UNLIKE MIAMI VICE, fellow stalwart of 1980s TV schedules The Equalizer never really penetrated pop culture in any significant way.
The Equalizer (15)
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo
Star rating: **
Beyond a shout-out in The Wolf of Wall Street earlier this year, it’s probably best remembered for Stewart Copeland’s menacingly synthy score and for preserving the cult status of its British star, the late Edward Woodward. The particulars of the show were certainly nothing special. Revolving around a vigilante with a mysterious government agency past helping ordinary people get justice when the odds were against them, it was like a one-man version of The A-Team for a (slightly) more grown-up audience – just vague and generic enough, in other words, to make it perfect fodder for a pulpy big screen update, one that could capitalise on the bad-ass-sounding title without having to worry about pleasing a legion of fans with strong attachments to the mythology of the show.
Quite how a new version of the The Equalizer with Denzel Washington in the title role could squander that kind of freedom is anyone’s guess, but squander it the film does as Washington’s Training Day director Antoine Fuqua takes a promisingly simple and stripped-back premise and transforms it into a bloated and boring action thriller – a film that doesn’t so much hit the ground running as simply hit the ground, lie there injured for a while and then inch its way towards some kind of resolution. Things start badly as Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk spend an age building up character details a child could understand in an instant.
In this version of The Equalizer, the mysterious Robert McCall (Washington) spends his days working in a DIY superstore. When we first join him, he’s helping an eager, overweight colleague get in shape so he can achieve his dream of becoming the store’s security guard. Lecturing him on what food he should be eating, participating in training montages that have a miniscule payoff later on, and filling this minor supporting character’s head with bumper-sticker ready motivational platitudes (“Progress not perfection”), McCall’s Mr Miyagi-meets-Jesus routine extends to his own home life too. When he’s not sitting quietly in his spare, neatly ordered apartment, he’s dining in a restaurant, the proprietor of which allows him to bring in his own teabags and graciously tolerates his OCD-like habit of folding napkins just so while lecturing fellow diners about their refined sugar intake.
McCall also happens to be working his way through the hundred books everyone should have read, a groaning character quirk that allows him to have multiple theme-reinforcing discussions about The Old Man and the Sea just in case we don’t quite get that he’s a man who won’t sit idly by as society’s predators exploit the weak. After a lot of chat like this, his inherent saviour-like nature starts to emerge in a more forceful way after he takes a fatherly interest in a young prostitute called Teri (played by Chloë Grace Moretz). She’s a fellow patron of the diner and, even though he fills her head with contradictory life coach advice, he seems genuinely concerned for her welfare. After witnessing her being bundled into a car by a nasty Russian pimp, his suppressed knight-in-shining-armour is on the verge of breaking out – but not before Moretz’s character ends up in hospital, where she remains, off-screen, for the rest of the movie.
The film is the best part of an hour old before Washington gets to enter full action hero mode and though his precision strike on Teri’s handlers is a blurry mess of quick cuts, explicit violence and goofy point-of-view visual flourishes that give the impression he’s some kind of cyborg, its torpor-relieving effect should not be underestimated. Alas, it doesn’t last. Once he’s slugged it out with these lowlifes, the plot slog continues as McCall finds his actions bring him to the attention of the Russian mob. They’re working in cahoots with corrupt cops from the Boston police department to control the east coast narcotics-and-vice trade, a plot turn that results in New Zealand actor Marton Csokas wandering around Boston unleashing chaos as a thickly accented mob enforcer whose ruthlessness is signalled not by his name – Teddy! – but by his Hitler hair and heavily tattooed body.
Meanwhile we get to see McCall try on his new role as a friendly neighbourhood vigilante – giving bad guys the chance to do the right thing before punishing them for shaking down ordinary citizens. Details of his shady government past also start emerging with late cameos from Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, but by this point it’s hard to care, particularly as Fuqua attempts to bring proceedings to a close with an extended shoot-out in the US equivalent of Homebase. Getting even has rarely been so dull.