If you were lucky enough to catch Denzel Washington in “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, you saw the hugely charismatic actor portray, in an iconic role, the full complexity of a human being: strengths and weaknesses, attributes and flaws, durability and vulnerability. All topped off, of course, with that boyish Washington charm.
Alas, Washington doesn’t always choose big-screen roles similarly worthy of his unique talent. This is especially true of “The Equalizer,” a mediocre thriller that tries to establish the 59-year-old actor as a middle-aged action hero, a la Liam Neeson. Here, we get to see Washington kill a lot of people. Yawn. OK, he does it in somewhat inventive ways. Still: Yawn.
“The Equalizer” isn’t a terrible movie, as action sagas go. It just doesn’t nearly live up to what it aspires to be, which is a smart, classy update of the 1980s TV series of the same name, about an ex-government agent who spends his retirement as a sort of ultra-violent avenging angel, rubbing out villains who treat good people badly.
Changes have been made — liberally. On TV, Robert McCall (Edward Woodward) was a debonair middle-aged guy in a trench coat, collar upturned, cruising the streets of New York in a black Jaguar. Here, no trench coat, no Jaguar, no New York. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk have moved the action to Boston, and Washington’s McCall is a blue-collar type. A widower with few possessions, he spends his days working at the Home Mart, and his nights reading literary classics and drinking tea at the diner.
It’s at this diner that McCall befriends a sweet young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). And when her pimps — nasty Russian mob types, straight from central casting — rough her up so badly she ends up clinging to life in a hospital, McCall’s vigilante instincts emerge.
He confronts the thugs, trying to buy her freedom. They laugh. Bad move. Using his hyper-vision skills, he sizes up the room and dispatches every thug within seconds (he’s counting), using handy props like a corkscrew.
Now, if seeing a corkscrew lodged in a bloody neck inspires you to applaud gleefully, well, you’ll probably like this movie. If not, then, like me, you may feel your initial affection for this character wavering ever so slightly as the body toll rises.
But it’s never easy to resist Washington. First, he still gets to display his charm every once in a while, though not enough. And besides, McCall’s opponents are so cartoonishly one-dimensional, how can you not root for him to crush them?
Turns out, the Russian pimps are only the tip of the iceberg in an operation managed by a Moscow crime lord named, yep, Vladimir Pushkin. For most of the movie, Pushkin isn’t seen, only heard via telephone, like Charlie of “Charlie’s Angels.” He sends an emissary, Teddy (Marton Csokas), to investigate who killed his men. Teddy’s a psychopath who thinks nothing of beating a man to death at his desk to make a point, or quietly breaking a girl’s neck for telling a falsehood.
Maybe because Csokas resembles Kevin Spacey at his most fiendish and has some of his manic energy — a contrast to Washington’s calm — his character adds spice to the proceedings. But not for long, because “The Equalizer” grows tiresome and formulaic.
An overly long final confrontation is suspenseless, and that’s because the filmmakers haven’t bothered to give McCall any vulnerability whatsoever. He may be human, but by mid-film, after seeing him knock off thug after thug, we’re so convinced he has super-powers that we’ll never worry about him again.
And that’s boring. You could do worse than watch Washington kick butt for two hours (actually, a little more.) But it would be a lot more interesting to watch him struggle while doing it.
“The Equalizer,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.” Running time: 131 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.