It’s all in the details, and that’s where “The Equalizer” gets it right.
Aside from being an entertaining popcorn-eating action flick, the film takes a slightly more intellectual approach to the well-known “retired agent comes back to action” plot. Director Antoine Fuqua sets the bar high, opening with a Mark Twain quotation: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” From then on, existentialist undertones are ever-present and constantly thought-provoking as the main character, Robert McCall, played by Denzel Washington, works to take down Russian mobsters.
The first half of the film is a careful character study of McCall. Every day he works at a hardware store. Every night he eats at the same diner and reads a book. He times himself when he does the dishes, and lines up the edge of his book with the edge of the table. Robert McCall seems orderly, meticulous and, most importantly, calm. Amid this simple behavior, Fuqua chooses to show the audience one constant: every action McCall takes is one which strives for perfection.
This dedication to progress is accentuated in McCall’s efforts to help his co-worker Ralphie become a security guard and his diner acquaintance Teri, who has problems with the mafia. Throughout the first hour, Fuqua is as meticulous as his main character in showing the actions McCall takes to pursue perfection for himself and others.
Washington delivers another powerhouse performance as an alienated, stoic man, reminiscent of his great work in “Flight.” Each time the camera pans over his straight, serious face, it’s tough to look away. However, aside from a few fantastic scenes with Marton Csokas, who plays one of the Russian gangsters, there’s something left to be desired from the other characters. Washington definitely carries “The Equalizer” in its difficult moments.
The second half of the film turns into a gut-wrenching display of violence, losing the bit of intellectual spark that made it so intriguing. As McCall runs around brutally taking down Russian mobsters, he finally recognizes that the self he created working at the hardware store is not a true one. Instead, it is the McCall who stands, admittedly violently, steadfast in the face of evil that is his honest identity.
The cinematography is probably the film’s most consistent and impressive aspect. Reflective of this halfway shift towards brutal McCall-Russian mafia throw-downs, the whole second half is filled with quick camera shifts that move as the actions does. On the other hand, the first half leaves the viewer with time to spare as they observe McCall and his surroundings as the camerawork gives time to really notice the details that constitute his character.
The film does at a point seem to be formulaic through its repetition of the macho man mantra. But, this seems to also be reflective of the one intellectual point that it’s trying to make: we are who we are, and life is less confusing once you figure out who that is. In fact, every single moment, even if repetitive, is a fulfilling one once you accept your true self.
The focus on only one major thematic issue may seem to be a fault in the film’s writing, but it is important to keep “The Equalizer” in perspective as an action-basher. The fact that the film endeavors to convey more than its generic plotline is commendable.
It would have been easy to put Washington into the role of an agent who goes after the Russian mafia and still create a profitable film. Instead, it attempts to get the audience to think more about people like Ralphie, Teri or ourselves as individuals who should strive to perfect the parts of themselves which they love and enjoy.
At the end of the film, McCall seems to have done just that — he’s got himself figured out and he’s comfortable being nothing more and nothing less. Of course, this self is the perfect Hollywood commando, but the thought is still there. There are aspects of ourselves from which we sometimes cannot escape. We can work to suppress them with other traits, as McCall does when working at the hardware store, but we can also embrace them and use them for good.
The film’s admirable plot coupled with Washington’s dynamic performance makes “The Equalizer” an interesting watch; however, much of the second half falls prey to Hollywood stereotypes.