The Equalizer sets up an elegant equation that it ultimately does not solve, yet doubtlessly could have. What begins with one nothing-to-lose, stasis-wracked protagonist + a hooker with a heart of gold in a heap of trouble ≠ a heartwarming synthesis of mutual education and friendship preceded by bonus, bloody vengeance. Instead, the entire equation is neglected: bloody vengeance now excessive, piss-poor character development and paint-dry pacing abound.
Despite Denzel Washington infallibly ‘Denzelifying’ his role, the psychology of his character, Robert, on paper, seems fleshed thoroughly enough: a man with nothing but a 100-book bucket list, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a meticulously contained presence, and a strong sense of morality including the assets to act on it. One week, the café he frequents, which prior served as sanctuary for acquaintance and prostitute, Teri (Moretz), finds her absent. After Robert discovers how and why, he does something about it “because he can”. Unfortunately, what he does comes with a cost: the ire of an entire East-Coast, Russian mafia. Shit ensues.
To The Equalizer’s credit—although it writes a cheque it doesn’t cash— a few thought-provoking exchanges emerge and some complex, ethical issues are excavated. Examples prodded include dead chivalry, individual essentialism or preordiance (“we are all born for a purpose”), and good-Samaritanship. Sequences alluding Robert to Hemingway’s protagonist of “The Old Man and The Sea” (1952), although oft-times heavy-handed, deliver a promise of something more than a bare-bones vigilante story. In fact they enkindle a symbolic ‘complicating’ of an old narrative, at least at the outset, but subsequently leave us sorely in want. Also present is a half-assed implemented motif comparing night and day, respectively, to limits and potential: the light daunts and the dark emboldens…
However, at some point our writers must have been bludgeoned indelibly by the ‘lethargy stick’, because after about 20 pages of their script, The Equalizer degenerates into “Denzel as suit-less Batman”, impersonalized and ultimately underdeveloped. Teri completely disappears until the last five minutes, effectually making her a book-ending device. Even worse, the relationship between Robert and his insecure co-worker/friend (the B-plot) develops into something more interesting than Teri’s plot and supersedes it in rank of affect.
But perhaps to The Equalizer’s greatest detriment, it transgresses a cardinal sin of screenwriting: the antagonist becomes more identifiable than the protagonist. More screen-time is devoted to him, he’s Machiavellian and understandable (which is good) but also agreeable (which is bad), and many watching may find themselves halfway through the movie vying for him with an emotional investment ≥ that towards Robert. This is simply an inverse equation that, on the big screen, won’t play. So what the hell went wrong? Well, once Teri leaves the picture, Robert and his plight become generic. He can’t develop from stasis because the inciting incident (her) is abandoned.
Writing aside, the film’s pacing is “war-like”, with 99% of its duration mired in the mundane and the other 1% harboring sheer terror/excitement. However, even action sequences themselves (by all rights what the film should get right) spend more time developing tension than showing action, which, ironically, diffuses the tension prematurely due to inadequate action-punctuation. It’s also gory as hell, which is not necessarily a flaw, but unaccompanied by symbolic substance it is. And to “bottom it off”, we’re treated to little if any sound (effects and music), which, for an action-flick, is bemusing.
The Equalizer is just a mess of a film: like an exquisitely prepared dish tossed violently at a wall. Watch it slink and drip down to the floor, if you don’t nod off before then. If you’re a Denzel fan, it’s perhaps worth a go—here, he’s simply a vapid derivation of every other action-hero played prior, except… older. In fact, the entire premise seems auspiciously geared towards the baby-boomer generation, now entering seniorhood (see: Red, The Expendables). Oh, also, a guy gets, like, a drill through the head—so, there’s that.