If every film is somebody’s favourite, somewhere, than I would seriously worry for whoever has picked theirs as The Equalizer. It’s one thing to write the film off as dumb-fun action, which I would strongly but respectfully dispute, and it’s another to just really like Denzel Washington, who has undeniable charisma to carry him through anything. But if you walk out of this film idolising his character, and relishing the savage executions he carries out through increasingly foggy moral imperatives, then I hold genuine dismay and caution towards you.
I guess the filmmakers – chief of which is Antoine Fuqua, whose films’ posters will never ever let you forget that he is the guy who directed Training Day – are betting on their non-hero being so likeable as to somehow justify the carnage. The opening spends a lot of time tracking Robert McCall through his forty-hour work week, meticulously maintained through a digital watch. What starts as conventional day-in-the-life spectatorship gradually turns into an oppressively eerie one-man mission, calling upon his best-of-the-best military training to come to the aid of a prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) in deep with an abusive mafia ring. It’s like an unambiguous and uncritical retake of Taxi Driver, where the final hideout raid happens early without a hitch, and sociopathy is commended as patriotic Samaritanism. It’s the Hollywood machine using its co-opting and normalising powers to delve recklessly into sordidness, throwing in a host of Sony and Kellogg’s product placement along the way for good measure.
If the film seriously intends to win us over to the gapingly problematic idea of killing a few people to save the better ones, than they couldn’t have picked a better trolley-mover than Denzel Washington. The guy is a perpetual father figure, affable as hell even when he’s snorting cocaine in a hotel room in Flight or calmly gouging a man’s eye out here. He throws his back into conveying a believeable psychology, but the script makes him especially terrifying by itself, since he’s the absolute perfect model for middle-class males with a sense of oppression. He’s a kind teacher to those needing guidance, a golden idol for paper-thin female characters to hit on, utterly modest, whip-smart – just look at all those fucking books he reads! So many books! – and forever in possession of the moral high ground, yet still gets his ass-kicking done by bedtime.1 He’s James Bond in a Target shirt, Rambo without the speech impediment, and every other on-screen paean to masculinity before with faults scrubbed away, so much so as to become a fault in himself.
Fuqua also apparently wants him to be Batman, since he insists on staging action sequences in the murkiest shadows of his Boston locations. Rather than ramping up the tension and serving the story, it just makes things harder to see, and the whole affair grimier and more unsettling. He takes down schmucky goons by way of some sort of strobe-lit Spider-sense, scanning the environment for killing implements before taking them down with the inexplicable grace of an Arkham Asylum2 ringfight. It’s supposed to be impressive clockwork, but it feels increasingly more like a Michael Myers killing spree, especially in the interminable finale set in a hardware store, where McCall tinkers with fuse boxes and setting up gaudy, blood-draining traps from workshop equipment. You’d take this as a knowing joke, but when it starts scoring his massacre with bizarre emo rock that’s more at home in a Youtube anime fan video, complete with a laughably grim, rain-soaked slow-mo climax, you realise that it’s supposed to be taken quite seriously, and the repulsion really sets in.
I blame Taken. What started as a Luc Besson flight of fancy has ballooned into this hateful garbage, and it’s working judging from this film’s box office success. It shares the same insipidly patriarchal bent with zero irony, and the same bizarre hatred for Europeans via its cartoonish antagonist played by Martin Csokas.3 It does boast one difference: an American-patriotic zeal approved by Bill Pullman, appearing during a lay-low sojourn to the countryside and apparently playing the same character as he did in Independence Day. Melissa Leo also appears here, thanklessly repeating what we already or don’t need to know about McCall’s Russian nemesis, throwing in gruesome details about the crime scenes left behind.4 Worse than trading redundant dialogue, they pepper the film’s already troubling outlook with a sense of approval from the higher-ups of Capitol Hill, as though the Founding Fathers themselves wanted Denzel Washington to take an electric drill to some squishy mobster skulls. But nowhere is misguided paternalism more acute than in the movie’s treatment of Chloe Grace Moretz, who kickstarts the anti-Soviet crusade only to kindly disappear from proceedings until the final ride into the sunset. I just hope it was worth it to work with Denzel, and in in any case she’s putting on a brave face through their tiresome onscreen conversations.
It’s incredibly difficult to find anything worthwhile here, but where the film lazily leans towards some vague merit is in its peculiar choice of setting. Leaving behind the New York setting of the show – along with so many other things as to make the title redundant – the Bostonite locales and minor players bring a working-class chutzpah with them. The script tries to drum up some corrupt-cop morality plays in McCall’s exchanges with the few baddies he hasn’t slaughtered, but it’s so absent from the rest of the proceedings as to wind up window dressing. If you’re scanning for any peculiarities in the mire of the film’s dreary crime story, you’re most likely to find it there through a squint.
I saw this on the same day I saw the Spierig Brothers’ new film Predestination. That film annoyed me in that way that kindles movie-nerd rants and raves, through problems with plotting structure and character motivation and other cinephile catchphrases. Equalizer quelled that first-world fury in a heartbeat.5 At least the Spierigs are in love with the craft, trying to find their own rhythm and not go for naked profit over narrative integrity. The Equalizer plays a propagandistic anthem with stupidly murderous intent, squandering its talent and not even being accidentally amusing as it does so. I thank it for lowering my standards, and regardless of the success it’s having, I urge you not to let it lower yours.
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