Sunday, September 28, 2014

You want more Denzel? "The Equalizer" is at least good enough for that...

Viewing the film incarnation of The Equalizer, I found myself watching Denzel Washington dominate the screen, as he always does, and thinking of John Wayne.  Many film historians have debated how much of an “actor” John Wayne actually was, but there is almost universal agreement that he was first and foremost a “movie star” - a screen presence that demanded and drew in an audience’s attention, regardless of what character he may be portraying in any particular film, or how good a job of it he may be doing.  While I sincerely doubt anyone of sound mind would question Denzel Washington’s acting ability, I submit to you that he possesses that John Wayne-ish quality of the “movie star.”  Much like John Wayne once played something as ludicrous (for him) as Genghis Khan and audiences would still accept it out of their affection for his general screen presence, Washington can portray such extremely unlikely character types as spies/assassins at the ripe old age of 59 and pull it off, primarily because audiences love seeing him in anything he does.  No, Denzel would (probably) never wear a cowboy hat and ride a horse in a Western, but if he did, he’d make you want to watch him.   

This movie gives us one Robert McCall, an obviously-educated middle-aged gentleman who exudes kindness and compassion for those in his life, who yearns for a more quiet, Spartan life after some unexplained past in which he apparently was some sort of intelligence operative/assassin.  He even seems to have a touch of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, arranging silverware on tables in a just-so manner and mentally calculating to the second the path he will weave through imminent episodes of conflict (I know the concept of an OCD-riddled Law-Enforcement type has been explored in the TV series Monk, but let’s face it - that was a comedy; at least here, the notion is taken fairly seriously).  He works in a Boston hardware megastore during the day, assuming something of a Favorite-Uncle role to his younger coworkers, all the while keeping them guessing about his mysterious past.  He seems to find sleep all but impossible, however, and spends his nights sipping tea and reading classic literature in an all-night diner.  

A young call girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who frequents the diner between clients becomes friendly with McCall, and when the Russian mobsters who control her put her in the hospital after she offends a client, McCall cannot maintain his self-imposed retirement any longer and decides to mete out some justice, primarily because, as he explains at one point, he is the one able to do so.  The resulting violence leads the Mob to send in an ex-Spetsnaz “cleaner” (Marton Csokas) to eliminate this do-gooder troublemaker and get all the illegal business money flowing again, and the intimate little war these two men wage on one another culminates in a Home-Depot-as-Hogan’s-Alley confrontation that will show you just how many ways one can use home improvement products to kill a man.

McCall displays almost superhuman calm in violent situations, a character trait perfectly suited for Washington’s screen presence.  The checking of his watch before and after a conflict - his grimacing silence while he treats his own wounds - his sitting at a table and holding the eyes of this film’s primary baddie - we see a gleam in his eye or feel a vibe from his body language in all these things that we’ve seen in numerous other performances he’s given through the years (Man on Fire and 2 Guns jump to mind), yet is always appropriate to the character and moment in which he’s giving it, and audiences always love it.  

The movie moves along at a deliberate pace, almost to the point of qualifying as “slow,” but the screenplay dribbles out just enough tidbits of information about McCall with just enough frequency to hold our attention.  There is much in Richard Wenk’s screenplay that is never explicitly stated or explained, namely just how McCall obtained his skills in infiltration and assassination, and precisely who the seemingly-former government-type (Melissa Leo) who aids and shelters McCall at one point is.  Strangely, I found this an interesting approach to telling the story.  Director Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington to his Best Actor Oscar in Training Day, seems to understand his lead actor’s skills and wisely chooses to make this film a typical Denzel action picture, trusting Washington’s screen presence to hold our attention through a story formula that we’ve seen a few times before.

What I don’t understand is why we are to even call this movie The Equalizer, as A) it has so little in common with the late-1980s television series upon which it is (supposedly) based and B) the title is never uttered/mentioned throughout the movie, therefore having no meaning to anything in it.  Washington’s character sharing the name of Edward Woodward’s character from the TV show is about the extent of the similarities.  We don’t even get a snippet of the show’s oh-so-cool theme music, damn it!.  I’m not aware of any Star Trek-like following of the original TV show that might lead Sony/Columbia to believe using this title would result in a stampede at the box office larger than would just billing it as the latest Denzel Washington movie, but I must assume their marketing people are much smarter about such things than I am (insert sarcasm here).

The Equalizer is by no means a great film.  It’s a bit of a cliche’ movie, nothing we haven’t seen in countless thrillers, revenge yarns and vigilante flicks before it, but it’s done serviceably enough to be entertaining, and it also has the supreme benefit of having Denzel Washington in it.  He ain’t John Wayne, but he IS Denzel, after all, and he’s always worth watching.