First in the hearts of American film-goers: Denzel Washington delivered in ‘The Equalizer’
Published: April 14th, 2020
When it opened in movie theaters in 2014, ‘The Equalizer’ had the third most successful opening weekend of Denzel Washington’s acting career. It was a powerful and poignant addition to the incredible body of work he is crafting in Hollywood. The film depicts deaths so harsh that it fully merits its “R” rating.
The movie appears tonight (Tuesday, April 14) on FX (Channel 35 in the Oklahoma City Cox Cable system). This is stellar film-making, at least for adults who can stomach shocking on-screen killing. This review contains, if not full “spoilers,” some specific reflections on this excellent story.
Think of implements you might purchase, or look at, in a Wal-Mart, or a Loew’s, an independent hardware or department store. Imagine those things as instruments of death: sledge hammer, electric drill, tree trimmer, wine corkscrew, and nail-gun. Yup.
Still the story does not pivot on the violent abilities of Robert McCall (Washington), who formerly served in secret U.S. “black ops,” outside public scrutiny.
To outward appearances, McCall is living the ordinary life of a hard-working middle income person. He mentors Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), an awkward but likable geek, with whom he works at “Home-Mart,” someone who is underestimated and taken for granted. Ralphie’s transformation is a pivotal plot line.
Unable to sleep at night, Robert haunts a short-order joint to drink tea and read literary classics. He is working his way through the 100 greatest books in American literature, in part to share (ex post facto) an experience with his late, beloved wife. The books include “Invisible Man” by Oklahoman Ralph Ellison, deemed by many the greatest autobiographical work of the Twentieth Century.
In the diner, McCall chastely befriends a young prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz). Their discussion of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is the kind of thing we simply don’t see enough of in modern motion pictures. Moretz is captivating in the role of a troubled soul who knows she can do more than turn tricks, but who needs someone to love her enough to nudge her in a better direction.
McCall is a careful man, reluctant to return to his old ways. But then Teri is snatched before his eyes by her pimps, who are heartless Russian mobsters. She is beaten by thugs who have offered him special access to the services she and her abused girlfriends offer. Robert tracks her down in a hospital, where he encounters another troubled woman, portrayed with tenderness by Haley Bennett.
Leading up to his second encounter with the gangsters, McCall transforms. In Washington’s on-screen face and dialogue come hints of previous characters, including leading roles in “Man on Fire,” “The Book of Eli,” and even “American Gangster” or “Training Day.”
Still, his interpretation of McCall is an authentic addition to the Washington canon.
Love for others, not a desire to be the meanest bad-ass on the planet, leads McCall to abandon dreams of peace.
Portraying Teddy, the screen villain, is Marton Csokas – one of the most memorable bad guys ever. He kills with awful brutality, in ostensible service of a crime syndicate, but actually in thrall to his own depravity. Teddy’s face-to-face encounters with McCall feature palpable tension.
In deft cameos from Bill Plummer and Melissa Leo, friends from McCall’s former life appear. (They each returned in the second Equalizer film, released in 2018.)
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the story is adapted from a television program of the same name that had a three-year run in the 1980s.
In that version, Edward Woodward portrayed McCall as English, a naturalized American who served “the agency” during the Cold War. His home contained a variety of lethal weaponry which McCall used to forge justice in response to inquiries for a classified ad in the New York Times, reading “In Trouble? Need a Friend? Call The Equalizer.”
Guest stars on the TV version included Robert Lansing as “Control” – McCall former’s boss – and, in one unforgettable episode, Telly Savalas as a terrorist-turned-pacifist monk.
Different in some particulars, not merely the ethnicity of the principal character, the film reboot is true to the original spirit. Credit film scriptwriter Richard Wenk and cinematographer Mauro Fiore for source-fidelity, while fashioning a contemporary narrative. I applaud the mix of musical genres that serve the story throughout.
We see on the screen hints of a likely future. Washington’s McCall returns to the short-order joint where he befriended Teri. From his laptop, McCall reaches out to the hopeless via a Web posting.
‘The Equalizer’ is really about friendship and decency, and loving one another, with or without government sanction. A mysterious parable on human decency and the limits of government, this was one of the best-crafted movies of 2014.
Tired of lame action-story plot lines? In need of a great movie fix? Watch ‘The Equalizer’ tonight on FX, at 6 p.m. central time, and repeating at 9 p.m.
Note: McGuigan’s review of the first Equalizer film appeared in shortened online versions. The foregoing is adapted form his original full-length review in The City Sentinel newspaper.