Despite sporting paper-thin characterizations and being stuffed to the gills with clichés and unnecessary side plots, The Equalizer is a decent action thriller, and probably the best thing director Antoine Fuqua has done since he last teamed with Denzel Washington on 2001’s Training Day.
The film brings nothing new to the table, but Fuqua knows how to combine the familiar elements and push all the right buttons, while Washington performs his role as a man with “a very particular set of skills” (to borrow a phrase from a similar film) with aplomb.
Washington is Robert McCall, a man with a seemingly simple life. He lives alone, filling his days working at a hardware store and his nights reading Hemingway over dinner at a local greasy spoon. Outwardly, he’s friendly – well-liked by his co-workers and quick with a joke. But beneath the surface, he seems troubled. He shows signs (never much explored in the film) of obsessive compulsion. His life is built on routine, but the façade is fragile.
Outside of his workplace, McCall’s only friend seems to be Teri, a young prostitute (played by Chloë Moretz). She also spends a lot of time at the diner, and thus she and McCall have struck up a casual friendship. He’s fatherly to her. Well, in a way. Fatherly enough to chide her about eating too much dessert, but not so fatherly as to tell her to quit hooking. Besides, Teri is tied up with the Russian mob, a fact McCall surely recognizes. So he keeps his peace.
The status quo is suddenly interrupted one night when Teri is brutally beaten and winds up in the hospital. McCall deploys his aforementioned particular skills, and one brutal action scene later (the first of many), a lot of Russian goons are dead.
Shortly thereafter, the mob brings in their heavy hitter Teddy (played by Marton Csokas) to fix the situation. Csokas is suitably formidable, bringing Teddy to life with menace. Like McCall, he’s unflappable and calculating. He just happens to be a sociopath as well.
Once Teddy is introduced to the film, it mostly becomes a game of one-upmanship: I know you’re looking for me, but you know I know you’re looking for me, and so on. Cat and mouse switch places multiple times as they seek to outmaneuver each other, checking off every box on the list of cinematic tropes as the action proceeds. Corrupt cops? Check. Torturing a subordinate for information? Check. Shakey-cam fights? Check. Walking away from a massive explosion in slow motion? Oh, you better believe they went there.
It all leads to the climactic showdown, which plays out a little like a slasher flick set in a hardware store, with McCall standing in for Jason Voorhees and tattooed baddies in place of nubile campers. It’s brutal and shows some of the film’s few flashes of inventiveness.
Ultimately, things do go on a little long (the film clocks in at over two hours), and there are some subplots that could’ve easily been excised along the way to help that. For what it is, though, it’s well acted and well directed. I don’t really have any major complaints. Is this high art? No. But I’d watch another one like it.