It was unlikely that a relatively obscure action-drama television show from the 80’s would be adapted to film three decades later. It was even more unlikely that the adaptation would be so well-done. Yet, The Equalizer is here, and it is an uncompromised vision that not only captures the spirit of the source material, but it’s also confident enough in its presentation that it doesn’t worry about getting a little campy for the sake of cinema.
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is a man of routine. He lives alone in his spartan home, works a menial job in retail, selling building supplies, and he reads classic literature in the very early morning at a diner because he has trouble sleeping. He’s also a man of infinite compassion and discipline. He spends quality time with a coworker, getting him in shape for a new job. He helps a neighborhood restaurant shake off some local bullies. And he lends a friendly ear to a young prostitute named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), who he meets at the diner. When he discovers that she’s been savagely beaten by her sleazy Russian pimp after a trick goes bad, McCall decides to try and buy Teri’s freedom by confronting her handlers. The encounter turns violent, but fortunately for McCall, he’s a man with very special skills that makes him perfect for handling these kinds of situations. Regrettably, his actions draw the attention of the Russian mob, and they send in their top enforcer (Marton Csokas) to clean things up.
Whenever a relatively unknown property gets adapted to a larger medium, there’s always the fear of losing much in the translation or, worse, simply applying the brand name to a completely unrelated work. Not so here. In fact, The Equalizer seems to take great pains in making sure that the spirit of the television show came through, especially in Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the eponymous character. In the television show, actor Edward Woodward had portrayed the character Robert McCall as a no-nonsense happy warrior, who became deadly serious when warranted. Those characteristics carryover without loss to Washington’s performance. So fans of the show will feel an amazing comfort reaching across three decades to get to them.
The slower-paced writing deserves much of the credit for how satisfying the film is. Rather than rushing the first act, the script (by Richard Wenk) takes its time to allow audiences to really familiarize themselves with McCall’s routine and the people in his lives. Those unfamiliar with the TV show and who miraculously escaped the advertising for the movie will experience a delightful surprise when McCall reveals his hidden talents. Likewise, those who are familiar with the TV show will recognize familiar elements, like McCall’s selflessness and his penchant for righting wrongs within his community. However audiences approach The Equalizer, they’ll be satisfied, having experienced a fully realized vision, with complete story arcs and character development.
Where the film differs from the television show is in its presentation of violence. While the show was tame, the film just falls short of ultra-violence. Men are stabbed, shot, beaten and corkscrewed, which is a new one. One man even has his eye carved out by a shot glass. There is enough stylish violence here to satisfy most visceral action fans. For the rest, they can take heart in knowing that the violence isn’t gratuitous and isn’t pervasive.
The film is only inconsistent in one area, which is its tone, but the variation isn’t huge. For the most part, The Equalizer is a serious film, dealing with a serious issue, featuring very serious people. As the film approaches the third act, however, it begins to get a little campy, with McCall slowly walking away from an explosion that’s powerful enough to kick up a dust cloud around him, but not strong enough to keep him from materializing stoically from the smoke. Later, the film goes to an absurd length to achieve the iconic shot featured on the promotional posters of Washington in a torrential downpour, staring down steely-eyed no doubt at an impending victim. It’s cool as hell, but also contrived. The biggest drawback to the campiness is that McCall never seems like he’s out of his depth or that he might lose. Even when he catches a bullet, he’s able to shrug it off and keep going. This won’t ruin the experience, but it does diminish the tension.
The Equalizer is a great movie that few will be able to find major fault in. It offers enough nods to the source material to keep fans awash in nostalgia, and it also offers a pleasant update to ensure that it is a new creation unto itself. But regardless of anyone’s familiarity with the property, The Equalizer ensures no one will leave disappointed.