Who you gonna call when wealthy white men own everything or pay the authorities to look the other way? According to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer, you need to call a middle-aged, working-class black man, who turns to a retired woman when he needs assistance. Demographics are the most interesting aspect of this adaptation of the 1980s TV series about a former special forces operative who takes up the cause for those oppressed by organised crime and corrupt authorities. As a result, it succeeds in being far more engaging than similar vigilante thrillers such as Taken (and several other Liam Neeson vehicles such as Non-Stop and A Walk Amongst the Tombstones) and Man On Fire (which also starred Denzel Washington).
Dramatically, The Equalizer suffers when it is too much – at least two sub-plots could have been excised to make it more streamlined and towards the finale, there is unnecessary use of slo-mo to make the action more dramatic, when it would have benefitted from being more succinct. Politically, the film expresses faith in systems of law, order and justice, but claims that greed and power lead to these being corrupted (hardly original) and it is the task of the proletariat to challenge abuse and corruption. Perhaps less progressively, this challenge is violent and destructive as Robert McCall (Washington) easily murders multiple Russian gangsters, batters dirty cops to a pulp and uses any number of improvised weapons to equalise the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless. The film is generically simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil – the bad guys are so bad that they clearly deserve the grisly deaths they meet and all their victims are innocent and downtrodden, while McCall is carefully constructed to ensure normally that we support him. He is helpful and generous to those around him, especially his co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) whom he helps with a job application, as well as abused prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). His employment at a hardware store and use of everyday tools like hammers, corkscrews, nail guns and barb wire further establish his proletariat credentials, in contrast to the sophisticated weaponry of the gangsters he confronts. But while the violence in The Equalizer is presented as necessary and justified, it is not (for the most part) glorified or presented as redemptive.
Key to the film’s treatment of violence is Washington’s performance. Whereas other powerful performers such as Liam Neeson and Robert De Niro can be accused of coasting, Washington is never less than an utterly magnetic screen presence. His previous collaboration with Fuqua, Training Day, won him a Best Actor Oscar, largely thanks to David Ayer’s acerbic script (for other instances, see the similarly themed Ayer-written-and-directed Harsh Times and End of Watch). Richard Wenk’s script is more simplistic and less concerned with sociological and sub-cultural detail (for an intimate presentation of Russian gangsters, see Eastern Promises), but Washington demonstrates, as he has throughout his career, how much he brings to even a simplistic character. In scenes with Teri and Ralphie, McCall is jovial and amiable, but in the scenes of violence, he becomes cold, implacable and almost inhuman. This aspect of the performance prevents the violence from being glorified – instead it is mechanical and functional, a necessary response to the (gleeful) violence of the Russian gangsters and dirty cops, McCall like an antibody attacking an infection. Washington’s performance is understated, avoiding the guilt-ridden histrionics of Man On Fire and the grandstanding of Training Day and American Gangster. He hints at a great deal but clarifies little behind his hooded eyes other than his ability to assess and deal with threats (reminiscent of scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). This mystery makes him a cypher, a representative of the downtrodden, including black people, Latinos, women and the working class. While The Equalizer suffers from narrative and stylistic excess, when it focuses on its central figure, what he does and what he represents, it makes interesting claims about sites of resistance.