Action films starring black men seem to have a common theme running underneath them, especially when you can look back on them from a distant point. Always about a man answering the call, being forced or coerced into becoming a guardian angel for a neighborhood, a community, a city, or even a country. We see it with stories like “Luke Cage,” “Black Panther,” and in 2014 we saw it with Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer, a movie sharing a kinship-like relation to these comic book blockbuster.
It’s about a hero in hiding, much like these fellow movies as the screenplay begins with an intimate look at this man’s routine. He’s disciplined, organized, competent, and when you think he’s merely an old man living a routine life, we see his struggles to sleep. He lies in bed, sitting in the darkness, calmly battering his book off his head as if he’s trying to forget something, but what?
Presumably an insomniac with OCD, he leaves around the same time every night, carrying a neatly folded bag of tea with him to a local diner where he conversates with a troubled girl named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz). It’s in these calm conversations where the intensity of the story is revealed to us, in a very on the nose manner. With McCall (Denzel Washington) describing the books he reads like spoilers for how the story will eventually develop. Like “Moby Dick,” a book about a fisherman wrestling the biggest fish he can as a symbolizer of a man confronting a final battle when he thought that part of his life had come to an end, eventually stating “You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what.”
Another is “Don Quixote,” a book about “a guy who thinks he's a knight in shining armor. The only thing is, he lives in a world where knights don't exist anymore,” as Robert (Denzel Washington) describes, a similar way of characterizing our sleeper soldier. Richard Wenk’s screenplay, based on Michael Sloan & Richard Lindheim hit television series from the 80’s, is uncreative in that manner, unable to manifest a more clever way at hinting at the events we're about to witness.
Besides those moments, he produces a solid story, one that is filled with both heart and vigor. Maintaining a constant pushing momentum, building towards a crescendo of action, while, simultaneously, providing a deepened glimpse of a man discovering his role in life and questioning if it's a life worth living.
He’s a formidable hero, watching idly, surrounding himself with good and honest people like Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), a youthful man looking to get his start in life as a security guard. He has to make weight though, something he’s asked McCall’s (Denzel Washington) help for in making possible. Another is Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a troubled girl, a prostitute. She’s someone better than that, as every girl is above being more than that, and she wants to be a singer until she begins to be far too independent for her “owners” liking. He beats her up one night, really bad, leaving her in critical condition.
Our hero attempts to provide a middle ground solution, trying to buy her freedom. After an immature and idiotic refusal to his offer, Robert (Denzel Washington) can't walk away as we soon learn that he’s a man of many skills. One that breaks down his deathful actions almost prematurely, setting up his attacks, his use of weapons, and predicts the amount of time it will take. Yeah, this guy’s a badass.
The story becomes a conflicted when a formidable foe arrives to solve the problem that McCall (Denzel Washington) has become for his boss, the monster fish that our fisherman must fight off. This foe is a former Russian operative, Nikolai (Marton Csokas), one who's become a monster that nearly beats a man to death with his bare knuckles, screaming and roaring like an animal that has been unleashed on this gang-riddled Boston community. He’s remorseless, immoral, and is skilled like his adversary, but our hero isn’t exactly a comic book hero trying to do the right thing, more like the proverbial sword that cuts the heads off of snakes that attempt to bite or poison those around him.
Fuqua (“Training Day” & “Southpaw”) provides an overqualified helming of this film which, based on its story, sounds more like your average run of the mill action movie. The action is stylized, intense, and aggressive. Fuqua provides a sleek look to this film that is grungy and grimly lit, the camera moves and vibrates around our hero as he and cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“Avatar”) make this movie pop with energy.
Hemsey’s exceptional score assists in fabricating an action film with more than meets the eye, but Denzel Washington is the engine that keeps the car running. Never providing something nuanced, more of a combination of depictions we’ve seen before, it’s like Coach Boone (“Remember The Titans”) meets John Creasy (“Man on Fire”). He’s calm, cerebral-like, but can be admittedly intimidating. The best scenes are when we see the man behind the facade, a man experienced and seasoned with men like Nikolai (Marton Csokas).
He’s provided that wisened aspect with his character, making him seem like a cross between Yoda and John Wick, but in all actuality, he’s just a man trying to find peace in a world where harmony has been eradicated. Answering the call for his guardianship because he has to be who he is in this world, he’s good at something that few of us ever try to be good at, nor should we.
The film builds as I said, to its big showdown like any other action film, but it takes place in a hardware store of all places, the same store where McCall (Denzel Washington) works. He becomes inventive with his killing methods in a finale that is worth the wait. What’s weird is the lack of surprise his co-workers reveal while discovering that their co-worker is a mercenary. Finally learning what he used to do for a living, a comical subplot that is continuously rehashed throughout the film in which his co-workers attempt to guess what he used to do before he started working at Home Mart.
These everyday people are never surprised by both his actions or the events going on around them; I can't say ever say I was either. It's predictabilty, and that lack of plausibility makes “The Equalizer” feel more like a cross between a comic book vigilante tale and a thematically driven action film. Entertaining? Hell yes. Believable? Not for a second.