When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:
“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”
This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.
This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.
Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.
There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.
Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.
“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.
Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.
While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.
Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.
You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.
What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.
I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.