Overview: A former Black Ops Commando takes on the entire Russian mafia. Sony Pictures Entertainment; 2014; Rated R; 131 Minutes.
Getting Corrected: Sometimes, knowing just the most basic information about a movie release is enough to build a preconception. Because The Equalizer stars Denzel Washington as a revenge seeker in a return collaboration with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, a certain expectation is set. That prejudice results in raised eyebrows when The Equalizer starts with cheap thematic borrowing that’s out-of-character for these two collaborators (letting a discussion of any novel, particularly The Old Man and the Sea, establish narrative and thematic structure is almost always a chump move). Then, after a series of strangely loaded dialogue between Washington’s character Robert and his lady-of-the-night friend Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), the film asks the viewer to make illogical assumptions. For a moment, it feels like Fuqua is mailing it in on another dramatically painted action film. The moment I realized I had braced myself for the wrong type of movie, it felt something like those first bumps that jar the roller coaster cart. I was suddenly certain that I was in for a hell of a ride.
Tinkering with the Model: The contemporary standard of action hero calls for overmatched, humanized, morally complex protagonists. This model allows for the exploration of social themes (the thin line between justice and vengeance, the codependency between the criminal element and law enforcement, etc.) But you can only tread over the same thematic area so many times before the ground starts to wear. Here, Fuqua pulls a few decades back, recalling the sort of rightful and righteous confidence-in-protagonist made popular in the 80’s by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the like. This old construct can prove to be even more problematic. Really, how much drama can exist when the question is not if the protagonist will succeed, but how? This limitation had seemingly ruined the over-the-top action movie, as evidence by the shameful and hollow self-satire on display in the Expendables series. In The Equalizer, Washington and Fuqua succeed in overcoming this obstacle so thoroughly that Stallone and company should be ashamed, and the new guys should be taking notes.
A Symphony of Destruction: Those who have a hard time forgiving reckless violence in film (and there are plenty of reasons why that’s justifiable) would be best served avoiding The Equalizer. Fuqua’s tool of choice for building precise tension and narrative progress is violence, and he plays it evenly on both sides of the field. Both Robert (the most perfect role for Washington in a long time) and main antagonist Teddy (Marton Csokas as the best villain 2014 has presented) are machine-like in their ability to rip life from a body. Fuqua’s interest in violence is too focused and disciplined to be considered exploitative. “Fetishistic” might be a better word, one more suited to the artful composition of the violence, because ultimately, it isn’t just continual waves of crashing violence; that would wear thin and offer nothing new or enjoyable. It’s Fuqua’s use of the anticipation for violence. These two are going to kill and waiting for that switch to flip is the most exhilarating cinematic sensation I’ve had at the movies this year. It’s been too long since I’ve seen an action movie like this.
Overall: It’s taken him thirteen years, but Fuqua has found his second hit, and it is completely divorced from everything that worked in his first. The Equalizer resurrects great discarded elements of old action films and injects them into the new template of action success. I’d like to think the result will be a game changer. With apologies to the Avengers team, The Equalizer may be the best superhero movie of the current decade.