Funny story: on my way out of the press screening for The Equalizer, I met with one of the promoters (as we all must) to answer the age-old question: what did you think of the movie? With a giddy smile, I told her that fans of the original TV series were going to love this, to which she replied, “This thing’s a remake?!” Indeed, despite our current obsession with eighties properties like Robocop (2014) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), it seems no one remembers the source CBS drama, which ran from 1985 to 1989 and told of a former CIA operative turned street-level vigilante. One has to wonder why director Antoine Fuqua bothered with the franchise.
After all, The Equalizer was conceived as a Death Wish (1974) knock-off with a couple of James Bond tropes thrown in for good measure. We’ve had so many of those over the years screenwriter Richard Wenk could have changed the title to save on licensing fees, and no one would’ve batted an eye. Mind you, against all odds, Fuqua and his team have captured all the elements that set the character of Robert McCall apart from the horde of Charles Bronson wannabes out there, traits I thought intrinsic to Edward Woodward’s performance, eighties culture, network demands, and the television medium itself.
One: on account of being a mannered old Englishman, Woodward portrayed our titular anti-hero as a mannered old Englishman. Even at sixty years old, Denzel Washington, whose stem cells should be preserved for future generations, seems a bit young for the role, so The Equalizer reminds us of his age by giving the new McCall a retiree lifestyle: no car (let alone a Jaguar XJ6), quiet reading sessions at the local diner, a part-time job at Home Depot, etc. As an African-American, our protagonist doesn’t have that “Alfred Pennyworth” demeanour, but he makes up for it with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that evokes the same excessive attention to detail and hints at the wound-up killing machine lurking beneath.
Two: as per eighties convention, Woodward spent an inordinate amount of time gunning down baddies and then holding for editing with his trademarked “vengeance is a dish best served cold” grin. Washington’s got the impassive stare down pat, but, in an era when even Seth Rogen has walked away from slow-motion explosions, The Equalizer really has to up the ante in terms of sociopathic disregard for human life. Cue our hero’s ingenious habit of weaponizing store items that he then puts back on the rack so no one can trace them. For the new McCall, it doesn’t make a difference whether you shoot a criminal or puncture his head with an electric drill as long as the guy’s dead. It’s pretty creepy in an awesome sort of way.
Three: back in the day, a blood-thirsty murderer couldn’t star in his own network show, so our titular vigilante was given a deep sense of compassion to offset his radical methods. The film cranks things up a notch by making McCall an endearing champion of the ninety-nine percent. No longer a ghost that pops in and out of people’s lives, he comforts his co-workers during a holdup, helps a friend (Johnny Skourtis) pass his security guard exam, and gives impromptu literature classes to a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz). It’s not until the latter gets in trouble with her employers that The Equalizer turns into a crime thriller.
Four: owing to the serialised nature of television, the original McCall faced a different villain every week. To evoke this attribute, The Equalizer has our hero handle multiple cases, taking on the Russian mob, corrupt cops, and a pair of armed robbers. As a result, those unfamiliar with the source material may find the plot a bit scattershot, though a main thread does emerge eventually, when the mobsters’ European overlords send in a psychopathic hit man played by Marton Csokas. Think of him as the nega-equalizer: an equally mannered and calculating super-soldier devoted to preserving the criminal underworld’s imbalanced hierarchy.
Yes, it’s wildly over the top, yet Fuqua displays tremendous restraint here. If it seems like I spent the entire review describing the new Robert McCall rather than the new The Equalizer, it’s because the director has opted to deliver a character study rather than an action blockbuster. In fact, he skips over a lot of the violence, expecting us to fill the blanks when our ultra-efficient protagonist drops a bloody pair of sunglasses on the bad guy’s table. Here is a movie that understands the appeal of its source material doesn’t lie in explosive shootouts (of which there are two) or extended car chases (of which there are none) but in the idiosyncratic qualities that make up our hero’s unique personality. I only wish more people remembered the guy.