Saturday, September 27, 2014

Equalize This: THE EQUALIZER

It seems like every time you turn around there’s another older actor playing a reluctant man of violence in a movie that starts with a bunch of bad guys and ends with the bad guys dead. The latest iteration is The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington. It’s a good reminder that he kicked off the most recent reemergence of this whole subgenre with Man on Fire a decade ago. Sorry, Liam Neeson, but that’s the real Taken catalyst. Washington, like Neeson, is a good center of calm and authority on which to build one of these thriller machines. In this case, though, there’s not much else to back him up.

We first meet Washington working as the manager of a Home Depot knockoff. He’s a likeable guy who loves to help everyone he meets. He’s an encouraging life coach for a portly employee (Johnny Skourtis) trying to lose weight. He’s nice to a teen prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) who frequents his favorite diner, telling her she can be anything she wants to be. But because Denzel Washington plays this normal guy, and because we see his quiet life, spare apartment, and simple routines, it’s obvious there’s more to him than anyone knows. Sure enough, he has a secret dark past that’ll serve him well in the coming conflict. What follows is empty formula, but at least Washington’s the right man for the job. Without him, it would be nothing. I mean, it’s still nothing, but at least a fine actor picked up a good paycheck.

Denzel wants to get Moretz her freedom after her pimp beats her to the point of hospitalization. He decides to get bloody revenge on her behalf. Yes, this is sadly yet another thriller for which women exist only as objects to motivate men in one way or another. Pulling out his fast reflexes and powers of observation, Denzel kills the slimy Russians who own her. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but, oops, they were low-level crime syndicate guys and now a major enforcer (Marton Csokas) is coming to town to kill him. There’s a whole bunch of bad guys, from street thugs to crooked cops, and Denzel’s out to kill them all. He’s not happy about it, which means he doesn’t get much opportunity to break out his infectious grin. He stabs, shoots, hangs, explodes, power-drills, and otherwise bloodies everyone who gets in the way of throwing this criminal organization a going-out-of-business bash.

Richard Wenk’s script, loosely based on the 1980’s TV series, is anything but subtle. What you see is what you get. What it promises – not much – it delivers – barely. Chucking even simple allusion out the window, the movie prefers instead to bring a hardcover copy of The Old Man and the Sea or Don Quixote on screen and have characters talk about it in terms just vague enough it could relate either to the books or to their situations. Get it? Get it? Uh, yeah. That’s hard to miss.

The movie’s full of stock characters and derivative situations ever so slightly elevated by Hollywood slickness. Director Antoine Fuqua stages the violence capably, functionally, with some style and exaggerated pulp satisfaction. He loves the violence. Why else pan back to the drill bit to see dripping blood after heavily implying its use? But he loves Denzel more. The last time they worked together was 2001’s Training Day, a lively cop thriller that won Washington his Oscar. This so isn’t that. We get slow motion hero shots, lingering close-ups, and, of course, the old walk away from an explosion you caused without looking back or flinching even a little bit. This is a movie that thinks Denzel is awesome. Good thing he is. It’s everything that’s not him that falls flat. The plot has complications, but it’s not complicated. It’s painfully obvious what will happen between splashes of carnage and takes forever getting there. Fuqua shoots exposition and dialogue in flavorless fashion, marking time until the killing starts back up.

It is essentially an inverted slasher film type of macho rescuer fantasy. The unstoppable, unflappable killer is our hero. The victims are all unambiguously evil. Our world is full of scary, seemingly unsolvable problems and dangers. Movies like The Equalizer provide a dangerous fantasy version of our insecure reality in which a skilled man shows up shooting until everything is solved. This approach is a common, blunt force, actioner technique, but in a story so hollow and rote it’s hard to take. The villains are underwritten. The hero is every sad, silent tough guy we’ve ever seen. The result is a flashy, vacuous product that simplifies complex issues to something solvable through brute strength and righteous anger. But did it have to be all that and boring too?

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