THE EQUALIZER is non-ironic escapist fare superbly acted and directed. It doesnt indulge in psychological underpinnings or great philosophical conundrums beyond the need to keep the story going. It is a powerhouse of a vehicle for star and co-producer Denzel Washington that plays to his strengths and to the audience’ weakness for wanting someone to champion the underdog.
It was that weakness, and a suave performance from Edward Woodward, that kept the television series on which the film is based going for so many seasons. The story is larger, the violence far more brutal, but all the key elements are intact, expanded with a larger budget, and the charisma of both Washington and Marton Csokas as his equally capable, equally smooth nemesis.
But that comes later.
The story starts small, with Bob (Washington) introduced as the affable guy working in the big box home improvement store. He’s a mentor to the hefty kid trying to becomes a security guard, and the comic relief to those trying to guess what this older guy did before shifting stock. But there’s more to Bob, of course. He is a meticulously tidy man leading a precisely ordered life, with a regular schedule and a right place to put the knife and fork. He also suffers from insomnia, which takes him to an all-night diner, and the acquaintance of Teri (Chloe-Grace Moretz), a working girl with dreams of something better. When something bad happens to Teri, Bob springs into action with a meticulous precision and a consummate skill set perfectly designed to take out a room of bad guys with extreme prejudice and a minimum of muss. Aside from the copious amount of blood spilled.
There are familiar tropes, and a few clichés, but Washington’s star power, and ability to invest his character with more subtlety than absolutely necessary for a film like this, makes it interesting. Even though there is no doubt that Bob will always find a way to prevail, even when the odds become stupefying stacked against him, what becomes compelling is not the if, but the how of it. By starting small, it makes the incremental unreality of Bob’s amazing powers of domination fun, in an edge-of-your-seat way. It’s not the outcome, but the way he uses what’s at hand, be it a corkscrew or a length of barbed wire, and marries it to split-second planning, often on the fly.
We do eventually get to his back story, and it’s not a surprising one, and while bits and pieces are revealed in a way that doesn’t feel too much like egregious exposition, the way Bob stares down the people who are in the process of dying is far more eloquent. It’s more than mere interest or even curiosity. It’s almost like a penance, but not quite, and it’s that unsettling edge that is what makes this a compelling performance. And the polar opposite of Bob’s evil doppelganger. That would be Teddy (Csokas), who is just as efficient when it comes to getting things done, but unsettling in the cold-eyes that truly see people as things to be disposed of. While Bob has overcome the qualms of doubt through the confidence of crack training, in Teddy there is nothing beyond the reptilian, and the palpable danger that even offering a glass of water to someone implies.
The other aspect of the film that is so unnerving is the way evil exists in plain sight, perhaps at the peripheral of our collective vision, but there to be seen, barely trying to disguise itself, be it corrupt cops or the Russian mob out to make an example of someone. The sense of helplessness that THE EQUALIZER exploits is never overdone, but never ignored.
THE EQUALIZER uses that ongoing sense of lurking danger to make its case for being unapologetic about its vigilante stance, carefully designed to evoke cheers, not the troublesome pondering of the larger implications of one man making life-and-death decisions for the rest of us. Which is to say, it’s all pretty ridiculous, but Washington never is.