Monday, September 29, 2014

In Theaters: THE EQUALIZER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Richard Wenk. Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, Haley Bennett, Johnny Skourtis, David Meunier, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, Johnny Messner. (R, 134 mins)

There's been a growing sentiment that Denzel Washington has spent too much time squandering his talents in too many films that are beneath him. While there's little doubt that he's partaken in some forgettable junk that's been elevated simply by his presence--1995's VIRTUOSITY, 2002's JOHN Q, 2009's terrible remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123--his career by and large represents a nicely balanced mix of serious and strictly commercial fare done right. He does a lot of mainstream, popcorn entertainment but he's not so ubiquitous that he starts phoning it in and the audience gets tired of seeing him (I'm looking at you, Nic Cage, Bruce Willis, and Johnny Depp). Moviegoers typically see Washington once, occasionally twice a year, and maybe that's where the "squandering his talent" idea comes into play. He works less frequently than a lot of A-listers, and if he's going to act once a year, the argument is that maybe it should be in something a bit more substantive than 2 GUNS. While Washington is unquestionably one of our greatest actors, there's been a desire by the media and his peers to declare him the Sidney Poitier of his generation. He's always seemed to resist that label, likely out of humble deference as he's frequently professed his love and respect for the trailblazing screen legend (and, it should be noted, Poitier took his share of money gigs in his day, both as an actor and a director). Washington can handle Shakespeare (1993's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING), and serious, socially-conscious, "important" films (1987's CRY FREEDOM, 1989's GLORY, 1992's MALCOLM X) as well as any actor that's ever stepped onto a movie set. But maybe he just likes making one or two entertaining genre pictures every year or two. Maybe he never wanted the baggage and the artistic expectation and the responsibility that comes with being "the Sidney Poitier of his generation." He elevates commercial fare into higher-quality cinema--no one ever accused 2001's TRAINING DAY of being high art, and yet he won his second Oscar for it. Even when it comes to mainstream genre work, he seems to choose his projects carefully and doesn't jump at any script his agent hands him. When Washington starts turning up in 50 Cent-produced cop thrillers with Forest Whitaker and Robert De Niro or in straight-to-DVD, Eastern Europe-lensed actioners with Dominic Purcell, then we can talk about him squandering his talents.

Besides, we like seeing Washington do his Washington thing. The glowering, the intense stare, the argumentative yet calm tone, that indredulous, derisive laughter and the "Alright, alright!" and the "Ha HAA!" just before he explodes. He's the thinking man's badass. Based on the revered, Golden Globe-winning 1985-1989 CBS series that starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a retired government intelligence agent who has an ad in the classifieds offering help to those in dire situations ("Odds against you? Need help? Call The Equalizer"), THE EQUALIZER only somewhat resembles the TV show (it's also worth noting that Woodward portrayed a seemingly much older McCall than Washington's, yet 59-year-old Washington is currently the same age Woodward was when the show ended). Taking the ending into consideration, it can feasibly be termed an origin story of sorts and possibly Washington's first franchise if it's a big enough hit. Washington's McCall is a Boston widower who leads a quiet, solitary life outside of his job at the Home Depot-like Home Mart. Demonstrating a significant degree of OCD, McCall times everything, has to place objects a certain way, and never deviates from his routine. Suffering from insomnia, he spends the wee hours at a neighborhood diner where he drinks tea and reads literary classics like The Old Man and the Sea while making small talk with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute with aspirations of being a singer. McCall takes note when a bruised and battered Teri is roughed up by some Russian mobsters and when she eventually gets beaten so badly that she ends up in a coma, he pays a visit to her pimp Slavi (David Meunier). McCall offers Slavi $9800 for Teri's freedom. Slavi dismisses McCall's offer, prompting McCall's Spidey Sense to kick in as he single-handedly takes out Slavi and a roomful of cackling Russian goons in just under 30 seconds, disappointed in himself that he estimated it would take just 19 seconds.

McCall's heroic actions have consequences, which arrive in the form of Teddy (Marton Csokas, looking a lot like Kevin Spacey here), a "fixer" for powerful Russian crime lord Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). The merciless Teddy stops at nothing to find out who took out Slavi and his crew, eventually tracking down McCall, which sets off a war where McCall goes full One Man Army against Teddy and the Russian mob, as well as Det. Masters (David Harbour) and other corrupt Boston cops on Pushkin's payroll. Whether its taking out enforcers, disrupting Pushkin's lucrative businesses, or exposing the cops, judges, and politicians getting kickbacks from Pushkin over his various drug, prostitution, human trafficking, and whatever other nefarious activities, McCall vows to dismantle Pushkin's empire "brick by brick, dollar by dollar, body by body."

