The Empty Balcony: The Equalizer

Once upon a time there was television show called The Equalizer that ran on CBS. It was successful enough to last for four seasons and 88 episodes. I don’t know if that’s significant. Any show that runs on American network television for four years and 88 episodes is a success, but it’s not a smash. In fact, The Equalizer was and is somewhat of an anonymous show. It’s curious that in the age of remakes and reboots, someone in Hollywood chose to resurrect this show and make it a movie.

From last year, The Equalizer is an action film that tells the story of one man who systematically eliminates the entire Russian mafia operating in Boston. It’s an impressive display of murderous vengeance, I must say.

Denzel Washington is Robert McCall, an hourly schlub at a big box hardware store with a shady past. He lives a Spartan life in a one bedroom, and spends his sleepless nights drinking tea and reading classic literature at a local diner. There, he meets an underage hooker by the name of Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz). One night Alina runs afoul of her masters and ends up in intensive care. It was at this point that I thought I knew where the story was going. McCall had become a surrogate father to the young girl in sexual slavery. Mess with her, and one messes with McCall. She’s the classic damsel in distress. I pictured about an hour and a half of McCall chasing down some local hoods and what not. You know, movie by numbers. But I had heard good things about this movie. I had a hard time reconciling what I had heard with such a weak potential payoff. I shouldn’t have worried.

The Equalizer is a movie that wallows in cliché, but makes up for that by going to extremes. It’s not enough that McCall decides a bunch of Russian mobsters need to die. No. He needs to kill them all within seconds using skills from his past as a CIA agent. The violence in this scene is brutal. After it ends, a viewer is left wondering what’s next. All the people McCall needs to kill are dead. What about the rest of the runtime? It’s here that the film veers away from being boilerplate.

The Russian mob is pissed that its operations in Boston have been disrupted, so they send one of its homegrown members, a former Spetsnaz commando (Marton Csokas), to sort out the problem. This leads to escalation. Every move the mobsters make is returned by McCall. It’s no longer about Alina. Rather, the Russians are too stubborn to let bygones be bygones, and McCall won’t stop because until the mob is eliminated in its entirety, they remain a threat to his life and limb.

On and on it goes, the violence and the action ratcheting up and up, well past the point where its exaggeration transmogrifies into the mythic. In one scene, McCall sabotages an oil depot. The resulting explosion should have killed everyone within a mile and a half of the depot, regular citizens and McCall included. Yet there he is, walking away from the scene as tankers and pipelines explode in slow motion, not so much as a smirk on his face as the smoke and fire billow around him. Did I mention this film was clichéd?

But that’s okay!

We know that scene is ridiculous, and it matters none. The Equalizer takes a formula that ruled Hollywood action in the 1980s and updates it for an audience inured through experience. It’s not an intelligent formula, but unlike something like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s not stupid, either.

Antoine Fuqua is the film’s director, and I think he was the perfect choice. His career as a director peaked with Training Day. That film is now fourteen years old. How time flies. But with The Equalizer, he has shown he can strip off all the peripheral bullshit and make an action film of the old school.