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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Equalizer Review: Old Meets New in a Viciously Delicious Throwdown

The Equalizer is the most visceral, stylish, and rewarding experience in quite awhile. Summer movies, take note.

As we've been talking about this week, the 80's drama/action television program The Equalizer is getting the full-on movie treatment, courtesy of a duo of heavy hitters: Director Antoine Fuqua and his Training Day leading man Denzel Washington. For those of us who thrilled to the weekly exploits of former Company spy Robert McCall saving New Yorkers in trouble, the thought of a movie version has obviously piqued our interests. And while there's very little comparison here to the original, moviegoers are in for a violent and ultimately rewarding experience.

Robert McCall (Washington) is a thoughtful, well-read middle-aged gentlemen working at a local hardware supply store, his life falling into neat patterns of cleanliness and a spartan-like behavior. But deep inside, McCall is holding back a violent past that saw him fake his own death in order to escape the life of a superspy. Instead, he spends time trying to make a difference in people's lives, assisting an overweight fellow employee to slim down so he can take a security guard test and assisting his mother when dirty cops come to collect their monthly shock money. All of that changes when another of his 'projects' in the form of an aspiring singer-turned prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is beaten by her Russian pimp, forcing McCall to take out his team. As news of the killings reach the highest levels, a Russian kingpin sends out his attack dog Teddy (Martin Cskosas) to find McCall at any cost. Faced with the prospect of a dirty conclusion, McCall must equalize the odds before Teddy's violent tendencies lead to more deaths.

Again, let's be clear: nearly every element of the CBS show has been changed. There's no Control, no Mickey Kostmeyer, and no son Scott, with McCall largely on his own to deal with the industrial-sized problems that Writer Richard Wenk has thrown into the script. Fans of the series - what few of them remain - might do best to simply divorce themselves of any connection, as ignorance in this case might be bliss. What's not missing is the serious baddies led by Csokas, clearly the best since The Winter Soldier, his calm style and impeccable tastes hiding a body full of tatoos and an insatiable desire for ultra violence. But don't count out our boy here: McCall too is a viscous killing machine, ready to dispense justice after summing up the situation Cumberbatch-style ala BBC's Sherlock. These - and the bloodbaths that follow - are some of the best scenes from Fuqua and some of the best of the year; just wait till you see the variety of ways Washington takes down the Russians.

And that's part of the problem: granted, McCall is the most dangerous man no one has ever seen, but that air of invincibility at times feels a bit unrealistic. We know that he will take down Teddy during the climax, even though there may be a moment when the odds are seemingly against him (no pun intended). Minus one huge throwdown with a yoked-up thug, there's simply no point in which McCall's life feels threatened, which at least jibes with the series. What we're left with is simply waiting for the next way he will take down Teddy's men, some of which are truly shocking. Word on the street suggested The Equalizer would be a hard R, and Fuqua doesn't let us down. But to its credit, this level of violence is balanced quite nicely by Washington, a simmering nuclear bomb if one could be imagined. His performance might remind me of previous man-on-the-edge endeavors, but it's done so well that I can look past any shortcomings. During a confrontation at a restaurant, McCall stares down Teddy with eyes as steely as a black hole and asks "What do you see when you look at me?" From that point on, we truly have a battle among titans brewing, even though we know exactly what will happen.

Moretz is putting together quite a resume, able to nimbly jump from feel-good tale to victimized hooker.; but at least her absence is finally explained near film's end. She and Washington enjoy good chemistry, sizing each other up with enjoyable exposition before Teddy gets in the way. There's even a pseudo double cameo by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, who are the closest thing to Control this version of McCall knows. And yet for all the talk and quiet scenes of him trying to forget his past, McCall wears his tortured soul right on his sleeve, still grieving at personal loss and trying to be something less than what he ultimately accepts as his calling. When that moment arrives, old Equalizer passes off to the new in a scene which should make fans smile.

And that's the reality behind Hollywood reboots: content to make wholesale swaps in content, studios play a dangerous game with fan's emotions, leaving us to hope they at least capture the spirit of our childhood memories before raping our wallets. Summer films could learn a lot from this one, balancing a deep story about embracing your true colors rather than keeping them tightly under wraps, while delivering some of the best fight scenes in recent memory.

I walk away from The Equalizer a bit conflicted, thoroughly appreciating the effort but mindful of the series that made me think in shades of spy grays. With a sequel already in the works, I can live with this new hero, even if the original one still occupies a special place in my heart. Now where's my Walther PPK?

The Equalizer is Rated R for for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references and has a runtime of 131 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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