It’s a bit of a truism, to put it mildly, to say that Denzel Washington is one of the all-time acting greats and film stars. But for all of his serious dramatic chops and performances and the many awards to show for them, it is in the seemingly undemanding action programmers like THE EQUALIZER where, to me, he truly proves the singular depths and scope of his talents and presence. To the credit of screenwriter Richard Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua, they have found the right, refreshing angle for this feature film adaptation of the 1980’s CBS series of the same name. Like that Edward Woodward starring vehicle, Washington plays Robert McCall, a man using the certain skills from his shady past doing the dirty work for a government agency to help the innocent, needy, and or helpless. But the angle here is one that, if I recall correctly, never was explicitly explored in the original TV show’s four-year run: the superhero-esque origin story of how he was lulled out of a quiet, anonymous, unremarkable, but content post-service existence to become the righteous avenger who solicits his services for free via advertisement. In a move that may those seeking instant action gratification, Wenk and Fuqua take the nature of an origin story very seriously–that is, patiently setting up McCall’s status quo working at a Home Depot-esque warehouse store and how his casual acquaintance with a teen prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz, effective in a smallish but pivotal role) prompts him back into action. But even once it reaches that point, the film does not suddenly become all about ass-kicking, with Wenk and Fuqua continuing to organically build the dramatic stakes as the shockwaves from McCall’s actions reverberate through the Russian mob, who send a ruthless enforcer (Marton Csokas, spot-on) on the hunt.
That he takes his time to build dramatic momentum is a measure of the familiarity and faith Fuqua has in his star, who is the primary reason why the character and film remain so consistently compelling event without wall-to-wall action. There really isn’t a whole lot to McCall on the page: shady past and requisite regret, strict moral code of justice, a nigh-invulnerable baddest of badasses when push comes to shove. And this is where having someone like Washington in the lead is invaluable, who not only has such commanding charisma but can convey so much in his stillness and the most subtle of choices. Training Day fans may bemoan the lack of a big, bellowing “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” display of histrionic firepower, but Washington’s choice to very rarely ever raise his voice speaks volumes about the character, from his moral code to his self-awareness of the brutality within to how much conscious effort he has to exert to keep it under control–making those outbursts all the more brutal, frightening, and, honestly, satisfying.
And do Fuqua and Washington ever make the first two-thirds’ carefully built foundation pay off when they finally let loose and blow the roof off the emma effa with a terrifically tense, unusually extended climax. Fuqua knows to make this sequence more than just about the flying bullets and violent ass-and-all-other-parts kicking, for beyond the expected visceral thrills and bone-cracking and -smashing brutality, it is a wonderfully paced and suspenseful cat-and-many-mice standoff game between McCall and a large crew of bad guys, with that smartly established narrative groundwork and the innate gifts of the star lending gravitas and resonance to the explosive goings-on–and lending that much more satisfaction and excitement, most especially to see where Washington and Fuqua can take this in future installments.
By Michael DeQuina