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'The Equalizer' Pits Mallet Against Man And Man Against Corkscrew

Denzel Washington stars as a retired intelligence officer in <em>The Equalizer</em>.
Scott Garfield
Sony Pictures
Denzel Washington stars as a retired intelligence officer in The Equalizer.

"A feud is this way," Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. "A man has a quarrel with another man and kills him; then that other man's brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in — and by and by everybody's killed off, and there ain't no more feud. But it's kind of slow, and takes a long time."

That's a different Twain quote from the one that appears onscreen at the top of The Equalizer, the Zen vigilante flick reuniting Training Day director and star Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington. But it's a better fit for the surprisingly patient, unsurprisingly violent movie they've made. Like their prior collaboration, it scrapes together two gripping, closely observed acts before lobotomizing itself for an over-the-top final third that tips the needle from "Pleasure" to "Pleasure, Guilty, Shame on You!" I liked the lengthy first act where Washington walks the Earth – well, part of Boston – dispensing inspiration and literary analysis of great novels he's read and dietary advice even better than the (longer) part where he's dispensing justice. Your mileage may vary.

From its Edward Woodward-starring '80s CBS primetime forebear, The Equalizer has inherited a title and vague premise ­– retired covert-ops badass uses Murderous Jedi Skills to help the meek – but not, unfortunately, Police drummer Stewart Copeland's New Wave theme music. The picture's soundtrack runs more to Eminem and – since we're already talking about dirty little crime pictures buffed and polished and inflated to portentous scale ­-- the same Moby song Michael Mann used to introduce Al Pacino and Robert De Niro's historic tete-a-tete in Heat 19 years ago. The film around it remains a hummable, easy-to-digest entry in a long line of monastic plainclothes superhero flicks about penitent and unknowable widowers. (Sidebar: When did the celibacy thing become pervasive in action movies? Is it because of PG-13 creep, or because the median age of our action leads has shot up by 20 years?)

Liam Neeson has played minor variations on this Sad Jedi role even more times than Washington. But Washington is even better at it, and of course he has not one but two Oscar statuettes he can reach for when he needs a makeshift weapon. Is he overqualified for The Equalizer? Are you saying that just because this movie would've starred Steven Seagal back when Washington was playing Malcolm X for Spike Lee, but would otherwise have differed little from the version we're watching in 2014? (Washington's character, McCall, even brings his own teabags to the all-night diner where he hangs out reading leatherbound classics when he can't sleep, furtively tossing them in his cup the instant before the waiter pours his hot water. Cool, odd little detail. Never remarked upon. Feels Seagalian. He's also apparently OCD, continually rearranging the utensils on the table.)

Deservedly or not, the movie is elevated several echelons by Washington's Father Knows Best (How to Kill Slimeballs) performance. Gravitas he's got. Also, grave-itas. The details of his former life as a spook are wisely left vague: All we know – and we get this from behavior, not exposition – is that he's a meticulous, solitary soul who goes out of his way to be kind and helpful. The kids at the big-box hardware store where he works call him "Pops" and use YouTube to fact-check his claim that he sang backup for Gladys Knight. When he catches the colleague he's helping to lose weight sneaking some chips, he speaks not a critical word; he just gives a reproachful look and says he's looking for "Progress, not perfection." You'd want this guy in your corner...

... even if you didn't already know from the trailer that he can stroll into a den of armed thugs, read their neck tattoos like a barcode scanner, and predict within a few seconds how long it's going to take him to slay them all, no two in the same way.

Don't feel bad for them; they're Russian sex traffickers who beat Elena — the sad-eyed teenage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) who sometimes talks to McCall at the diner — near to death. If anybody has a bullet (corkscrew, shot glass, ashtray) karmically coming their way, it's these jerkazoids. Because he has renounced violence, McCall actually tries to buy Elena's freedom first. But the slavers refuse, so it's back to the Corkscrew/Shot Glass/Ashtray Plan.

This confrontation is a great, tense scene, one the movie builds to for 35 minutes. But like Travis Bickle before him, once McCall uncorks his inner bully-of-bullies, he can't stop him. Soon he's even taking on crooked cops, beating them up and blackmailing them into returning the protection money they've extorted from a restaurant – along with an apology. This is a decency-enforcing, Dockers-wearing superhero we can all get behind.

The movie comes to revel in its shorthand: When a stickup guy at the hardware store demands a cashier's wedding ring along with the money, a shot of Denzel replacing a slightly used mallet on the shelf tells the entire story of how she gets it back. Better still is when a henchman gets up from a restaurant table and then McCall appears a moment later take his place, tossing the man's bloodied, broken sunglasses on the table in front of him. Sic semper those guys who wear sunglasses indoors!

The Equalizer is a lot of fun for as long as it sticks to its modern-western guns and tells an intimate story. But like almost every action film, it inflates to prepostrous dimensions, and our investment in it declines accordingly. (This visually unspectacular crime movie, all night shots and close-ups, is getting a pointless IMAX release.) The pimps McCall kills can't just be pimps, naturally; they're the bottom rungs of a vast international criminal conspiracy.

Occupying a slighty higher rung is Márton Csókás, playing the heavy sent from Russia to deliver McCall's head. He's a guy from New Zealand born to Hungarian and Australian parents playing a Russian, which may explain why he sounds like he's channeling Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. His foreplay with Washington is superb. When the pair is face-to-face for the first time, Washington pretends to be a meek shut-in and Csókás pretends to be a cop. Neither man buys the other's story, but there's a tacit agreement among these professional killers briefly to sustain the fiction. The scene crackles with energy; it's great fun.

Savoring the weirdness of these relatively quiet moments is the key to enjoying The Equalizer. It runs out of clever moves before it runs out of movie, but at least it doesn't go dull when it goes dumb, setting its final showdown in McCall's hardware store. The Book of Isiah tells us to beat our swords into ploughshares. Which is presumably why McCall dispatches the last four or five wicked men who come for him using various gardening and home improvement implements, even though there's an entire franchise-in-the-making's worth of firearms just lying there on the floor.

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