Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Denzel Washington is the most reliable star in the film industry. His films have earned over $2 billion without the help of a franchise and he’s garnered two Oscar wins. He’s an easy man to like because of his tremendous acting abilities and his natural gravitas on screen. It’s a given, then, that his performance in The Equalizer is magnetic and involving, even if the work around him falters in excess and repetitiveness. The film follows Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), a worker at a home improvement store that puts in solid work and receives plenty of respect from his co-workers. He’s a charming, carefree man that knows just how to be a people pleaser. But he lives a simple, empty life, with his apartment barely furnished while his cleaning and daily activities are meticulous. He doesn’t seem fit for the job he has because there’s something off.
He meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young call girl who frequents a diner that Robert visits when he should be sleeping. Teri is an aspiring singer and involves herself with a Russian pimp that forces her into unappealing interactions with clients. She hates her work and Robert hates seeing her so helpless; she takes interest in his reading materials and they talk for a while. She discovers some details about his past and he sees her being hit by the Russian men that front the operation, so naturally he seeks out revenge. The story ultimately deserts Teri and follows Robert on his quest to take down everyone in the Russian organization, while Robert reveals that he certainly has some skills that he wasn’t showing anyone. The driving force of the film is the mystery surrounding Robert’s abilities and just how ahead of his adversaries he really is.
Washington’s performance makes the film watchable. He’s a true force in front of the camera and can easily place charm and compassion into a scene without a semblance of force. His character has the traits of a clichéd man with a secret, in that he’s too organized and seems too nice. It’s only natural that someone like Washington can pull off the transformation into a genuine badass as the film plays out. Director Antoine Fuqua uses his central character as the pivot point from which he can stylize his violent showdowns. The film earns its hard-R rating by pushing some buttons for fans of impressively choreographed violence, even if it excessively leans on blood as a means of demonstrating Robert’s power. The film falls into repetition when constantly showing his violent acts, particularly as the conclusion leans on an overblown set piece.
Fuqua employs a strange technique that never meshes with the narrative, playing rock music over montages of Washington walking in slow motion. Once would certainly be enough, but the film incorporates montage far too often, losing its effect. The film also runs a lengthy 132 minutes, which grows evident in the final half hour showdown that seemingly never ends. There are structural problems that abound in the film’s middle act: an overemphasis on stenciled Russian villains, the disappearance of Teri after she seems important but only exists for propelling the plot, and a stagnation of Robert’s character. But the film’s central gimmick pays off in a reveal that feels authentic if only because it’s the most plausible option. The Equalizer never rises above standard action fare, but Washington makes the film engaging and elevates suspect developments.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)