In 2004, Denzel Washington was paired with a then-rising star, Dakota Fanning, in the revenge thriller Man On Fire, and though a lot of people found the film to be a top-notch actioner, I’m sorry to say I’m not one of them. The pairing of Washington and Fanning was incredibly smart, giving life to the scenes they were in. I was very emotionally invested in their relationship, so when director Tony Scott removed that element of the film, I was sorely left wanting. The energy and the spark that was so deliciously evident in the first act of the film crumbled without a trace, never to rise again. The same thing happens in Washington’s new film, The Equalizer, which falls into the same exact trap by following a very similar formula.
Washington plays Robert McCall, a somewhat obsessive compulsive stock boy at a Home Depot-style hardware store where he lives his life quietly and in harmonious comfort. He gets along very well with his co-workers (going as far as to help one of them train to pass the security guard test), but for the most part keeps to himself, constantly reflecting on a back story that clearly haunts him. We never learn exactly what happened that forced him to leave his old life, all we know is it involves his wife and a promise to never return to the darkness of what may have been.
As part of his regular routine, Robert brings his own tea bag to a diner every night, orders a glass of hot water and sits quietly in the corner booth participating in a challenge his wife set for herself to read one hundred must read books. He also banters with a similar lost soul, Teri (an equally remarkable Chloë Grace Moretz), who connects with Robert on a deeper, compassionate level. She’s trapped in an uncompromising life as an escort for a shady group of organized Russian criminals and as she sees it, there’s really no way out. Robert relates to this dilemma, developing a sense of protection over her. So when he finds out that her boss, Slavi (David Meunier), has put her in the hospital for refusing a job, Robert is compelled to free her of her employment, leading to a much larger criminal conspiracy.
Much like the chemistry Washington had with Fanning, every time he’s on screen with Moretz, the movie feels authentic and real. There’s a power behind Robert and Teri’s relationship that is extremely kinetic in its carefully crafted subtlety. The utilization of body language speaks so much louder than any dialogue could, allowing the two of them to share secrets with one another without ever speaking a word about them. So it’s incredibly disconcerting when Moretz is shelved after the first act and is all but ignored for the remainder of the film. When it actually looks like it’s about to spin back to Teri’s story, it once again drops the idea in favor of Robert’s cliché-fueled killing escapades, turning Teri into the catalyst for creating a completely different story, one that feels more familiar and far less compelling.
We’re told near the end of the film that Robert gave Teri some money to help her start a new life, but where is the scene where Robert goes back to the hospital to do this? To be able to see him sit with her in the hospital, whether she even knew it or not, would have spoken volumes for Robert’s character and the connection he had to this young woman, not to mention the conflict he might have in breaking his promise of ending his addictive lifestyle to help her. Instead, Robert becomes an unsympathetic robotic killer, and any attempt to give him a semblance of complexity are dashed at every turn.
Early on in the film, Robert tries to buy Teri’s freedom from Slavi without resorting to violence, thus succeeding in both of his goals. When they refuse, his switch is flipped and he takes Slavi’s men out in a matter of twenty-eight seconds. This little quirk of timing everything helps give insight into Robert’s personality, but director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk never explain these quirks to help us better understand them and why they are so inherently important to Robert.
This isn’t to diminish Washington in any way. He is still a master-class of acting here; his quiet moments are just as powerful as those of brute force and strength, but the script fails to provide unique enough reasons behind his growing need to be violent. I’m not familiar with the original television show for which the film is based, so I can’t speak to the concept or the character in that regard, so I’m not sure if those reasons were hidden in some capacity there either, but in this particular context, the only time I ever felt connected to Robert was when he watched over Teri as a surrogate for something he has lost — a piece to the puzzle of Robert’s mind we’re never privy to.
The rest of the cast are able to stand toe-to-toe with Washington at every turn, especially, Marton Csokas as Teddy, the man hired by the shadowy Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) to clean up the mess that Robert has been making to Pushkin’s operations ever since Teri was hospitalized. His steely-eyed villainousness is cold enough to stay sharp and clever without falling into the trap of cartoony megalomaniac. But like Moretz, most of the other supporting characters are given the short end of the stick when it comes to development beyond how they cater to Robert’s bravura. Bill Pullman deserves better than a couple of throw-away lines.
By the time the film reaches its climactic battle inside the hardware store (which on its own merits, is a terrifically structured sequence), I had completely lost interest in the entire plot, not to mention the conflict between Robert and Teddy. Because of this, even though all of the necessary set-ups that had been nicely filtered throughout the early parts of the film come to play, the tension it’s fighting to convey are swallowed by the lack of originality and the failure to hold my interest.
Having teamed up together on the powerfully explosive Training Day, I was expecting so much more gravitas from Fuqua, but because he removes the one compelling element from the story early, the film ends up being a wet sack of potatoes posing as a unique crime-thriller, unable to recover from that early disengagement. Training Day worked because it held on tight to its initial kinetic pairing, but much like Man On Fire, The Equalizer stumbles when its young star isn’t given a chance to prove herself beyond the damsel in distress.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Annabelle and Gone Girl. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.