There is a long, long, slow burn happening in "The Equalizer", the new film from director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day", "Olympus Has Fallen") and writer Richard Wenk ("The Expendables 2", "The Mechanic (2011)”). Based on the television series starring Edward Woodward, "The Equalizer" gives star Denzel Washington the chance to build a unique, immensely watchable character, someone we really feel we know something about. Because we have this connection to Robert McCall (Washington), when he starts battling the bad guys we are much more invested in the outcome and the film becomes more exciting.
It's not like we ever suspect Washington's McCall is in mortal danger - this is the type of film just made for a sequel and they aren't going to kill off the star and ruin the chance for future installments. But the fact that you actually feel some suspense as he battles the bad guys shows you how successfully the star and director have been in creating this new character.
For maybe the first half of the film, a lot of film time is spent showing us McCall's life and routines. He is a very organized man and believes everything has a place; after he uses a fork, he puts it back in precisely the same place. We watch him at work, at a home improvement warehouse store, sort of a goodwill ambassador to the rest of the team. He knows everyone and they know him, ready and willing to joke with him. McCall also takes people under his wing, helping them achieve the goals they set. His current project is Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), one of Robert's co-workers who aspires to become a security guard at the DIY store. McCall takes him out for training, monitors his diet to help him lose extra weight, gives him pep talks.
Part of Robert's routine includes coping with insomnia, so he regularly treks out at 2am in the morning to a dive cafe, to have a cup of tea and read books from a list of 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die, a list his wife started before she dies, titles like “The Old Man and the Sea". Because he is a regular, he is well known by the other regulars including Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute who comes in every night, after servicing clients, to have something to eat. One night, Teri's pimp, Slavi (David Meunier, TV's "Justified") tracks her down, upset because she hit a client who hit her. The next night, Robert learns Teri is in the hospital due to extensive injuries. Being a man of the world, McCall is able to put two and two together and confronts the pimp and his henchmen. McCall demonstrates he has some deep training in some nasty skills. Teddy (Martin Csokas, TV's "Falcon", "The Debt"), Slavi's boss, arrives in town to find out who took out his men and to extract revenge. Teddy quickly finds McCall and they engage in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
The best thing about "The Equalizer" is the set-up of Robert McCall's life. We watch as Washington shows us what seems to be every move in his daily life. It is strange, but not unwelcome, for an action film to take this much time to introduce us to this character. Because we spend so much time with him, watching his mannerisms and routines, we feel a greater intimacy with him – it doesn’t really feel like an introduction, you feel like you are living with him. And this makes the moment when he kicks into action and begins to use his skills to help others even more memorable[ . When his fists begin flying and the weapons come out, this apparently new side of him doesn't seem so strange or jarring; we know a lot about him by this point and we more or less accept he has an amazing skill set.
It is nice to have this time with a character, any character really, but because the character is played by Denzel Washington, we are spending time with someone who is at a higher skill level than many. And director Fuqua lets the camera linger as we spend this time with him, almost as though we are watching some of the action through his eyes, sharing his POV. As McCall gets ready for work, he sits at a table in his clean but rather sparse apartment and finishes his tea. He puts the fork back, wipes the tables, takes the dishes to the sink. Washes, then dries them, putting them in the drainer. Then he takes the same bus to work, arriving on time for his job every single day. Every evening, he spends time at the diner, taking a tea bag carefully wrapped in a napkin from his home with him. As the diner owner pours the hot water, he carefully unwraps the tea bag and drops it into the water. We see each of these routines a few times allowing us to see they are very practiced and each step has been repeated many times.
Washington seems to be doing all of this to help us realize McCall is trying to use these routines as a method of maintaining his sanity in life, to keep thoughts of past deeds as bay. Also, it seems to take some time for Robert to jump back into action. When he realizes Teri has been hit and abused by one of her clients, he doesn't say or do anything. He talks to Teri like nothing has happened. It takes a little more to push him back into action. And when he finally commits to help her, we can see the wheels turning as he remembers the skill sets he once used so easily.
McCall makes an initial play with Slavi, but when that doesn't yield any results, he takes things up a notch. And this begins a game of cat and mouse that becomes increasingly dangerous for all parties involved.
It is one of Washington's better performances of late because he seems fully invested in the role. When many actors begin to receive super huge paychecks, they usually take on the same types of roles again and again, and this leads to them phoning in some of their performances. This happens less frequently with Washington, but it happens. With Robert McCall, he seems to be putting his acting skills through their paces again.
Chloë Grace Moretz is very good as Teri, but it is a smaller role than she has been doing lately. She manages to bring us into Teri's mind for a while and we get to know her a little before she is victimized and becomes a cause for Robert.
David Meunier is good as Slavi. The role is what it is; he needs to be a dog in order for Robert to kick into action. And he is just that, a dog. David Harbour plays Masters, a detective who works with Teddy. Masters has a few moments with McCall and the two play well off one another. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo pop up late in the film as a retired power couple McCall turns to for help and information.
Another sign of the skill involved in this film is that all of these various story elements actually come together. The time spent at the diner, McCall’s efforts to help train and mentor Ralphie, the crooked cop Masters, all play a part in Robert’s life and the overall story. This may seem like a given, but all too often elements like these are simply introduced and then abandoned as the star gets involved in the machinations of the action plot. In “The Equalizer”, they play a part in how Robert reacts to everyone else.
But "The Equalizer" is really about the battle between Teddy and McCall. Both are very determined to stop the other and both engage in a battle of wits to become the victor. It is a credit to the filmmakers that they manage to convince us that McCall doesn't always have all the answers, all the skills to undo his opponent.
Martin Csokas is very good as Teddy. He is frightening, intelligent and moves quickly, determined to achieve his goal. When he first meets Robert, he knows he has the right guy, just on his hunch, but he continues to look for information, to make sure he has the right guy before he begins setting fire to everything.
Throughout the film, Fuqua keeps things escalating at a nice rate. McCall doesn't just let the action happen. It takes a while to get to this point, but when McCall begins to engage Teddy, the action moments start off small and build giving us a more suspenseful film.
What they build to is my least favorite part of the film. The inevitable big showdown between McCall and Teddy happens in a place special to Robert. It has to. Teddy flies in from out of town, so the setting has to be unfamiliar to him, to give Robert a bit of an edge. The people closest to Robert also have to become involved, to make the danger more personal for the quiet, unassuming hero. When this section of the film begins to click into place, it begins to seem much more routine, much more expected, like it should be in an action film starring Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson. This final battle still has some interesting bits, some unusual, unexpected moments that serve to hold our attention, but it also serves to draw us out of the cocoon of Robert McCall's life and remind us we are essentially watching what could be a very routine action film.
While it is a disappointment that the ending is not a little more unexpected, Fuqua and Washington do create another interesting, compelling and very watchable portrait of a man willing to help those in need. And for that reason, “The Equalizer” is worth watching.