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The Equalizer is technically based on a semipopular CBS drama series from the late 1980s, but it mostly seems as if the filmmakers have forgone any attempt at plot and are simply checking off boxes on a list of action-movie clichés. There is the gentle hero with a violent past, the hooker with a heart of gold, the sociopathic Russian villain, and, of course, the scene in which our hero walks away from a massive explosion without flinching or looking back.
When a script is lacking a single original thought, no amount of star power can save it, but Denzel Washington tries his best. Reteaming Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, who at least knows how to use him, was a good idea. As Robert McCall, a former CIA tough guy who has settled into a quiet routine of hanging out in diners late at night and reading books that conveniently reflect impending plot points (The Old Man and the Sea; Don Quixote), Washington slowly brings a quiet simmer to a full boil. Based on the actor’s previous roles, we know he’ll eventually snap to action, and the fun of the film’s first third is in the tension of waiting for the bloodshed to begin.
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When the violence does come, it is exceedingly gruesome but still somehow rote and expected. Heads are split open, throats are slit, and, in a finale that aims transparently for the middle-aged male demographic, McCall uses random items from a Home Depot–like store to impale, electrify, and strangle the crew of Russian bad guys. Fuqua piles on the gore with no small sense of glee, but the action lacks the balletic violence of, say, Tarantino’s best works and feels more like a manipulation of the audience’s most base instincts.
It also makes for a jarring juxtaposition with the film’s themes. McCall sees himself as a crusading moralist who only uses his particular set of skills to secure justice for the little people. His violent outburst is ignited when a young sex worker (Chloe Grace Moretz) with whom he chats at the diner every night is roughed up by her bosses. He also makes time to take down some corrupt cops making life difficult for the female owner of his local taqueria and return a wedding ring to a cashier who’d had it stolen by an armed robber. Vigilante justice has always been a staple of commercial filmmaking—there are echoes here of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish—but the degree to which Fuqua revels in the bloodshed renders any visage of morality a bad joke.
Maybe that’s an acceptable endpoint. After all, The Equalizer is not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a B movie at best, the kind that’s better viewed from your couch on a rainy, hungover Saturday afternoon than in a theater. It is a film of simple pleasures, of fistfights and archetypes, that will benefit greatly from the freedom of low expectations. Consider this a credit towards future viewing: The Equalizer is a dreadful movie that deserves as little attention as possible.
The film opens Friday, Sept. 26 in wide release.