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Review: 'The Equalizer' is a somber take on silly material with a weird Denzel

The '80s show "The Equalizer" becomes a trashy but funereal vigilante picture, with a nutty Denzel Washington as a superhero who takes on the Russian mob.

Pop quiz: Which movie where Denzel Washington kills a lot of people is this from? Credit: Scott Garfield Pop quiz: Which movie where Denzel Washington kills a lot of people is this from?
Credit: Scott Garfield

'The Equalizer'
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Stars: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Forget the ’80s TV show on which “The Equalizer” is based. The perhaps too truant (and very loose) film adaptation is really a remake, namely of an older Denzel Washington film. It’s practically a reboot of 2004’s “Man on Fire” (itself a remake of a 1987 Scott Glenn picture), which is second only to the operatically unpleasant “Revenge” in the nastiest film Tony Scott ever made. Nothing in “The Equalizer” approaches the goriness of “Man on Fire”; no one gets a bomb up the rectum, though director Antoine Fuqua has other inventive kills, especially once the action relocates to a Home Depot-esque warehouse. But both find Washington as a retired asskicker with one of those “special set of skills,” who springs into action when a young girl (Dakota Fanning in “Fire,” Chloe Grace Moretz here) is put in danger.

Teri, Moretz’s Jode Foster-ish prostitute, exits the game early on, but not before befriending Washington’s Robert McCall, a seemingly quiet hardware megastore employee with some Rainman-esque OCD. That anal retentiveness comes in handy whether he’s placing silverware perpendicular to table edges or mapping out which rock glass goes in which perp’s eye and which corkscrew goes in which creep’s chin. When Teri is beaten to near death by her Russian pimp, Robert makes it his business of first freeing of her bond and then, once the Russian mob in Russia hears of it, taking on an international unit with fingers everywhere.

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“The Equalizer” thinks bigger than “Man on Fire,” which was content to simply have Washington plow through a small organization, not a global heavyweight. But the real difference is the tone. Scott ramped up what was already an OTT genre grinder into something phantasmagoric. Fuqua’s version is somber, funereal, patient, as though this was Shakespeare. It’s not. It’s a trashy, grimy “Death Wish” ripoff dressed in flashier clothes than it deserves.

At least Marton Csokas seems to be aware of how silly "The Equalizer" is. Credit: Scott Garfield At least a very hammy Marton Csokas seems to be aware of how silly "The Equalizer" is.
Credit: Scott Garfield

Washington and Fuqua previously collaborated on “Training Day,” a primo dirty cop picture that doubled as a primo raucous-day-in-the-life tour of society’s Boschian underbelly. Fuqua seems to think he’s getting back to serious filmmaking; Washington, as he tends to do with thrillers these days, doesn’t care. He can be still and commanding, but he mostly exudes his now standard wry I-don’t-have-to-prove-anything-now attitude; as in "2 Guns," "Safe House" and "Unstoppable," it's clear he's gotten weird in his old age (although still able to bust out a straight-up powerhouse, as in "Flight").Everyone acts deadly serious except for Washington — and Marton Csokas too. The latter attacks the role of an intensely calm, heavily tattooed, psycho enforcer sent from Russia with the glazed ham and snarl worthy of his real-life ex-girlfriend, Eva Green. Anytime he’s onscreen a needlessly heavy film gets lighter and stranger.

It is odd just how far “The Equalizer” goes. It’s a film about a 50-something taking on an international crime syndicate, but there’s something almost funny about how this doesn’t prove too difficult. The film itself has no sense of humor, even when Washington gets his mitts on hardware store wares. But that also makes it boring. Robert McCall isn’t so much a hero as a superhero — closer to Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy.” Technically he’s not untouchable, but even on the few times he’s scraped, he always finds a “MacGuyver”-esque way to cauterize the wound and keep on truckin’. Even with Denzel noodling in the margins, his character's a dull boy.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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