Thursday, February 26, 2015

"The Equalizer": review

[NB: Here be spoilers.]

"The Equalizer" was originally a short-lived TV series (1984-89) that starred crusty old Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, an angry man with a mysterious past (he was a government operative of some sort or another) who uses his skills to help the everyday Joe or Jane get out of a jam, advertising his special services in the classifieds. I don't know whether much was made of the fact that McCall was British but worked for an American agency; perhaps the viewers weren't supposed to think too hard about that.

After a long slumber, McCall was reincarnated in 2014's reboot "The Equalizer," which stars Denzel Washington as McCall and is directed by Antoine Fuqua (whom you might remember from "The Replacement Killers," among other movies). As in the TV version, Washington's McCall is an ex-operative with a murky past—a man of extreme self-discipline and strict habits, now living a life as a hardware-store clerk. Because of insomnia caused by the death of his wife, McCall often finds himself in a local diner late at night, reading his way down a list of books that he had promised his wife he would get through. Also frequenting the diner is Teri/Alina, a Russian-speaking call girl (Chlöe Grace Moretz) who turns tricks for the local Boston branch of the Russian mafia. McCall and Alina don't know each other's names at first, but Alina finds herself charmed by the retiring McCall even as McCall finds himself growing increasingly concerned about Alina's life choices and her safety. Alina confesses her plans to leave prostitution and become a singer, and she tells McCall that "Teri" is just her street name.

The plot leaps into high gear when Alina's Russian keepers beat her severely after she strikes an overly grope-y client one night. McCall visits the Russian gangsters, walking right into the restaurant serving as their headquarters and offering the head guy, Slavi (David Meunier), $9800 to buy Alina's freedom and allow her to lead her own life. You can predict how this scene is going to end, and sure enough, when Slavi refuses to grant the hospitalized Alina her freedom, McCall opens up the long-expected can of CIA-trained whoop-ass on everyone in the room. By the end of the fight, Slavi is on the floor, bleeding out through a gunshot wound in his neck; McCall then sinks down to the floor next to him and offers this cold, pitiless, testosterone-filled speech, which sounds as if it had been written by Frank Miller for The Dark Knight Returns:

Your heart's beating three times the normal rate. That's because you're losing so much blood. About thirty seconds, your body's gonna shut down, and you're gonna suffocate. Alina, the girl you beat half to death, her life's gonna go on. Yours is gonna end right here, on this funky floor, over ninety-eight hundred dollars. You should have taken the money.

Keanu Reeves, in "John Wick" (see my review here), could never have delivered those lines with the same gelid conviction. Even though "Wick" was also about a trained killer with a beef against the Russian mob (and what's with all these Russian-mob movies, anyway?), Denzel Washington can out-act Reeves anytime and anywhere, which automatically elevates "The Equalizer" to a stature far beyond that of "John Wick." And I have to admit, I'm a sucker for the kind of Batman-style dialogue that "The Equalizer" delivers. There's a lot that this movie gets right—or at least does better than what was done in Keanu Reeves's actioner.

But at the same time, "The Equalizer" is a frustrating combination of smart and stupid. The screenwriters do a good job with the good-guy/bad-guy verbal interactions, but the action itself stretches the bounds of credibility. It's not that Denzel, who is now 60, can't pull off the role of a believable action star: it's more that some of the action, especially the climactic fight inside McCall's Home Depot-style warehouse, doesn't always make sense. One question that ran through my mind throughout that entire scene was: Where are the police?

That complaint aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that there was no huge, nonsensical final battle between the two main antagonists, McCall and ex-Spetsnaz badass Nicolai "Teddy" Itchenko (Marton Csokas, a.k.a. Celeborn in Lord of the Rings, in sinister Russian mode). When McCall finally does Teddy in, he gives Teddy absolutely no quarter, using a nail gun—an implausibly weaponized nail gun—to strike Teddy's major nerves and render him completely unable to move. It's cruel, it's ruthless, and it's entirely in keeping with the quietly vengeful nature of McCall's character. The nail gun itself was cartoonish, but McCall's bloody-mindedness made for good cinema, at least for those of us who dig righteous anger.

Taken as a whole, "The Equalizer" is light years better than "John Wick," but I thought that director Fuqua, who has a few action films under his belt, could have done a better job with editing his fight scenes and scripting the action sequences more logically, plausibly, and adroitly. Some of the pacing is clumsy—and I say this as an admirer of Fuqua's work (again with Denzel Washington) in "Training Day," which I thought was a fine film. (If anything, McCall seems like the moral mirror image of the corrupt cop that Washington portrayed in "Training Day").

Critics have complained that this version of "The Equalizer," far from being a reboot of the TV series, seems to be completely its own thing. I'm not so sure: Denzel Washington's McCall takes on more than the Russian mafia: several subplots show him going after run-of-the-mill robbers and dirty lawmen in the Boston Police Department, much as was true in the TV show. The movie ends with McCall putting out his classified ad, just like in the show, offering his services gratis to people who are down on their luck and who need to even the odds.

A word about fight choreography: we live in a post-Bourne age, so fight sequences have evolved to be meaner and more intimate. I can't say whether this trend in fight choreography represents a truer reflection of actual CIA-style hand-to-hand combat training, but I like the look of most modern movie fights. Denzel's character doesn't deliver balletic martial-arts kicks; it's mostly arms and hands, elbows and forearms, holds and locks and short, sharp weapons that make for more close-range killing. In "The Equalizer," the fighting style matches well with Denzel's aging physique, and Denzel's physique (there's at least one scene in which it's clear the man has a very slight paunch) makes him a more relatable action hero.

And some final observations: Chlöe Grace Moretz's character, Alina, is in the movie for a few minutes at the beginning and a few minutes at the end. That's one problem, especially since she's a major catalyst for the movie's main plot. Another is that I felt Moretz was completely miscast in the role of a teen hooker. It's not that Moretz can't act: I thought she was an awesome little spitfire in "Kick-Ass" (review here); it's more that I simply wasn't convinced the girl could ever be a whore. Moretz radiates a cuteness, sweetness, and innocence that completely drown out her sexuality. It's impossible to think of this girl as dirty.*

I'm not sure whether "The Equalizer" has some sort of moral. If there is one, it's probably something like If you know your opponent is a trained killer, do not face off against him inside a hardware store, no matter how many Russian cronies you bring with you. But I don't think you watch a movie like "The Equalizer" because you're interested in moral messages; you watch "The Equalizer" because you know, going in, that ass is going to be kicked, and the bad guys will get their comeuppance. All of them.

*Your mileage may vary. She's got boobs now.



John from Daejeon said...

You know I am no fan of this inferior remake of Woodward's "The Equalizer," but even more so now that both Dawson (James Van der Beek) and Starbuck (Katee Sachkoff) would have been better as McCall than Washington after seeing their performances in "The Dark Power Rangers" reboot.

I didn't link to the violent version (don't want you being blacklisted by the googleman), but it makes both Reeves and Washington look like the very old men that they are. You can still find that version if you know where to look.

John from Daejeon said...

Well, of course Youtube caved and removed the dark, adult film video starring Katee and James, but here you can still see it in most of its glory.

The producer's video about his re-imagining of this kid's series is pretty interesting as well.