In an early scene in The Equalizer, Denzel Washington’s character Robert McCall explains to a teenage prostitute (played by the always great Chloe Grace-Moretz) the plot of Don Quixote. It’s about a knight who lives in an age where knights no longer exist, he tells her. He may as well have been describing himself.
In truth, the scene almost seems like an explanation for why this aging film property was dug up in the first place. That is unless the fan pressure for a big screen reboot of The Equalizer, originally a TV series that ran on CBS in the 80s, was simply too much for Columbia Pictures to handle. Though something tells me that’s probably not the case…
Either way, I can see why writer Richard Wenk (and the film’s marketing department) tried to drudge up the comparison to Don Quixote. Personally, I’ve never seen a single episode of the ‘80s series but film characters have changed so much over the last 25 odd years that without the allusions to that iconic character Washington’s McCall would have stood out like a sore thumb.
In fact, in the early going of The Equalizer that’s exactly what happens. We watch as McCall glides through his life as a simple hardware store employee, helping his young friend Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) lose enough weight to become a security guard and encouraging Alena, the aforementioned teenage prostitute, to pursue her musical aspirations.
There are times where all of it is just so overly earnest that McCall comes across more like a wannabe motivational speaker than a real human being.
Before long though, Alena gets beaten up by her handlers and McCall is finally compelled to action, showing off his other, more interesting, side. In the process, he makes an enemy of the Russian mob and the movie finally kicks into gear.
The action itself is ripped straight from the Bourne movies, with McCall demonstrating the same super soldier like prowess of that other character.
For the most part, it all plays as very intelligent and well scripted. McCall (and Washington for that matter) is never better than when he’s improvising his way out of a tight bind.
Of course, that’s not to say everything passes the smell test. Much of the time those binds are due in part by McCall’s rather distracting aversion to guns. For a guy who seems to love stirring up trouble with the wrong kind of people it seems as though he could make his life a lot easier by just carrying one of them around, even if watching him negotiate his way without is part of the fun.
Still, that same Bourne mentality that starts to wear around the edges. McCall is perhaps just a little too good at what he does. There’s never any real consequence.
To touch back on that same analogy, Don Quixote suffered all sorts of humiliation and defeat in his quest to bring back chivalry. McCall never quite seems like anything’s out of his control and the result is that The Equalizer can feel lacking in depth.
Still, the movie focuses enough on character that it beats out half of the other wannabe Bourne movies in the genre.
This sort of material is right in Denzel Washington’s wheelhouse and he plays McCall with enough internal friction to give him at least some dimension.
Likewise, the film absolutely nails its villain, played in fine form by actor Marton Csokas. McCall may be a tad old fashioned, but his nemesis is every bit the sociopath that modern audiences have come to expect. That contrast alone adds weight.
The Equalizer is bound to be polarizing. It’s clunky at times, tends to drag out scenes and overuse slow motion, and its sense of good and evil is a little too clear cut.
These are flaws that I’m sure have been touched on previously by more than a few contemporary action critics, but with at least some attention paid to its characters, tense, intelligent action sequences, and a slew of solid performances, you could do a lot worse in a popcorn flick than The Equalizer.
Final Score: 3/5