The most interesting thing about The Equalizer, the unwanted big-screen reboot of the Edward Woodward starring 80’s TV series, is purely a coincidence. It’s the confirmation that, for the first time since the twin cold war and action movie booms of the 1980’s, Russians are the go-to nationality to choose as villains in Hollywood movies. Just look at the evidence from movies over the past few years; Iron Man 2 and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol got the trend up and running, with Kenneth Brannagh’s villain in the exceptionally bland Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit confirming the trend was now fully in action. Even the cuddly escapades of The Muppets in their sequel were halted by a trip to a Russian gulag featuring comedy Russian soldiers (the film’s release date unintentionally coincided with the whole Crimea debacle, adding a bizarre level of topicality).
If The Equalizer confirms anything it’s that this on-topic trend is purely coincidence – these are just the same generic bad guys from any Hollywood movie, with no clear motivation, who have been given Russian accents seemingly to make the audience ensure that they receive no viewer sympathy. The Russians that are the villains here are the front for a prostitution ring, with many underage prostitutes on their roster; the only one given any characterization is played by the ever brilliant Chloe Grace-Moretz for the half hour she’s relevant to the plot, before being made irrelevant until the film ends. She befriends Denzel Washington, a retired special ops officer who is opting for a quiet life (after faking his death and not telling his wife about it!) by befriending teenage prostitutes and getting a job at a local hardware store. After she’s given a beating by her pimps, Denzel comes out of retirement and takes matters into his own hands. Does this sound like Taken, which in itself sounds a lot like Death Wish? The answer is yes. The reason The Equalizer is a comparative failure is because it takes itself too seriously, with too many political-intrigue subplots and a bloated running time for what should essentially be Denzel running round and murdering foreigners (the post-Taken Neeson formula, as its known).
There is fun to be had within the film though. The introductory half hour introduces a more entertaining film than what follows, with many hints at a current affairs subtext punctuating the torture scenes. I like to read the Russians being fond of underage prostitutes as a political dig at the infamous gay propaganda bill the Russian government passed in June 2013, which equated the entire LGBT community with paedophiles. Here, the Russians ARE essentially paedophiles, or at least encouraging it for monetary gain, a not too subtle reminder that the people who passed the bill (the representatives of the country on the world stage) are obviously the ones in the wrong. Of course, this level of topicality is purely a coincidence – it’s made irrelevant plot wise by the time Denzel starts his murderous rampage.
Director Antoine Fuqua frames many of the scenes like comic book panels, giving this the gritty feel of a comic book origin story in the vein of Batman Begins. Although this visual stylization is assured, it isn’t entirely successful. Many scenes suffer from the same poor CGI that faltered his previous effort, the piss-poor Olympus has Fallen. It also doesn’t help that this superhero origin feel recalls Unbreakable; not only have we arrived back at a time when Russian baddies were acceptable, but also now at a time when M. Night Shymalan was a vital reference point and not just a walking joke.
There are many good action scenes, but they are few and far between; there are multiple convoluted storylines involving crooked cops, which are entirely irrelevant to the heart of the story. This could be a call back to Denzel and director Antoine Fuqua’s previous collaboration Training Day, which secured Denzel the Best Actor Oscar. It goes without saying this will not follow suit. That film managed to combine action and a complex anti-hero narrative to winning effect – the underwritten simplicity of every character onscreen here makes the narrative feel like a chore to follow. It’s not that it’s complicated; just that it’s so purely executed it feels like it is. You spend the majority of the running time waiting for Chloe Moretz to return, or for anything resembling a rollicking good action scene.
The final sequence in the hardware store delivers on this front, using every single item in the B&Q catalogue as a torture weapon to winning effect. It’s just a shame that by this time in the film I’ve ceased to care. It’s only until reflecting now that I’ve realized that structurally it shares the same problems as The Raid 2; too much time spent on far-too-complex narratives and underwritten characters than the inventive action that is selling the film in the first place. This isn’t to say I’m against these things in an action-oriented movie, just that I would prefer as much thought to go into this as the fight choreography and the blood splatter. How can I care about the fates of the characters if they’re so uninteresting?
The Equalizer may be the most frustrating movie of the year. It shows so much promise early on that it flounders by taking itself too seriously. Fuqua has shown in the past how to combine intelligent plot with thrilling action, yet all of his films since have seemed to ignore how to do this. For a film based on a TV show that is most likely only remembered by modern audiences due to its reference in The Wolf of Wall Street, expectations were obviously low. It doesn’t quite meet those low expectations, but doesn’t quite pass them either. To me, its cinema opening just feels like a trial run for when it will appear at midnight on ITV4 in five years’ time and will be re-evaluated as a significant pop-culture document of international relations at the time of release. It isn’t – neither gritty enough to be convincing or cheesy enough to be fun, it occupies the middle ground where seemingly all modern Denzel Washington vehicles reside.