The most interesting thing about The Equalizer is what it represents to the future of Denzel Washington’s career. Denzel has always been one of our finest actors, but there just don’t seem to be a plethora of Oscar bait lead roles for African-American men in mainstream American movies these days. And for whatever reasons, Denzel has yet to really embrace the world of indie film. If he had, I think Washington might have a more impressive resume filled with more varied and deeper work, but he seems determined to stick with mainstream cinema. What if, for example, Washington were to reteam with Spike Lee on a bunch of smaller projects. Washington’s name would help Lee get financing, and it would offer Washington the ability to work on scripts where he’s something other than just the intensely focused detective or criminal. How about Washington in a Steve McQueen film? Why have we never seen Washington work with Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Fincher, or Nolan? What about if Washington were pursuing directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze, Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell, Jeff Nichols, Jean-Marc Vallee, Paul Greengrass, Rian Johnson, or Ben Affleck? Imagine Washington shaking things up and appearing in a smaller role in a Wes Anderson movie, or doing a comedy role in an Apatow or Chris Rock film. Maybe he should take a page from the likes of Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and McConaughey and pursue the great directors who are currently trying to make relevant, cutting-edge films.
Washington’s previous collaboration with Fuqua was the impressive Training Day, a film that netted him his first Oscar win. From there he alternated between films like The Manchurian Candidate, American Gangster, and Flight, with more straightforward crime/thriller fare. That genre seemed to be Washington’s always-reliable meal ticket, in between the wait for roles that might qualify him for more Oscar noms and wins. The most consistent of these was with director Tony Scott, and Washington’s relationship with him dates back to the 1995 film Crimson Tide. For Scott, that was probably around the peak of his career, following big hits like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, and True Romance. Crimson Tide put Scott in bed with Washington, one of the biggest and most reliable A-list movie stars in mainstream American cinema. And while it was a hit, they didn’t reteam until 2004 with Man on Fire. Man on Fire is, in my opinion, one of Scott’s best films. But its dark, nasty tone and storyline kept it from being a runaway success. It was around that time that both Scott’s and Washington’s career’s started flagging. Scott never hit the kind of mainstream critical acclaim his brother Ridley saw, and Washington’s big Oscar bait roles seemed to dry up. So instead they kept making genre films together with increasing frequency– Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable. None of these were bad films, but none of them were great films. And we kept seeing Denzel do what Denzel does best, again and again. Now Scott, sadly, is no longer with us. What’s Denzel to do for his bread and butter? Well, if The Equalizer is any indication, it seems like perhaps he’s plugged Fuqua into Scott’s old genre-director role, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see these guys put out a similar movie every 2-3 years for the foreseeable future.
And just like with The Equalizer, we’ll get more Denzel doing what he does best, with a lot of seriousness and focus and intensity, and the movies will be okay but not great, and both Washington and Fuqua will maintain their Hollywood relevancy and their bank accounts. And if that sounds like I’m harshing on Denzel, then let me apologize. I really do believe he’s one of our best actors, and I love his work… I just wish he’d mix it up and move outside of his comfort zone more and do some different things– because he’s capable of so much more.
In a nutshell, as if you haven’t already guessed, The Equalizer is in line with what you should expect from Washington’s previous output with Tony Scott. It would make for a happy discovery flipping around channels at 2am and landing on something both competent and entertaining. But for a movie you’re going to see at the theatre and plunking down your $10 for, it’s a fairly generic crime thriller with a reliable lead performance from Denzel. Chloe Grace Moretz does solid work as a young prostitute caught up with the abusive Russian mob, which pushes Washington’s Robert McCall, friendly with her in passing from some conversations at a local diner, over the edge of an increasingly dull life and a day job at a Home Depot knock-off. The film is fairly violent, which helps to liven up the proceedings and keep the viewer awake, but the story is pretty much a paint-by-numbers job. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo show up in extremely small roles, and most of the Russian mob are relative unknowns. You might recognize David Meunier from his work on Justified where he played Boyd’s crippled cousin Johnny Crowder for several seasons, or David Harbour, most recently seen on Rake and The Newsroom, playing a corrupt cop. Martin Csokas is the big bad’s main henchman, and the villain Washington is up against for most of the film’s running time. You might not recognize Csokas’ name, but you’ll recognize him when you see him, because his entire career has been spent playing generic, disposable gangsters just like this one.
The Equalizer plays best when it’s at its most violent, and it bears almost no resemblance to its 80’s television predecessor starring the British Edward Woodward. The third act of the film almost becomes Die Hard in a Home Depot, and during moments where Washington’s Robert McCall maims and kills Russian gangsters with traps made from home construction machinery, a voice in my head kept saying “That’s the power of the Home Depot.” At least Fuqua didn’t actually name the store in the film Home Depot so the movie doesn’t come off like a blatant commercial for the super chain, and Fuqua can’t be accused of building a movie primarily around product placement… but it still kind of feels like that’s what it is.
There are a couple of interesting moments featuring McCall talking about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (“Man’s gotta be a man, fish’s gotta be a fish”) or telling Csokas how he’s going to take down his organization “brick by brick” in typical Denzel-speak. In general, The Equalizer kind of feels like Man on Fire-lite; the film’s tone isn’t as bleak or dark, Denzel’s character isn’t as over-the-edge, and as a result everything just feels similar but more generic. Again, Fuqua is a competent director, and Denzel is always solid, but The Equalizer tastes like reheated leftovers. If you like crime movies, The Equalizer delivers and you won’t be disappointed, but it’s not going to wow you, either, and you’ll want to keep your expectations set to moderate. Here’s hoping that if the Fuqua-Washington collaborations replace the Scott-Washington collaborations as I suspect they might, the two of them aspire to get back to the higher level of quality and relevancy they hit previously with Training Day. I know Equalizer writer Richard Wenk already has a sequel penned for The Equalizer 2, which may not be the most encouraging of signs. To put his work, as well as the content of The Equalizer, into focus, he’s the man who gave us the screenplays for 16 Blocks, The Mechanic, and The Expendables 2— not exactly examples of genre re-defining work.