Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: The Equalizer (2014)

The Equalizer (2014)

Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references

The Equalizer is the latest in what I and other critics have taken to calling "dad movies" -- a recent subgenre of action movies targeted at middle-aged Baby Boomer dads in which seemingly unassuming older men put to use badass skills obtained through a lifetime of hard knocks in order to save the day and show the younger generations what's up. The action heroes of this wave of movies aren't the macho men of the '80s or the wire-fu stuntmen of the '90s -- sure, the former came out of retirement together to make the Expendables movies, but the man who's made his name on these sorts of action films more than any other is Liam Neeson, a 62-year-old "serious" actor who, before Taken, was best known for his Academy Award-winning turn in Schindler's List and for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. They're popcorn blockbusters for the dads of the world, often throwing back to the action thrillers they grew up on in the '70s and '80s in terms of their writing and action scenes. Now, it's Denzel Washington's turn to take a crack at the genre, reuniting with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua in an adaptation of the '80s TV series. How was it?

Personally, I found it to be very uneven and overly long especially, but overall, The Equalizer is better than the sum of its parts. It's surprisingly slow-paced, taking its sweet time developing Washington's character Robert McCall and the people around him -- a bit too much time if you ask me, as aside from McCall, only one of them wound up really fleshed-out in spite of everything. Still, once it got rolling in its second hour, it roared, thanks largely to that buildup that came before as well as a dedicated performance from Washington. I may have been nowhere near this film's target audience, but I still enjoyed myself with it.

Robert McCall (Washington) is, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, an employee at a big-box hardware store in Boston, where he helps his friend and co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) train to become a security guard. However, he also has a secret past as a government agent, having faked his death and retired years ago, and still keeps himself in peak physical and mental condition "just in case". That case comes one day after work at the diner, where he meets a Russian teen prostitute named Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz). When he sees the hell that her pimps put her through, he refuses to stand idly by any longer, dusting off his skills and murdering the pimps without realizing that they are, in fact, the heads of the Russian mafia on the East Coast. Now, a "fixer" named Teddy (Martin Csokas) has been sent to Boston to hunt down McCall, who is now waging a bloody war against the Russian mob and everything they own.

It's pure escapism and power fantasy, but I can't deny that it works as one. Huge credit goes to the cast, led by Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, who gives a steely performance that is both subdued and intense when it needed to be. Like many of the best "dad movie" stars, he plays tough and powerful without coming off as a ball of chest-thumping machismo and rage, through both the action scenes and the many slower, more deliberate moments that make up the first half of the film. Had it been a lesser actor in the role, the film's very slow pace might have been unbearable, but Washington can just as easily silence a room with a few words as he can with a fist to the face or a power drill to the back of the head. If anything, the film doesn't spend enough time on McCall's assorted quirks, such as the fact that it's strongly implied that his skills derive from obsessive-compulsive disorder and that there's a much darker side to his righteous rampage. The film edges towards deconstruction a number of times, but never quite crosses the line, instead letting Washington live out the dream of many an older man. Matching him is Martin Csokas as Teddy, who takes that same intensity and uses it for villainy, going on a rampage through  Boston just as bloody as McCall's.

The rest of the supporting cast, however, isn't nearly as solid as those two, though it's through no fault of their own. They gave very good performances for the most part, especially the "name" actors, but they also got barely any screen time. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo as McCall's former agency co-workers only show up in one scene to deliver exposition on who McCall is facing, while Moretz, despite her character's ordeal kicking off the plot, vanishes entirely after the first act and only shows up again at the end. The really important side characters here are McCall's co-workers at the hardware store, and while Johnny Skourtis was quite lovable as Ralphie, the young aspiring security guard and McCall's best bud at the store, the rest of the cast there wasn't quite up to snuff, often delivering dull performances and being very thinly-written. Many of the first- and second-act scenes in the hardware store could have, and should have, been trimmed down to tighten up the film's bloated earlier scenes, putting more focus on the friendship between McCall and Ralphie that comes into play at the end, as well as a few more scenes with Moretz, Pullman, and Leo than we actually got.

The ending, however, I would not have changed a bit. It's a cat-and-mouse battle between McCall and Ralphie on one hand, and Teddy and his goons on the other, chasing each other through the hardware store. It is bloody and tense as hell, with McCall, unarmed, using everything in the store to take out Russians before closing the noose around Teddy. It's almost like You're Next in terms of being "Home Alone for grown-ups", a gleefully violent and well-shot battle of wits and guts where the action comes in tight, heavy bursts. Director Antoine Fuqua (reuniting with Washington after Training Day) was one of the few good things in the mediocrity of Olympus Has Fallen, and here, he just goes all-out with every crazy scenario and trap he can think of. I wouldn't dare to spoil some of the set pieces during this final battle, so I will just stop and tell you that it is, by itself, reason to see this.

Score: 3 out of 5

It drags in places (a lot of places, actually), but it's saved by an excellent performance from Denzel Washington and an awesome third act. If you don't mind taking your time to get to the good stuff, check this out.

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