The key to Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Robert McCall is in his eyes. He faces down the barrel of a gun without fear. And Washington effortlessly delivers just the right stare—vacant but with a bit of compassion.
“The Equalizer” was a popular television series that ran for 4 seasons from 1985 through 1989. That show starred British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a private detective of sorts who helps people in need regardless of their ability to pay him. McCall was a mysterious former intelligence agent, who is determine to make amends for the sins of his past. Oh, and he drove a black Jaguar.
This reimagining of the television series has Washington in the McCall role, but the level of mystery is ratcheted up along with the level of violence. And, unfortunately, there’s no Jaguar. In fact, I think this McCall drives a Ford, when isn’t taking public transit.
The story is like a whole season of the television series. McCall befriends a young Russian prostitute played by Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit-Girl from “Kick Ass”). When she gets beat up and put in ICU by her pimp, McCall decides to help her. And help has McCall taking on the Russian mob. Trust me, there are a lot of dead bodies in this film.
What makes “The Equalizer (2014)” work is the casting of its star and the introduction, to American audiences anyway, of New Zealand actor Marton Csokas, who plays the menacing villain named Teddy. Csokas is fierce as the bad guy, a Russian killer hired to come in and take McCall out. It is truly a star-making turn, because, you see, Csokas has the look, just like Washington, for the role. And the best part of the film is when Csokas (this actor many of us have never seen) and Washington (loved by viewers the world over) sit in front of one another and really just stare. There is a conversation, but watching these two guys look at one another is more than enough.
There is a tension to this film that is almost unbearable early. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that lots of people are going to get killed. And the film is rated R for the violence. But when Csokas enters the picture the mood goes from tense with a little playfulness to downright scary. This is no accident, because Washington is able to convey quite cool and complete sincerity, Csokas is able to deliver equal amounts of simmering craziness. And that pot seems always about to boil over.
“The Equalizer (2014)” is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who worked with Washington back in 2001 on the Oscar-winning “Training Day.” Fuqua’s last film had him turning away from gritty crime films and into the action genre with the popular “Olympus Has Fallen.” Readers should check out “Brooklyn’s Finest,” an interesting multi-layered cop film with a solid and interesting cast. Like most of his films, here he gets the atmosphere almost exactly right with early talky sequences informing well on the carnage that is to follow. But what Fuqua understands is the best special effect in the film is his gifted actors ability to draw us in, scare us, and make us care. And this works even as the story goes a little bonkers in the closing act.
Rarely have I seen a film that is this by the numbers from a narrative standpoint, but surprised me anyway. Csokas is the main reason. Washington has done this sort of material before with the late Tony Scott at the helm in 2004’s “Man on Fire.” And “Fire” is a better film on many levels. But matched with Csokas, “The Equalizer (2014)” is greatly elevated. Both men have the stare, and it makes entertaining, albeit uncomfortable, viewing.
NOTE: This review first appeared in print in the Times-Herald.