Last week, Liam Neeson delivered his now semi-annual tough guy performance, in the cut-above thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones. Now the only more consistent sixtysomething movie star in Hollywood, Denzel Washington, is hot on his heels with The Equalizer, based on the 80s TV show. While Neeson plays more or less standard grizzled, Washington, despite looking similarly younger than his advancing years, embraces some of the trappings of his age. His Robert McCall, getting ready for work at a Home Depot-like superstore, puts on his New Balance sneakers and, unlike so many chrome-domed action badasses, is actually seen shaving his head.
Of course, McCall isn’t established as a badass, beyond being played by Washington.
He lives a quiet life: clocking in at the store, serving as an unofficial life coach to some of his coworkers, making conversation with a troubled-looking young girl (Chloe Moretz) at his favorite diner. He’s even something of an amateur nutritionist—in a clever flip of the usual old-school action hero who craves old-fashioned bold flavors, none of this newfangled kale nonsense, he calmly preaches the virtues of cutting out refined sugar. His routines are so well-ordered that it takes a little while to realize that McCall probably suffers from a mild form of OCD. Washington doesn’t take this trait as an invitation to overact; instead, he tamps down the famous tics memorably imitated by Jay Pharoah on SNL, favoring smaller gestures. Like Neeson, Washington brings real skill and pleasure to his genre-movie slumming.
The first 40 minutes or so of The Equalizer are, appropriately, almost enough to function as a big-screen re-pilot of the TV show (of which I’ve seen little, though I recall that Rob Reiner’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street didn’t want to get any fucking phone calls during it). If anything, it’s less eventful than your average pilot as it observes the details of McCall’s life and hints at a more violent past. Most of the best Washington programmers are those directed by the late Tony Scott, and the de facto replacement of Scott with Washington’s Training Day director Antoine Fuqua at first seemed like a sad comedown, especially given Fuqua’s profoundly stupid and cheap-looking previous feature, Olympus Has Fallen. But the first chunk of the movie turns out not to require the services of Scott’s endless cuts, pans, zooms, and green-yellow-smeared photography.
Even in low-key mode, though, The Equalizer happens to offer an object lesson in how well-directed its competitor A Walk Among the Tombstones is. Both movies orient their late-middle-age heroes in old-fashioned diners, shooting a couple of scenes there. Tombstones writer-director Scott Frank fixes his camera on Neeson’s diner booth, only occasionally cutting to a close-up, otherwise using the framed booth, and the space outside the window, with great care, establishing atmosphere, character, and relationships just by avoiding unnecessary cutaways. Fuqua, meanwhile, shoots several character-developing diner scenes between Washington and Moretz from many more angles, for no discernible reason. He cuts between close-ups, then over-the-shoulder two-shots where they share the frame in the foreground and background, then heads outside for a few shots through the diner’s main window. It’s not incoherent, in the sense that it’s not difficult to discern what’s happening in the scene, but the meaning of the cuts gets muddled into a coverage sampler.
Still, for an ADD aspirant, Fuqua restrains the material for longer than you might expect. After a nice slow build-up, Moretz’s teenage hooker turns up in the hospital, and McCall unleashes his brutal skill set against the Russian gangsters who put her there. If Tombstones skimped on detective work after its first hour or so, The Equalizer only goes through the motions of investigations between violent confrontations. The mob plotting gets a little shaggy for what basically amounts to: Denzel gets pissed at the Russian mob and they get pissed right back. Fuqua winds up with a movie that lurches between flavorful restraint and excessive force (Scott, for all of his own excesses, was generally too fleet of foot to lurch).
After various negotiations of declining interesting, it all goes down back at the hardware superstore. The cavernous, prop-heavy set would be a great location for an epic Jackie Chan fight, which would scarcely be less at odds with the movie’s first section than what the movie offers instead: a ludicrous killing orgy that resembles Home Alone remade as a slasher movie. As Washington inventively and gruesomely dispatches his enemies, the implicit gorehound “heroism” of the modern slasher (he’s the one who provides the awesome kills, after all) becomes an explicit call for righteous applause. Again, Tony Scott comes to mind, particularly a weaker entry in the Scott/Washington filmography: Man on Fire, a movie that expended a lot of set-up just to get the audience frothing along with Washington as he exacted revenge against various scumbags. Here Washington re-asserts that old Man on Fire vengeance, but it’s the calm before his storm that really uses his talents.