Friday, September 26, 2014

The Equalizer: Solid blend of character and action

The Equalizer (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong bloody violence, profanity and sexual vulgarity

By Derrick Bang

I want Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall living in my neighborhood.

Like, immediately. Yesterday, if possible.

Eventually, inexorably, the vicious Teddy (Marton Csokas, left) tracks down the elusive
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). Their meeting is deceptively cheerful and polite,
each man sizing up the other. But we know, without question, that their next encounter
won't be anywhere near this benign...
In the interests of full disclosure, scripter Richard Wenk’s take on McCall owes very little to the 1980s television series that starred Edward Woodward, and which gives this film its name; this updated McCall feels far more like novelist Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (and I definitely refer to the character in Child’s books, and not Tom Cruise’s laughable big-screen interpretation).

Like Reacher, Washington’s McCall is the epitome of calm, methodical über-cool: a seasoned warrior who remains unfazed by any bad guys, regardless of their degree of malevolence, or their superiority in numbers. Watching this McCall go to work is the most delicious of vicarious guilty pleasures; it’s hard not to stand up and cheer.

But our reaction wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying, were McCall played by a lesser actor, or if Wenk hadn’t done such a fine job of setting up both character and premise. I’m frankly surprised that a film with such subtle touches could come from director Antoine Fuqua, more frequently known for noisy, overblown and often nasty popcorn thrillers such as Shooter, Brooklyn’s Finest and Olympus Has Fallen.

Most of Fuqua’s efforts aren’t highlighted by thoughtful or intelligent scripts, but this one’s a welcome exception. And yes, even if he reverts to form in the climax, by then he has (mostly) earned the right to do so.

Washington grants him that privilege.

McCall is introduced, during a very languid first act, as one of many cheerful employees at a Boston-based Home Mart, a huge construction store clearly modeled, in everything but name, on Home Depot outlets. He merrily interacts with his fellow workers, clearly delighted to greet them each morning. He takes a greater interest in some, such as Jenny (Anastasia Mousis), one of the cashiers; and Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), an amiable lunch pal hoping to drop a few pounds in order to qualify for a promotion to security guard.

At home, living alone, McCall is obsessively neat and tidy. But the cracks in his façade slip in, at first almost unnoticed. He’s always up before his alarm clock goes off. He has trouble sleeping at night. More crucially, Washington’s features carry some massive burden: McCall radiates sorrow and regret, and we start to wonder if his public face represents some sort of penance.

A few hours past midnight, when he still can’t sleep, he indulges in what we realize is a longstanding ritual: a short walk to a local all-night diner, book in hand, where he plops his own teabag into the mug of steaming water placed at his regular table.

Also part of the ritual, if perhaps a newer element: a few words exchanged with the teenage call girl, Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), who briefly occupies a seat at the counter each night, and wolfs down an unhealthy meal while waiting for her smart phone to buzz.

She eventually changes the dynamic, apologetically slipping into the seat opposite McCall. She nervously, shyly shares her dreams of writing and recording songs. He encourages her: People can be whatever they want. Not with my life, she sadly replies. Then change your life, he suggests.

And he means it; Washington delivers the line with a simple sincerity that — despite the absurdity of this suggestion, given the girl’s profession — somehow makes it sound perfectly reasonable.

At the same time, McCall can’t help noticing the nasty bruise on Teri’s cheek.

They enjoy a brief walk, soon interrupted by the arrival of Teri’s angry pimp, Slavi (David Meunier), a vicious Russian gangster accompanied by an equally imposing handler. Teri, insisting that everything is fine, gets into the car; McCall impassively, even mildly, submits to Slavi’s condescending assurances.

And, just like that, McCall finds himself Involved. Can’t help it. We see the switch thrown behind Washington’s eyes. We don’t really know what’s coming next — Wenk’s script hasn’t dangled any hints — but, even so, we know it’ll be ... well, cool. And thoroughly satisfying.

Nor are we disappointed.

Fans of crime thrillers will understand, however, that one does not capriciously mess with Russian gangsters. Before long, other major players join the unfolding dynamic: several corrupts Boston cops, notably Masters (David Harbour, suitably smarmy), and most particularly a “handler” sent by Pushkin, the unseen overlord who pulls all the strings from Mother Russia.

The handler in question is Teddy (Marton Csokas), a stone-cold sociopath wholly incapable of human feeling. Despite McCall’s clandestine skills — thus far, nobody even registers his presence, let alone suspecting his involvement — Teddy senses the unseen hand of a similarly skilled opponent, and takes steps accordingly.

By which point, we know things will build to a truly marvelous finale.

And, as before, we’re not disappointed.

Once Teddy enters the picture, it’s hard to take our eyes off him; Csokas has considerable presence to begin with, and he thoroughly enjoys inhabiting this two-legged monster. Flamboyant and deliciously theatrical as his antics are, however, he never pulls focus from Washington, an actor long skilled at maximizing quiet moments. Watching Washington simply listen — as when McCall meekly submits to jeering taunts by Slavi and his minions — is a master class in thespic subtlety.

That said, I’m not sure Fuqua and Wenk should have depicted McCall’s analysis of a given situation in the manner shown; it looks and feels like a shameless lift from Robert Downey Jr.’s approach to Sherlock Holmes, each time he considers the odds.

Granted, the addition of McCall’s stopwatch is a droll touch ... but not enough to camouflage the visual plagiarism.

Moretz’s Teri evokes fond memories of Jodie Foster’s Iris, all the way back in 1976’s Taxi Driver, but this comparison is by no means an indictment of the former’s performance. We almost don’t recognize Moretz at first, buried beneath heavy makeup and garish hairstyles, but there’s no mistaking the way she anxiously twists her mouth, or the slightly defiant look in her eyes, notwithstanding the beaten slump of Teri’s shoulders.

McCall’s encouragement lights a hopeful ember in Moretz’s gaze, but it’s all too quickly extinguished when she submits, time and again, to Slavi’s commands. Her deflated resignation is shattering.

Ralphie seems a sidebar character at first: a jovial, comic-relief prop on hand mostly to augment McCall’s personality and Washington’s performance. But Skourtis brings considerable charm and pluck to the role, and he becomes a welcome part of the third act.

Most of the time, this film demonstrates a welcome maturity in Fuqua’s filmmaking techniques, although his bad ol’ ways do crop up on occasion. This is most evident during the aforementioned climax, which descends into rather barbaric violence. That we welcome the payback is beside the point; that doesn’t excuse Fuqua’s unpleasant tendency to linger, in close-up, on the body-shredding results.

The film’s most distasteful flaw, however, is its score. Although Harry Gregson-Williams delivers some nice orchestral character themes, particularly a simple piano melody for Teri, the soundtrack too often is overwhelmed by pulsing, thoroughly obnoxious hip-hop and gangsta rap. It simply doesn’t fit McCall’s world, or his style.

Even so, this take on The Equalizer remains a nicely developed, thoroughly satisfying revenge saga. Fuqua and Washington haven’t worked together since 2001’s Training Day, which brought the latter an Academy Award, and this is a respectable and quite entertaining follow-up.

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