Apart from cops and robbers, two kinds of characters have overpopulated crime movies for years: the serial killer and the vigilante. Both are extremely rare in reality and absurdly plentiful on the big screen. Denzel Washington plays the latest vigilante, a dubious "good guy" in the violent vengeance fantasy, "The Equalizer."
Adapted from the 1985-1989 TV series starring Edward Woodward, "The Equalizer" tells the story of Robert McCall (Washington), an ex-operative of "the Agency" who now freelances protecting the little guy. At the film's outset, erstwhile spy McCall marks time as an employee of hardware retailer Home Mart and a frequenter of an all-night greasy spoon. There, his budding friendship with teenage prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz, in a surprisingly affecting turn) winds up pulling him back into a lifestyle he has held at bay: dispensing violence to those who "deserve" it.
The early scenes establishing McCall and Teri may be silly, but they are compelling on the strength of the actors and the direction by Antoine Fuqua (who directed Washington to an Oscar in "Training Day"). You can take the man out of the Agency but not the Agency out of the man, as we learn by McCall's fastidiousness: He's religious about using the stopwatch function of his digital wristwatch, he cleans sneakers with a toothbrush, and he's working his way through a list touting the hundred best novels (including portentously significant titles like "The Old Man and the Sea" and "Don Quixote").
Lonely, "kinda lost" widower McCall also operates from an emotional resiliency that emerges in flashes of humor, and a core compassion that compels him to help his fellow woman (Teri) and man (Johnny Skourtis's Home Mart employee, Ralphie). McCall preaches "body, mind, spirit," and doles out diet tips and life lessons ("Doubt kills," he proclaims, and, "You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what"). But as soon as McCall begins to dish out cold violence -- reluctantly, and yet with an unmistakeable relish -- interest drains from the picture. The story becomes one of just another "unforgiven" killer trying to even out the karmic scales via dubious means.
By strongly suggesting that McCall's victims deserve to die for their immorality and sheer foolishness in crossing him, "The Equalizer" itself becomes immoral and distasteful, albeit in ways audiences are so familiar with by now that they're likely not to notice. Aside from the odd compelling detail (McCall sealing a wound with boiling honey, a running joke about Gladys Knight and the Pips), most of the film's two-hour-plus run time is one big wash of been there, done that. The boilerplate plot is elevated by key performances from Marton Csokas (as intense Russian mob middle manager Teddy), Moretz and Washington, whose supremely confident performance fits him, glove-like, to the role (or, more likely, the role to him). The star makes the film something of a guilty pleasure, but Washington's performance -- and touches like the film-opening Mark Twain quotation -- form little more than a gilded cover wrapped around pure pulp.
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references. Two hours, 11 minutes.