The Equalizer 1 & 2
Antoine Fuqua, 2014, USA
Antoine Fuqua, 2018, USA
Robert McCall (Denzil Washington) likes to sit in a café and read as a tribute to his late wife. But then he sees a young woman being misused by the Russian Mafia and must put his pensiveness on hold to get involved as her saviour. Luckily, he is a super-skilled killer.
This is of course the big screen adaptation of the Eighties' Edward Woodward series. Here, Robert McCall is just as lethal and miraculous a fighter as Batman, and the repeat close-up of his eye, verging on ‘The Terminator’ vision, is like a signal that the super-powers are about to kick in. He also seems to have the money to do whatever he wants, to come and go from work when he needs to go abroad in disguise to kick some bad guy ass… but then maybe he just does his Uber job to find out who needs his equalising services. Yeah, that’s it. Or in the first film, he works in a hardware store, which supplies him with no end of weapons. Either way – Uber driver or salesman – his working man credentials are established. At one point, we don’t even see him do his equalising thing, just hanging a sledgehammer back into its place after he’s borrowed it to even some score. It’s almost a gag.
The problem is that there is never any doubt that he will prevail without much threat, so there isn’t any suspense or tension. He just walks in and smacks down whoever needs it. This means both ‘The Equalizer’ films end up being like the guy that says, “…then I hit him, skewered the head of the asshole on my left with a pencil and smashed the one on the right’s face in with a teapot, etc.” In the first film, he walks into a room of bad guys to kill them all and this starts a chain of events; in the sequel he walks into a local street gang’s place (which he knows) for a rescue. Now, I’ve seen enough films to know that bad guys would surely have him marked and surely this would just be the start of a conflict? But there’s no follow-up. It’s just a naked vigilante fantasy untroubled by consistent consequence (there doesn’t seem to be much police follow up to the aftermath of his set piece slaughter). There’s also an occasional streak of real nastiness that borders on sadism rather than the exhilaration of excessive action. There’s never quite the gleeful embracing of silliness of Collet-Saura’s Liam Neeson vehicles.
In both films, it is McCall’s designated primary victim that provides the soul and emotional interest. It’s Chloë Grace Moretz in the first film and Ashton Sanders in the sequel. Whereas Moretz is mostly there to bookend with motivation and resolution – a kind of Thank you, rampaging father-figure – and gives the role far more substance than is warranted, Sanders does better as a fully rounded character. In McCall he seems to see a Tough Love father-figure that bolsters his confidence as an artist and disapproves of the allure of gangster street life that threatens to entrap him. But Sanders projects a vulnerable, conflicted machismo that, again, gives the role greater substance than a cold reading might imply.
For his part, Denzil Washington has a charisma that keeps the silliness watchable and entertaining. He doesn’t do anything remarkable or demanding but floats through on that charm. Occasionally he seems to be switching films between scenes. Of course, McCall’s preaching life lessons, with a filling of judgementalism, his pretence to self-sacrifice and soulfulness are all hypocritical because he and the audience just want to see him kick ass in the most lethal fashion. Everything else is just window dressing to convince us and himself that he’s a good guy.
A film with a similar save-the-girl plot like ‘You Were Never Really Here’ gets around its familiarity with a sense of oddness and an anti-hero that is mostly irredeemable, so that we can engage simultaneously with the aesthetic and his redemption. Fuqua, by comparison, directs ‘The Equalizer’ with a slick flare that rarely offers up anything individual: there’s nothing impressive or distinctive like his single-take fight in ‘Creed’. There’s nothing here but an empty tin of competently made vigilante fantasy of the most obvious kind.