Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer left me with three suspicious hunches. First, I think that the climax where the eponymous avenger of the victimized and downtrodden brutally dispatches a group of Russian mobsters in a home improvement warehouse was the first part of this film that was written. Second, I think that at some point the writers went to a Home Depot, browsed the aisles, and tried to figure out the goriest and most creative ways they could kill people with the wares available. And third, I don’t think that the screenplay was originally intended for the Equalizer, a film based on an eighties CBS television franchise.
In addition to being generic, Fuqua’s The Equalizer seems uncertain as to what kind of a film it wants to be. It begins like a revenge thriller with the mild-mannered Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) murdering five Russian gangsters after a friend of his, the young prostitute named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), is assaulted and hospitalized by one of their clients. The true meat of the story is found in the ensuing cat-and-mouse game when Russian “fixer” Teddy (played by Marton Csokas in a performance that sees him look so much like an angry Kevin Spacey that one wonders if the producers cast the wrong actor and tried to cover up their mistake with makeup) arrives to try and stop him. Here begins an ersatz espionage thriller with Teddy stalking McCall, McCall stalking Teddy, secret identities, surveillance equipment, and menacing phone calls. But what little tension the film has to offer is ruined in the third act when McCall transforms into a bona fide 80s action hero. The crowning moment of incredulity is when McCall blows up an entire shipyard owned and operated by the Russians while slowly walking away, oblivious to the fact that maybe he should have cleared the giant gasoline tankers before igniting the explosion.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of The Equalizer is that the film clearly aspires to be more than a run-of-the-mill action film. Fuqua and Washington had previously collaborated on Training Day (2001), a film which was easily one of the best American productions of the early 2000s (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). But whereas the violence in Training Day was chaotic and unpredictable, the action beats in The Equalizer are telegraphed and expected. Washington’s performance as Detective Alonzo Harris was spontaneous and kept the audience unsure as to whether or not he was truly corrupt until the last act. But we figure out all there is to know about McCall within the first ten minutes of the film: he has a mysterious past and he likes to help people.
It seems that Fuqua tried to depict McCall not as a character but as an archetype, an idea that is supported in no small part by an aggravating tendency for the character to sagely summarize great pieces of literature that just so happen to mimic the progress of the film (The Old Man and the Sea represents an old man finding fresh purpose late in life; Don Quixote is about a man who thinks he is a knight in a land where they don’t exist any more; and so on and so forth). There isn’t much to know about McCall because what matters is what he represents, and in this aspect he is almost a superhero. But in trying to make McCall a symbol, Fuqua merely reduces a great character into something hollow and uninspired.