THE EQUALIZER reunites Washington with his TRAINING DAY director Antoine Fuqua, who often ends up helming by-the-numbers trifles like SHOOTER (2007) and OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013), but sometimes manages to turn out a TRAINING DAY or something like the tragically underrated BROOKLYN'S FINEST (2010). Script duties are handled by Richard Wenk, who's penned the Jason Statham remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012). Though covered in a big-budget, A-list sheen, THE EQUALIZER's roots are less in the TV show and more in vintage vigilante fare. Admirably demonstrating balls where something like THE EXPENDABLES 3 felt neutered, the film wears its R rating like a badge of honor as Washington's McCall goes on the kind of rampage that would leave THE EXTERMINATOR cringing: almost nothing is off limits here, as McCall becomes an unleashed animal who fires point blank, opens arteries, and drives a wine corkscrew under a guy's jaw (as Fuqua makes sure we see the impaled utensil rooting around the poor bastard's blood-gushing mouth). And that's just a warm-up for the protracted finale, where Teddy and his men track down McCall to the closed Home Mart, a store whose inventory includes no shortage of gardening shears, drills, nail guns and other lethally handy tools for him to use. Some of the kills in THE EQUALIZER are brutally prolonged and unusually sadistic for a mainstream, studio release.

Of course, that's something that works in its favor, but for the film to really work, you have to be onboard with the star, and Washington displays more than enough gravitas to make the film mostly successful. There's a certain persona that Washington projects in this kind of escapist entertainment, and all of the mannerisms in his playbook are on display throughout. Familiar though they may be, they work because we don't see him in three or four movies a year, doing the same thing. For a Washington fan, when something like SAFE HOUSE (2012), 2 GUNS (2013) or THE EQUALIZER comes along, it's like a welcome visit from an old friend. I'll take Popcorn Denzel over transparent awards bait like FLIGHT (2012), a film that seemed overly calculated to get him another Oscar nomination. At 2 ¼ hours, THE EQUALIZER goes on much longer than is necessary, the primary climax takes place in almost total darkness, and it has an almost Peter Jackson-number of endings. Some details get glossed over, like McCall asking Teddy "How did you find me?" when he shows up at his front door, and never getting an answer.  That may be by design and perhaps Fuqua and Wenk are indeed borrowing more from THE EXTERMINATOR (1980) than just the ferocity of McCall's kill methods. In THE EXTERMINATOR, vigilante John Eastland (Robert Ginty) kicks off his spree of vengeance with writer/director James Glickenhaus cutting from one scene straight to Eastland in the middle of torturing one of the punks who killed his best friend. We don't know how Eastland found him and on the Blu-ray commentary, Glickenhaus said that jump was intentional because we know what Eastland is capable of and the audience can just make the leap. It works in THE EXTERMINATOR, and Fuqua and Wenk utilize it here, both with Teddy's ability to find McCall, who more or less lives off the grid other than holding down a job, and in the way we sometimes--despite the film's graphic, over-the-top violence--don't see what McCall does.  Maybe we only see the bodies left in McCall's wake or, in the case of a dirtbag robbing Home Mart and stealing an employee's ring, Fuqua shows McCall grabbing a hammer, then cuts to the next day as the employee finds the stolen ring in her cash drawer and McCall cleans off the hammer before returning it to the shelf.  We don't need to see what happened. The filmmakers trust us to make the leap, and the acknowledgment of such gets audible laughter from the audience.

Wenk also works in some literary allusions with the premise of The Old Man and the Sea, and Fuqua spends more time than usual developing McCall's character and his routine. It works because it allows Washington to flex his thespian muscles before turning into a relentless killing machine. Also, witness the way insomniac McCall gets his first good night's sleep in ages after wiping out Slavi's crew. More so than many a vigilante genre protagonist, McCall can put up a good front when it comes to living a "normal" life and being part of society, but he really only finds inner peace during conflict. Wenk's script also draws parallels between McCall and Teddy (thankfully sparing us from Teddy gravely intoning "We're alike...you and I" to McCall), and it demonstrates just how focused on McCall's character and his world Fuqua is that Csokas doesn't even appear until 40 minutes into the film. This slow buildup works, but as the film goes on, some of the extraneous subplots, especially two involving McCall's overweight co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis)--who wants to get in shape for a security job and has a restaurant-owning mom who's being shaken down for protection money by a pair of on-the-take cops who have nothing to do with Pushkin or Teddy--only serve to drag the story down once all the pieces are in place. Much of the second-half plot details are filler that could've been dumped with no damage being done, along with a scene of McCall walking away from a CGI explosion that's almost Asylum-esque in its inexcusable shittiness. Melissa Leo has a small role as McCall's old agency boss, but then we also get a few scenes with her husband--played by Bill Pullman, who looks like he's ready to duke it out with Treat Williams over who gets the lead in THE MITT ROMNEY STORY--which does absolutely nothing to advance any element of the story whatsoever. THE EQUALIZER is an entertaining film with Washington at his most commanding, but it's merely pretty good where there's a potentially very good film that could've come from a little tightening.  McCall spends a lot of time riding Ralphie about dropping some pounds.  It's too bad Washington didn't get on Fuqua about shedding maybe 25 minutes of bloat from THE EQUALIZER.

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