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Non-Review Review: The Equaliser

Appropriately enough for a movie featuring a climax that might be dubbed “Die Hard at the Home Depot”, The Equaliser does exactly what it says on the tin.

The revenge thriller is a tried-and-tested storytelling model. Similarly “the unstoppable killing machine relapses” is a pretty effective stock plot element. There is very little surprising to be found in The Equaliser. There’s never any real doubt about our hero. There’s never a twist that can’t be seen coming a mile away. Appropriately enough, given our hero’s fixation on time-keeping, everything in The Equaliser is constructed like clockwork. There is minimal clutter, no extraneous element. It works right out of the box.

When all you have is a hammer...

When all you have is a hammer…

And yet, despite that, it largely works. For all that one can follow instructions, watch-making is an artform. The Equaliser may not be an exceptional example of the form, but it is a fine demonstration of just how much technical skill counts in putting something like this together. Denzel Washington may be the most likeable leading man of his generation. Even when he is attacking mobsters with corkscrews or suffocating adversaries in their cars, there’s something strangely charming about him.

It helps that director Antoine Fuqua goes all in on The Equaliser. There are no half-measures here. The Equaliser doesn’t just hit the necessary beats. It smashes them.

Tears in the rain...

Tears in the rain…

The Equaliser is a very essentialist existentialist action film. It is a movie constructed around a very clear purpose, incorporating a very particular set of parts. None of these parts are new. None of the combinations are new. Despite its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, The Equiliser is a surprisingly efficient piece of work. It knows what it wants to do, and it knows how it wants to do that. There’s something almost admirable in that.

When Robert McCall is introduced reading a book, you had better bet that it is thematically connected to the plot. Asked to explain the plot of The Old Man and the Sea to a teenage hooker, our literate hero observes, “The old man has got to be the old man; the sea has got to be the sea.” Later on, he describes the plot of Don Quixote, shortly before he singlehandedly decides to demolish organised crime in Brooklyn. Towards the end, as he fades from the spotlight, he is spotted with a copy of The Invisible Man.

Make yourself at home...

Make yourself at home…

Subtle is not in the nature of The Equaliser. When Robert McCall reads books, he doesn’t read those affordable modern reprints; he reads old hardbound books – a shorthand to let the audience know that these are book books. The fact that McCall works at the Home Depot is not so much Chekov’s Gun as Chekov’s Nailgun. There is a minimal amount of fat here, and a minimum amount of room for nuance or ambiguity. Much like McCall cannot be anything but who he is, the movie cannot be anything but what it is.

When he is shown to encourage and enable those around him to change his life, the film makes sure that we spot the irony. “I think that you can be anything you want to be,” he tells a teenage prostitute at a late-night dinner. Robert McCall, the man who encourages other people to change, knowing that he can never truly change himself. The Equaliser is quite clear and candid about this, hitting all the necessary points with all the necessary force.

Murder Ink...

Murder Ink…

Similarly, the film’s shady bad guy provides a functional mirror to Robert McCall. “A sociopath with a business card”, our creepy antagonist is a man who has completely engaged with his internal violence and brutality. While Robert McCall tries to disguise himself and blend in, his adversary wears his sins on his skin as grotesque tattoos. A delightfully unsettling performance from Marton Csokas and the film’s willingness to be frank about such things elevates what could otherwise be a stock baddie.

There are, of course, inherited problems here. The structure of The Equaliser means that a victim is needed to spur Robert McCall to action. Inevitably, that victim is the most prominent female member of the ensemble – it is disappointing that action movies have yet to truly move past that most basic of clichés, the female character who exists to be victimised to spur the hero to action. Here, the obviousness of The Equaliser does the movie no favours; of course its a female teenage prostitute who needs a man to believe in her.

Denzel shoulders a lot of the film...

Denzel shoulders a lot of the film…

There are other problems. The movie’s predictability grates in places. The stakes are practically non-existent. There is never any doubt about how far McCall will go, and about how successful his adversaries will be in their attempts to stop him. However, this could be construed as an act of honesty on the part of the movie. We’d never believe that McCall was really in too much danger, so why expend the energy to fake it?

Despite these significant flaws, The Equaliser works with a remarkable efficiency. Robert McCall is just another in a long line of angsty male protagonists, but Denzel Washington sells it. Washington is perfect at juxtaposing McCall’s affable “likeable middle-aged man at the office” persona with his “ruthless and improvisational killing machine” secret identity. On paper, McCall is nothing more than a collection of stock thriller clichés – an iteration of an archetype best embodied by Jack Bauer.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

However, Washington demonstrates how he has remained one of Hollywood’s best-loved and most-respected leading men. Washington oscillates perfectly between a very human and charming man who wants a normal life and an unstoppable killing machine. He is given stock gags and a familiar arc, but he imbues the movie with a weight it might otherwise lack. He is also very good at walking like a badass, a skill The Equaliser employs with regularity.

Director Antoine Fuqua does not do half-measures here. Cool guys don’t look at explosions, the folk wisdom suggests. They blow things up and then walk away. So, when The Equaliser wants Denzel Washington to walk away from an explosion, you can be sure it is the coolest walk and the biggest explosion. He doesn’t quicken his step, even as the ground ripples around him. He doesn’t raise his hands to help himself into a jog, even as nuts and bolts explode. He doesn’t look back, even as environmentalists weep.

The edge of his seat...

The edge of his seat…

The Equaliser gets considerable mileage out of Denzel Washington’s badass walk. There are several points where the movie just gives in and counts on Denzel’s walk to carry the plot along. After a fellow employee has her ring stolen, Denzel Washington walks to the mallet aisle; the ring is promptly returned. Our hero then walks back to return the mallet to the aisle in the first place. One gets a sense the walk is the point. One ruthless slaughter is beautifully showcased by a badass ex post facto badass walk.

This might all sound a bit excessive; it probably is. However, there’s an undeniable charm to The Equaliser. It is a film that knows exactly what it is, even as it is about a man who knows exactly who he is. It does not aim to be anything more than what it is, only to be good at what it does. It is, in many respects, the essentialist existentialism action film.

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3 Responses

  1. Ending was the biggest cop-out ever, considering the gruesome, easy to kill nature of all the baddie characters.
    Otherwise very watchable.
    Good review

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