By Mick LaSalle
“The Equalizer” is the latest in the newest wave of action film, the Don’t Mess With Pops genre, first hinted at years ago by Harrison Ford but perfected only recently by Liam Neeson. In Don’t Mess With Pops movies, a peaceful man that any Baby Boomer can tell is in his prime — but that young people have the temerity to think of as a geezer — quietly takes abuse until he snaps and starts killing everybody in sight.
The appeal of this should be apparent to anyone.
Now Denzel Washington gets in on the action, loping into rooms as only he can, his face apparently placid but his eyes strangely dead, just an average guy doing his best to solve the population crisis. “The Equalizer” is silly but irresistible, taking situations of inherent gut-level impact and exploiting them for every bit of emotion and tension. It could never have been a great movie, but between Washington and director Antoine Fuqua, it’s as good as it could be, as in good enough to keep audiences glued to the seat for more than two hours.
It’s based on an all-but-forgotten TV show from the 1980s, about a former secret agent who offers his services to help people in need. They may face huge outsize enemies, but this guy is … the equalizer. Just having him on your side is like having your own private army.
The movie updates the show for modern times and to suit Washington’s sensibility. At the start of the movie, he’s wearing a smock at Home Mart (think Home Depot), living a quiet life and working his way slowly through the 100 Great Books. But you can tell he’s had a past. As played by Washington, he is courteous and rigorous and has something in his eyes that suggests loss. Washington also gives this fellow a touch of the obsessive compulsive. He is fixated on time, on schedules and on making sure that objects are properly lined up.
“The Equalizer” fulfills the first demand of a movie of this kind. It presents us with an evil so horrible so as to give us complete license to want to see it wiped off the face of the Earth. In this case, it’s a gang of Russian mobsters who are exploiting young girls and trapping them into prostitution. In the diner where he goes every night, Robert (Washington) becomes friendly with one of them (Chloë Grace Moretz), and when she gets beat up one day, well, let’s just say Robert takes a personal interest in her welfare.
One of the best things about “The Equalizer” is that it starts at an extremely high pitch. For example, what might be called the end of “Act I” is an event of such scale as would form the climax in another picture, but no, this movie is just getting started. Very early Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk establish the terms of “The Equalizer,” that Robert will go to extremes and so will the movie.
These extremes include activities such as killing a guy with a corkscrew, which takes time and effort and involves lots of blood. No surprise, the movie is rated R — as almost all action movies should be — and Fuqua makes use of the rating. This is one gory, nasty movie, and it’s safe to say that you should probably seek other entertainment if you never want to see a villain getting killed with a nail gun or a power drill. (I did mention the Home Depot connection, right?)
Much hangs on Washington’s powers of stillness and observation, of his ability to be read by the audience while seeming to be giving nothing away. He is the ideal complement to Fuqua’s slow but restless camera, which swoops and glides and rarely stands still. In one impeccably composed sequence, Robert walks into an office, and Fuqua shows us what he sees — as in, every single thing in the room that could be used as a weapon. What we don’t know is if he’s looking for defensive reasons, or if he’s planning to improvise a slaughter.
Marton Csokas is the Margaret Hamilton of “The Equalizer.” He arrives about 30 minutes into the action, not as the movie’s first bad guy, but as its second and even worse bad guy. He’s so evil that he dresses in suits and never has to raise his voice. However at one point, we get to see him with his shirt off, and his torso is covered back and front with sinister tattoos. Imagine having to shave your chest every day just so as not to obscure the death’s heads you’re sporting?
The tattoos are an example of a filmmaker using every opportunity to reinforce character. Another example is a T-shirt that says, “Foreigner 1978 World Tour.” You would never put a villain in a T-shirt like that, nor a hero. You would only put a guy (never a woman) in that T-shirt if you want audiences to pity him.
The Equalizer: Action drama. Starring Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas and Chloe Grace Moretz. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. (R. 131 minutes.) 3 stars out of 4 stars