Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: "The Equalizer"


I know what you're thinking: Denzel Washington in a remake of the cheesy 1980s TV show, "The Equalizer," about an over-the-hill secret agent who helps out people in need?!? Our Denzel? Who's been a prime model of cinematic masculinity for ... well, a heck of a long time, actually. Still, why is he doing old-man roles?

I hate to break it to you, but Washington will be 60 in a few months. Sixty. Which makes him five years younger than Edward Woodward was when the show debuted in 1985.

In retrospect, the TV series was prescient about introducing a subgenre of filmmaking that's become quite prevalent today: the Geezer Spy Thriller. We've seen any number of aging big-name actors take to the field as late-in-life action stars, with Liam Neeson ("Taken") and Kevin Costner ("Three Days to Kill") among them.

The basic premise of these movies is the man, always a loner, always with a mysterious past, though there's pain and violence there, usually involving secret agent work for some shadowy governmental arm. He thinks he's given up that life of dark deeds, but circumstances and/or an inability to look away from evil prompt him to apply his deadly skills against a coterie of bad guys.

The tough young punks all dismiss him because he's old, aka less than a man, but he soon puts them in their places -- specifically, lying on the floor in a pool of their own blood.

Washington plays Robert McCall very close to the vest. He is defined by his stillness and passivity, at least until he springs into action. Bob works at Home Mart, a big-box hardware store a la Lowes or Home Depot, where he stocks shelves and pushes around dollies loaded with bags and such, and takes a good-natured ribbing from the younger employees. His apartment is tidy to the point of OCD, and is filled with classic literature books that he's making his way through.

Bob is very aware of the passage of time. He uses his watch to time most everything he does, from getting ready in the morning to taking out an entire room of armed bad guys bare-handed. Bob does most everything sans weapons; I can only recall him wielding a firearm one time in the entire movie. Mostly, he lures his prey in close, putting them at ease with his frumpy appearance and non-threatening demeanor, and then strikes like a cobra.

To say that he "fights" his opponents is to suggest that they ever have a chance of getting an upper hand on him. Most encounters are over in less than two seconds. Even his chief nemesis, an enforcer for the Russian mafia named Teddy, is clearly not his equal in hand-to-hand combat skills. He's played deliciously by Marton Csokas, ever so slithery and brutal. With his slicked-down hair and slimy manner, he practically seems to be secreting toxic oils through his epidermis.

Things come to a head when Bob defends a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) he's grown friendly with. A non-sleeper, he visits the same diner every night around 2 a.m., bringing his own tea packet carefully wrapped in a handkerchief; like him, she's one of the regulars. She dreams of getting out from under her abusive Russian pimp, Slavi (David Meunier), and becoming a singer, but she's beaten to a pulp for her transgressions. Bob offers to buy her freedom, but Slavi is disinclined, and the bloodletting ensues.

This brings in a succession of ever-higher-ranking Russians to deal with the situation, and a subsequent rising body count.

Director Antoine Fuqua previously partnered with Washington very successfully in 2001's "Training Day," which won him his second acting Oscar. The two seem to intuitively get each other, as Washington's performance is fully vested with emotional and dramatic power. In lesser hands, this would probably seem like exploitative dreck, but cast and crew elevate the material to unexpectedly hefty heights.

Bob never seems like a mere killing machine, but a complex man with a simple outward facade. He takes no joy in slaying -- unlike the sadomasochistic Teddy -- but is not shy about putting his skillset to good (bad) use.

Fuqua's action scenes have a tendency to go a little over the top ... and then they go a little more. He uses slow-motion effects in the middle of the mayhem to an almost interminable degree. There's only so much one can take of water drops beading slowly off the brow of our hero, or him striding purposefully away from an explosion, contemptuous of the shockwave and debris.

A little slo-mo goes a long way, bro.

Screenwriter Richard Wenk makes the wise choice of only using the television show as a mere springboard to tell their own story. Bob, with his slouchy colorless clothes and brusque manner, bears no resemblance at all to the clipped British lilt, natty suits and trench coats of TV.

Despite some occasional bouts of silliness owing to taking itself too seriously, "The Equalizer" is a surprisingly effective psychological thriller, featuring a gruff but relatable hero and some eminently hiss-able villains. Liam Neeson may currently be king of the Geezer Spy genre, but Denzel Washing may just be the man to knock him off the throne.





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