1. I know we just talked about Liam Neeson around here, but I feel obliged to bring him back up, because suffice it to say, if Liam Neeson doesn't have the aforementioned late-career action-movie rebirth, there is no way The Equalizer exists. Ostensibly a big-screen reboot of the CBS crime procedural with Edward Woodward (and, briefly, Robert Mitchum) in the mid-'80s, it arrives solely as an attempt to give Denzel Washington— another aging prestige actor with sorta-scary intensity—his own version of the Taken franchise. It strikes me as sort of bizarre that they decided to tie this into a CBS series no one remembers, but you have to start your franchises somewhere. It certainly has an undeniably catchy name. Though sadly, unlike the original series, it does not have 1985 Ad Rock playing a drug-addicted teen and avoiding the attention of his nagging mother, played by The Good Wife's Christine Baranski.
2. The Equalizer is so intent on kicking off a series of movies—giving Washington the franchise anchor that, strangely, he has never had (unless I missed Malcolms XI-XIX—that it's less an action thriller than a superhero origin story. He plays Robert McCall, a quiet man who works at a Home Depot-like superstore, living out a precise, pristine, anonymous existence, living alone, reading classic novels and sipping coffee at the local diner. There, he meets a Prostitute With a Heart of Gold (Chloë Grace Moretz, nicely played) who is beaten up by her pimp and his gaggle of Russian gangsters. It turns out McCall is a former CIA Special Forces agent who decides he can't sit idly by and allow such injustice. It's time for some equalizin'.
3. It also turns out that he's a killing machine. It really is sort of amazing the number of inventive ways Washington (and director Antoine Fuqua, he of Training Day) come up with to kill people. After McCall wipes out the Russian gangsters with cold, dead-eyed nonchalance, a whole new group of them (led by a heavily tattooed, by-the-numbers-psycho performance from Marton Csokas) comes to find and kill him. So the last half-hour of the movie is Washington murdering even more Russians—there are so many that I kept losing track of how many he had killed and how many were still out there looking for him—in increasingly bizarre and complicated fashions. The conclusion of the film takes place in the Home Depot-type store, and basically turns into an R-rated, surprisingly gruesome Home Alone. After a couple of the Rube Goldberg deaths, you half expect Washington to turn to the camera and shrug. Ain't I a stinker?
4. This is not without its appeal, mostly because it's Washington, a magnetic actor no matter what he's doing in whatever movie he's in. Has there ever been an actor so firmly in control that he has never embarrassed himself on film? Every great actor cuts loose—lets it go a little too far—at some point, making a fool out of him- or herself. (It's the Simple Jack principle.) But Washington has never, ever done this: He has always kept his dignity and his composure, even while acting opposite Whitney Houston and tackling farcical Shakespeare. Even when his movies are terrible, and some are (though not many as you might think, given how many he's made), you can't ever take your eyes off him, and you still implicitly trust him. And as The Equalizer shows, he is as fantastic at atmospherically executing people as he is at anything he's ever done. He's a badass, no question about it.
5. This movie is way, way too long and too slow at setting up McCall's pedestrian, altogether unnecessary backstory—it involves Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, somehow— and the villains are interchangeable and unmemorable. The less said about the instigating event being yet another "heroic male rescuing a prostitute" situation, the better. But that's not the point of The Equalizer, and it almost seems churlish to complain about it. The goal of this movie, as much as it takes its sweet time, is to establish Denzel Washington as a vengeful dispenser of vigilante justice so we can watch him get his Grownup Fatal Kevin McCallister on, movie after movie after movie. He never got to make a superhero movie, exactly, but this is pretty close: He's Batman, except he actually kills way more people. That'll work.
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