big box store; they all treat him like an elder statesman, asking for advice or quizzing him idly about his past, and he dutifully nods his head and punches in and out, heading home each night to a Spartan apartment and a dull routine. Robert, we can see, is itching for the meaning that’s been lost from his life – he’s waiting for the right opportunity to do what he was meant to do.

I hope it’s not hard to see where I’m going with this.

Denzel Washington has no business making The Equalizer. I know this comes just a week after I praised Liam Neeson’s performance in A Walk Among the Tombstones, another elder-actor-kicks-butt crime story, but not all films are created equal – and Neeson’s latest is a fully formed work with texture and depth. Equalizer, on the other hand, keeps us waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for our reluctant hero to head into the Hand Tools aisle to grab a hammer and start pounding evil. It’s a tease, and one that’s still unfulfilling even when the cathartic moments finally arrive. He deserves better than this – and so do we.

Based loosely on the 1980s TV show that played to the vicarious wishes of CBS’s graying audience, The Equalizer is the story of an older gentleman who has forgotten more about violent retribution than most tough guys in their prime will ever learn. In the ’80s McCall was played by the wonderful English actor Edward Woodward with genteel authority; Washington just scowls at his enemies, before setting the timer on his digital wristwatch to check his efficiency at killing them.

McCall is retired from a shadowy life as a Special Forces soldier, but he’s persuaded to return to his old tricks when a call girl he meets at a diner (Chloe Grace Moretz) is beaten to a pulp by her employers. They die quickly; but we soon learn they were members of the Russian mob – via central casting – which means even more villains soon arrive on the plane from Moscow and begin the most violent game of tit-for-tat, ever.

This film is directed by Antoine Fuqua, which is coincidentally the same name of the guy who directed Washington in Training Day, way back in 2001. That film reinvigorated Washington’s career, at a time when his onscreen earnestness quotient had achieved biblical levels – after The Hurricane and Malcolm X and Remember the Titans and even The Pelican Brief, he needed to add some zest to his resume before we started building statues in his honor. Now, though, it’s as if he doesn’t know how to do anything but mindless action movies – and unlike Neeson, he doesn’t seem to enjoy doing them.

Reuniting Fuqua and Washington might have seemed like a good idea, but by now I wonder if Washington’s dour depressiveness won’t just suck all the air out of any room. There’s no life to this film – not when he’s chatting with Moretz’ gum-cracking lady of the evening, not when he’s staring down Russian goons, and certainly not when he’s turning his workplace into an after-hours collection of booby traps for an extended final-reel set piece. A good action movie should feel exhilarating, but The Equalizer is just tiresome. It’s not hard to understand why Washington’s McCall looks so down; his audience feels the same way.

(IMAGE: Denzel Washington in The Equalizer. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)