Still first in the heart of this American film-goer (and others): Denzel Washington delivered in ‘The Equalizer’

(NOTE: This movie review/cultural commentary appeared in earlier ‘incarnations’ on, and at The City Sentinel. It is updated to highlight a showing tonight –  Friday, August 7, 2020, on FX – and to touch on yet another ‘reboot’ of the CBS-TV classic.) 

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. 
Warning: The film and its sequel depict deaths so harsh that the “R” ratings are fully merited.

The movie appears at 6 p.m. Central Time tonight (Friday, August 7) on FX (Channel 35 in the Oklahoma City Cox Cable system). Many credible film critics have sneered at Washington’s interpretation of the title character, while others (I am one) wrote analyses declaring it stellar film-making, at least for adults who can stomach turning, shocking on-screen killing. 
This review contains, if not full “spoilers,” some specific reflections on this excellent story.

Instruments of Death and a Message of Life

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,” far outside public scrutiny or Congressional oversight.
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 novel (albeit heavily 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 McCall 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.

Remembering the original TV series

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.

Queen Latifah has spoken – Will there ever be an ‘Equalizer 3’? 

In 2019, many faithful fans of Washington and of all incarnations of “The Equalizer” had just started getting used to rumors of a third motion picture. I speculated about how an aging McCall/Washington would deal with bad guys and where life took him after the second installment. In imagination I tried to think through how Denzel would remain tough enough for the work – a la Daniel Craig’s James Bond installments – but smarter in his use of power. 

Then, boom! Over this past winter came news (confirmed in recent weeks) that director Fuqua has joined forces with Queen Latifa (Dana Elaine Owens) and a talented ensemble for a  reboot of the television series. She will play the lead character: Robyn McCall.
This could be a disaster, but might be superb (as has been Craig’s Bond reworking). 
Or, perhaps, something in between. 
I will patiently await the results on-screen in the coming television season’s programming (no doubt delayed for the same reasons everything is getting delayed, of late).   

More on the movie version of ‘Equalizer’

Back to what some now call “Equalizer 1 – the Movie.” 
While it is different in some particulars from the original CBS program, not merely in the ethnicity of the principal character, the film reboots are true to the spirit of the original TV program. 
In the 2014 movie, 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.

In the first Washington installment, 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 1’ is really about friendship and decency, and loving one another, with or without government sanction. 
A mysterious and powerful parable on human decency and the limits of government, this is in truth a story about how diverse human beings ought to treat each other, rather than how they often do in the “real world”. This was one of the best-crafted movies of 2014.

In recent tinkering with its programming platforms, FX has been wont to last-minute shifts in schedule, sometimes depending on where a viewer lives in America. 
An early afternoon double-check found this superb motion picture still listed for tonight.  
Tired of lame action-story plot lines? In need of a great movie fix?
Watch ‘The Equalizer 1’ tonight on FX, at 6 p.m. Central Time.

Note: McGuigan’s review of the first Equalizer film appeared in previous online versions. The foregoing is adapted form his original and updated from his 2014 review in The City Sentinel newspaper.