Here’s how fucking stupid the people who made The Equalizer think you are: there is a scene, about midway through, where Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) gets robbed. While working a shift at “Home Mart,” a Home Depot-style store, he approaches a female clerk who’s being held up by a guy with a gun. They hand over the cash from the register, and the robber insists she give him the ring on her finger. “It was my mother’s ring,” she protests, but the crook isn’t hearing it, so she reluctantly gives him the ring. When the thief flees, McCall follows him out to his getaway car, at a distance of maybe 20 feet, gets his license plate number, and swipes a sledgehammer off the store shelves. Cut to the next morning; as the clerk opens up her register to start the work day, her ring is glistening in the drawer. (This, somehow, isn’t the stupid part.) She then picks up the ring, looks at it, and says — and this is a quote, I wrote it down — “Oh my God! My ring!”
Yes, at some point during the making of The Equalizer, the screenwriter or the director or the producers or the studio (or maybe all of them, putting their empty heads together) decided that their target audience couldn’t possibly put together on their own that this was the same ring which was stolen from this otherwise minor character a minute and a half earlier. “We’d better have her say that out loud, just to make it clear!” someone insisted. And whoever put their foot down on that point probably makes much more money than you or I.
But I digress. Why dwell on this point when there is so very much that is stupid and repugnant and insulting in The Equalizer? Further proof that Hollywood will make a movie adaptation of literally anything that appeared previously in any other medium, The Equalizer is based on the four-season CBS drama starring Edward Woodward as a Jag-driving former spy and one-man A-Team, helping those who no one will help.
Denzel Washington isn’t the first actor I’d have thought of for this one, but he is, it must be said, the best thing about it; the script by Richard Wenk (The Expendables II) may be comically illogical and stunningly misogynistic, but it does give Washington plenty of opportunities to look tough and do that talking-fast-in-a-low-flat-slightly-scratchy-voice thing that has become his default setting lately. And early on, before the picture’s descent into blood and bullshit, he and Chloë Grace Moretz are very good together, the quiet naturalism of their interactions reminiscent of his excellent work with Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire — which makes sense, as this is basically a lobotomized remake of that far better film.
That said, the particulars of their relationship (she’s an underage prostitute, he’s a non-client who befriends and hopes to save her) suggest that Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua fancied this some kind of a junior Taxi Driver, but, y’know, if Travis Bickle were just a chill, wise man of action. In fact, even beyond its TV adaptation roots, The Equalizer is fairly overflowing with recycled parts; Washington’s McCall pre-visualizes correctly how his big fights will go (as in the Ritchie Sherlock Holmes), the business with the dirty Boston cops feels like JV Lahane, the thoroughly unconvincing Russian mafia stuff is left over from a million other movies (“I’ve lost tens of millions today alone!” whines the mob boss), and the climax is, I’m not exaggerating, Home Alone at Home Depot. (It is tempting to think/hope they’re ripping off Straw Dogs, but who’re we kidding — these numbskulls haven’t seen Straw Dogs).
But there’s more to hate here — so much more:
- McCall is working his way through some kind of nebulous list of the greatest books ever written, so Wenk gets the entirely unearned opportunity to show off his Lit Theory 101 chops by writing a hero who’s always carting around a copy of comically analogous works like The Old Man and the Sea or Don Quioxte (“He lives in a world where knights don’t exist anymore” — GET IT?!)
- In one scene, mob enforcer Teddy (a deliriously overripe Marton Csokas) ends a meeting with a local mobster by beating his face in. It’s an endless, gory mess of a scene that’s not stylish and not tense, but merely blunt and artless — and then we discover why it went on that long: so that when he pumps one of Moretz’s prostitute friends for information, they could create the proper amount of miserable woman-in-peril unpleasantness. (Seriously, this movie is gross. I needed a shower after that scene.)
- One of the gentle subplots concerns McCall helping a pudgy co-worker get in proper physical condition for a promotion to security guard at the store where they work — which creates some trouble in the second half of the film, when danger comes to McCall’s workplace and his buddy seems, by all evidence, to be a really terrible security guard.
- In a pivotal scene late in the film, McCall turns a corrupt cop by locking him in his car and poisoning him with a hose of CO from the tailpipe (and the gas is clearly visible coming out of the hose, which seems scientifically dubious). It never occurs to the character — or the filmmakers, apparently — that the man in peril could simply open the door or roll down the window himself.
- When McCall is informed he has a half hour to go to rendezvous point or his co-workers will be killed, he takes the bus. No need to spring for a cab!
- At a key moment in the climax, the building’s power is kicked back on, and gas containers in the microwaves cause a giant explosion. But there’s no one there to turn the microwaves on; the movie assumes they just start when they’re powered up. Microwaves don’t work that way.
I don’t mean to turn this into one of those obnoxious “everything wrong with” videos, though I should warn the makers of that series that the one for The Equalizer may end up longer than the film’s running time (an unforgivably flabby 131 minutes — so hey, it’s morally bankrupt and aggressively stupid, but at least it’s way too fucking long). Yet after a while, noting the giant plot holes and laughing at the picture’s overinflated self-importance become the closest thing it offers to entertainment. God, what a rotten movie this is.
Washington’s filmography has grown, to put it mildly, peculiar in the years since he won the Oscar for Training Day, his last collaboration with director Fuqua (suffice it to say, I don’t think he needs to clean the tux on account of this one). Aside from his turns in the two films he directed, and 2012’s wildly uneven Flight, he’s mostly steered clear of the dramatic work on which he made his name, only bothering with serious acting when he heads to the New York stage. Instead, he’s mostly occupied onscreen himself with action vehicles, some worthwhile (Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, Unstoppable), some utterly forgettable (Safe House, 2 Guns, The Book of Eli, The Taking of Pelham remake). Who knows why one of our most gifted actors is wasting his time with these films, beyond a nice check. But the sight of Washington slumming it is getting as depressing as it is with De Niro or Pacino — and about as frequent. Maybe this is Fuqua’s speed; after all, his filmography includes Olympus Has Fallen, King Arthur, Shooter, and Tears of the Sun. But Washington is smarter than this dreck. And so are you.