When star Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua collaborated on 2001’s “Training Day,” the film won Washington an Oscar and changed the trajectory of his career. Now comes Act 2, “The Equalizer,” a tense thriller that also has more on its mind than the familiar genre constraints it operates under.
Unapologetic in its excessive, frequently grotesque violence, “The Equalizer” takes advantage of its star-director pairing to elevate its all-too-recognizable story of a man willing to do what it takes to even the odds for the world’s beleaguered underdogs.
In Fuqua, here collaborating again with Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, “The Equalizer” has a filmmaker with a vivid sense of style, someone who enjoys putting the mechanics of action on film and doesn’t shy away from the operatic visual flourish.
In Washington, of course, “The Equalizer” has an exceptional actor who seldom puts a foot wrong and adds heft and substance to familiar characters without even seeming to try.
Inspired by the 1980s TV show starring Edward Woodward and working from an at-times effective script by Richard Wenk, Fuqua and Washington share a desire to give the main character equal footing with the expected mind-numbing violence. This has led to an excessive 2-hour, 11-minute length, but it pays off in the end.
Though it’s clear from the advertising and the trailer that this “Equalizer” will be focusing on kicking ass and taking names, it’s a measure of the film’s ambitions that a full half-hour passes before it allows itself to show its violent colors.
That time is spent carefully introducing Robert McCall (Washington), a seemingly ordinary Boston resident who works at a Home Depot clone called Home Mart. Invariably courteous and helpful, he never passes up a chance to encourage his co-workers, especially the overweight Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), with a wide range of positive-thinking aphorisms.
McCall’s only leisure time activity seems to be reading classic novels and coming up with platitudes about them that are predictive of where the plot will soon be going. “He’s a knight in a world where knights don’t exist anymore,” McCall says of “Don Quixote,” and “you’ve got to be who you are in this world no matter what” is his reaction to “The Old Man and the Sea.” If you say so.
There are other signs that McCall is not completely ordinary. For one thing, he is meticulous to the point of compulsiveness about the details of his life, like carefully wrapping an unused tea bag in a napkin before heading out to the Edward Hopperesque all-night diner he frequents when he can’t sleep, which is always.
It’s at the diner that McCall habitually runs into Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz, largely wasted), a twitchy, underage Russian hooker whose hard-knock life arouses enough sympathy in the man that he attempts to reason with the bad guys to set her free. When they don’t listen, McCall, no surprise, is not at a loss for other options.
For it is not giving away anything to say that underneath his bland exterior McCall unleashed is one of those only-in-the-movies ultimate killing machines, the world’s deadliest Boy Scout, able to create the kind of mayhem with a corkscrew that Robert Parker would never condone.
The main question in a film like “The Equalizer” is whether a worthy adversary can be conjured up to take on the bloody mayhem the hero creates. In this case, the violence attracts the attention of heavily tattooed psychotic Russian mob enforcer Teddy (Marton Csokas, looking like Kevin Spacey after he sold his soul to the devil), described as “a sociopath with a business card” and the kind of admiring enemy who looks at McCall’s work and says, “I have rarely seen skills like this.”
Most of “The Enforcer” is taken up with the violent cat-and-mouse game Teddy (whose idea of sending a message is beating someone to death) and McCall play as each tries to figure exactly who the other person is.
Teri all but disappears from the scene as “The Equalizer” — echoing Clint Eastwood’s brilliant “Unforgiven” — increasingly focuses on how irresistible the lure of violence is for those who’ve indulged in it in the past. Now that McCall is off the wagon, it will come as no surprise that an “Equalizer 2" is in the works.
MPAA rating: R for strong, bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Playing: In general release