'The Equalizer': Toronto Review

The Russians are coming and Denzel is waiting for them in a bang-up action thriller that should launch a franchise

Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua reteam for an action film based on the '80s TV series of the same name

It’s almost as if the good bad old days of the Cold War are here again in The Equalizer, in which Denzel Washington’s former intelligence op kicks more nasty Russian ass than anyone has onscreen since James Bond.  The comparison is not an idle one, since this updating of the fondly remembered late-80s TV show is the most exciting, violent and stylish film of its type in a very long while. Viscerally satisfying on a primal level, the star’s reunion with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua looks to be such a commercial success that a sequel, said to be already in the works, should be put on the Sony fast track.

There’s nothing fundamentally new about what Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk (whose work to date has been on lower-end action fare like The Mechanic and The Expendables 2) have put together here: The hotshot government agency man who’s retired for tragic personal reasons, his zen-like attitude borrowed from Asian action films, the thuggish Russian gangsters who run vulgar nightclubs and hookers and even the kind of hyper-vision and instant sizing up of situations that has recently been used to notable effect by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.

Success rests in what you do with such elements and it begins here with how simply and effectively Fuqua and Washington create a mystique around the latter’s Robert McCall character. Middle-aged and shaven-headed, the man calmly and capably holds down his job at a Home Mart mega-store in Boston and lives very simply in a spare, stripped-down apartment. Fastidious and health-conscious, he has trouble sleeping and habitually heads late at night to a corner diner straight out of the 1930s, where he has his own table and quietly reads the great books over tea; the filmmakers no doubt consulted Edward Hopper on the joint’s design. His aura is such that he seems to have an invisible shield around him, so no one bothers him, but he takes an interest in a bedraggled teenaged prostitute, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is eventually hauled off by a pissed-off Russian pimp.

Highly controlled and self-possessed, McCall has a serene aura about him that suggests hidden depth, and when Teri winds up in a hospital after a terrible beating, the man methodically tracks down the headquarters of the “Russian Nights” escort service above a nightclub and politely tries to negotiate for Teri’s freedom with five of the most vile lowlifes the screen has seen in some time.

What follows is a daringly protracted set-piece of Tarantino-esque length, in which a great deal of talk is followed by violence that is richly satisfying entirely because it is so well deserved. Although we don’t yet know McCall’s background, his exceptional ability to size up a situation and deal with it physically proves thrilling in this initial manifestation; from here on, the audience knows it’s in good hands and can collectively settle in for a very full meal.

The disruption of their business so disturbs the Russians that they send in a top fixer to set things right. It’s quickly apparent that this man, with the deceptively benign name of Teddy, will be a formidable opponent; he’s every inch a worthy Bond villain—smart, articulate, ruthless and, when all is revealed, an absolute psychopath. Marton Csokas is dynamite in the part and his scariness is only increased by the fact that, from certain angles and with the right lighting, he bears an eerie resemblance to a better-looking Adolf Hitler. It isn’t often that a fine actor comes along who could be physically convincing in this role, so someone might want to think about writing a script that could take advantage of this rare casting opportunity.

Teddy is so sharp and confident about dispatching McCall without difficulty that his repeated frustrated attempts become all the more pleasurable to behold. Just like the Irish have done for years, the Russians now have Boston cops on their payroll, and McCall gives them a rough time when they try to push around hard-working friends of his. Because of his longtime low profile, however, McCall is like an invisible man in the city, so it takes a while for Teddy and his goons to track him down and, when they do, he’s always one step ahead of them.

It isn’t until the film’s halfway point that McCall’s background is revealed in a scene at a lavish country estate occupied by retired Bush-era intelligence chiefs (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo) where the guest is directed to the very top of the Russian mafia food chain. Secrets about McCall’s past are also revealed that make basic aspects of his talents and lifestyle comprehensible, things that won’t be too surprising to fans of the television Equalizer, which starred Edward Woodward and ran to 88 episodes across four seasons between 1985-89.

The astounding extent to which the Russians have their claws into American businesses is revealed in another major set-piece in which McCall brazenly invades one of their holding facilities, singlehandedly taking it over, dismissing the workers and nailing the corrupt cops. The way the hero always manages to turn long odds and adverse circumstances to his advantage is sheerest make-believe, of course. But the hokey yet beguiling device of McCall’s ability to pre-visualize how violence will go down largely disarms any objections and Washington’s cool but massively charismatic performance becomes a powerful magnet for the projection of viewer fantasies, much the way things work for James Bond.

A final suspense set-piece involving hostages taken at the Home Mart complex tops things off with some pretty gruesome violence involving tools conveniently at hand in the store. The basic conclusion one can take home is that it might take the entire Russian army to defeat the crafty Robert McCall, a character so alluring that a franchise appears mandatory.

Ramping up his style to a more dynamic and elegant level than he’s achieved previously, Fuqua socks over the suspense and action but also takes the time for some quiet, even spare moments to emphasize the hero’s calm and apartness. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has a rugged beauty and all other behind-the-scenes artisans contribute strongly to a cohesive whole.

Production: Columbia Pictures, Escape Artists, Zhiv, Mace Neufeld Productions
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, E. Roger Mitchell
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Richard Wenk, based on the television series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan
Executive producers: Ezra Swerdlow, David Bloomfield, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore

Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editor: John Refoua
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Rated R, 131 minutes