by Gabriel Valdez
An early shot in The Equalizer shows a beautiful woman rising from her seat on the bus. She waits to exit, and the camera pans around to reveal Robert McCall’s face. We’d expect any male character in this shot to be staring straight at her – we’ve seen that reaction thousands of times from thousands of antiheroes. Instead, Robert’s eyes are cast down, reading his book, which we’re later told is Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
That Robert is played by Denzel Washington only heightens a moment like this – Washington’s perfected the fine balance required in playing monk-like antiheroes. The Equalizer is a late 90s/early 00s style of action movie. It’s heavy on character and a consciously grim cinematic atmosphere. Many of director Antoine Fuqua’s visuals will remind you of Tony Scott’s best films from that era – like Enemy of the State or Denzel’s own Man on Fire.
Robert McCall is a former CIA operative. Assassin is the more apt term. He has left that life behind, eking out an intentionally simple existence at a Home Depot-like store in Boston. He goes out of his way to help those around him – he trains a co-worker who wants to lose weight and become a security guard, he recovers a ring stolen from one of the cashiers. He also has trouble sleeping, so he spends nights at the local diner catching up on all the novels he once intended to finish with his wife.
He has few companions at the diner, but encourages underage call girl Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) to pursue goals beyond the life she leads. Robert himself has taken a personal oath of non-violence, but when Teri is viciously beaten by her employers – the Russian mafia – he’ll “make an exception.” Most of the plot follows the cat-and-mouse game Robert plays with a Russian mobster named Teddy (Martin Csokas). Teddy is a filmic marvel as a villain, crazed, unfeeling, brutal yet intelligent – but always in the service of a larger strategy.
What’s striking about The Equalizer is the nature of its violence. We look at Bourne and Bond and marvel at fight scenes that are choreographed like dances. The action in The Equalizer isn’t awesome – it’s terrifying. Robert always gives the villains a chance to do the right thing, but when they inevitably refuse, watching him in his element is like watching the shark in Jaws. There’s no malevolence or anger. There’s barely any effort to his violence. His face is blank, as if you’ve caught him meditating. He feels like a force of nature, unavoidable once he’s set upon you, the outcome already decided. All that’s left is for the bodies to go through their motions.
The action scenes are very well done, but they aren’t all about the action. They’re about the terror of violence, the unfeeling places it takes Robert to, and how wary he is of letting that part of himself take over.
The Equalizer is based on an 80s TV show of the same name, starring British character actor Edward Woodward. There are numerous nods to that 80s style, from the driving, industrial score by Harry Gregson Williams to the patient, sparse presentation of the action. I would never have guessed, however, the stunning nuance Denzel shows in reinterpreting Woodward. Denzel’s great, we all know that, but he doesn’t look, speak, or act like a wily British character actor. The show’s obscure – no one would have blinked if he’d made this one more hard-nosed Denzel role. What he translates so perfectly, however, is the inner emotion Woodward gave Robert McCall. Skin color, accent…none of it matters one bit. This is the very same character.
I also have to wonder how The Equalizer will be viewed in certain communities in the U.S. Both in an early B-plot and in a later moment aimed at putting pressure on the Russian mafia, Robert leans on a corrupt Boston police force. He holds badges up to cops’ faces and tells them they’ve betrayed what it means. This is nothing new for this sort of movie, and I remember the original TV series having moments like this. At a time when African-American men are being shot in Michigan, in Missouri, and choked out in New York by police officers free of repercussion, it strikes a chord to see a black actor of Denzel’s magnitude hold a badge to a white officer’s face and hold him personally accountable.
I suspect there are communities that need to see these moments, not because they directly solve anything, but because movies are about escapism, and escapism is about challenging what we find insurmountable in our everyday lives. To see a black actor like Denzel seek out and tear down police corruption will lend some viewers courage. It may make others uncomfortable. At the very least, it will become one more avenue to talking about change. And that’s what The Equalizer is ultimately about – Robert is admirable not for his skills and capacity for revenge, but rather for how he restrains that urge and pursues bettering the situations of those around him.
The Equalizer is a stylish, thoughtful action movie, contains one of Denzel’s best and most nuanced performances in years, and is about as perfect an adaptation as you can get.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does The Equalizer have more than one woman in it?
Yes. It stars Chloe Grace Moretz, Haley Bennett, Melissa Leo, Anastasia Sanidopoulos Mousis, and Luz Sanchez.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Nope. There’s a hospital bed scene in which a woman asks Teri who beat her up, but I don’t think it passes the letter of the law.
3. About something other than a man?
Can it be forgiven? This is a tough one. There are two kinds of hardboiled thriller. One contains an intersecting B-plot about the cops or PIs investigating the battle between protagonist and antagonist. This is often where these films will include a female detective who at some point interviews another woman. This year’s underseen Sabotage is the perfect example of this.
This in itself isn’t always the best solution – why can’t one of the leads be a woman? – but it at least expands the roles for women in the genre.
The second kind is the limited-perspective thriller, where every single scene centers around your main character and his adversary. This lends itself to sparser, more ‘mythic’ narratives. That’s what The Equalizer is.
If every scene centers around your main character, and your main character’s a man, you’re probably not going to pass the Bechdel Test. This is as much a component of the genre’s restricted perspective as it is any fault by the filmmaker.
Even this year’s In the Blood, a flawed-but-fun direct-to-DVD thriller in which Gina Carano busts up a Caribbean island in order to rescue her kidnapped husband, doesn’t technically pass the third rule of the test.
The dynamic between Csokas’s villain and Denzel’s hero does investigate how men seek to control both themselves and others – in the case of the Russian mob, this means controlling women as an outlet for both sex and violence. This also means that two of your five female characters are prostitutes.
The Equalizer could have given women more agency without losing a thing. It’s a very good movie, but you can still like a movie and insist it should have done better.