Film Review: The Equalizer

Former agent is drawn out of hiding to fight a Russian gang in a reboot of the 1980s television series.

Fresh paint can't disguise the shaky structure underneath The Equalizer, a routine spy vigilante thriller. A strong performance by Denzel Washington as a laborer with special skills may not be enough to distinguish this from run-of-the-mill action entries.

Based on a 1980s television series starring Edward Woodward as a well-to-to vigilante, The Equalizer finds former agent Bob McCall hiding in plain sight in a Home Depot-style knockoff. Teased as "Pops" by fellow workers, McCall lives by himself in a Spartan apartment. Late at night you can usually find him reading the classics in an all-night diner.

That's where he befriends Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a pretty teen who has fallen prey to a Russian gang. When she's beaten senseless, McCall responds by taking out a half-dozen thugs in a Russian nightclub in under 30 seconds.

Teddy (Marton Csokas), a ruthless Russian hit man, is dispatched from Moscow to stop the damage. After assaulting one of Teri's prostitute friends, he zeroes in on McCall, tracking him through ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

With every attempt on his life, McCall ups the ante, attacking the Russians' prostitution ring, their money-laundering warehouse, and then the freighter they use to transport drugs. In the meantime, he takes on corrupt cops who have targeted a friend's family restaurant.

Early in the story, writer Richard Wenk finds intriguing ways to show McCall's thought processes, his near-Asperger's daily routines, and his silent empathy for those around him. Washington brings considerable dignity to his role, making McCall seem like a just avenger instead of a bloodthirsty psychopath—at least until he is undermined by the movie's comic-book plot twists.

The original television series drew some notoriety for its strong violence, and the movie version delivers its share of gratuitous gore in the form of severed fingers, punctured jaws, and other grotesque injuries. Few actors dispense justice with Washington's gusto and panache, but even he seems dwarfed by the movie's escalating sadism.

The vigilante genre as a whole has caught up to The Equalizer. "Retired," off-the-grid agents like McCall now include Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, and several other cop and spy dropouts who are reluctantly called back into the game. In two movies the RED gang has reduced the genre to comedy.

Despite some pacing problems, director Antoine Fuqua gives the action in The Equalizer a shiny polish, even if little of it makes any sense. There must be easier ways to kill Russian bad guys than by systematically demolishing a giant hardware supply center, for example.

There's no questioning the appeal of revenge fantasies, and Washington's presence makes The Equalizer far more interesting than it should be. If Russians insist on terrorizing innocent citizens, who wouldn't want somebody like him on our side?

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