The Equalizer is many things — grotesquely violent, relentlessly grim, proudly empty-headed — but maybe its most notable aspect is the way it messily jams its influences together in an unsuccessful attempt to become a good movie by trying to look and sound like better movies that came before it. When someone dies in The Equalizer (which happens quite a bit), the soundtrack throbs with ugly bwam sounds pulled from The Dark Knight. When stone-faced hero Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) sizes up a pack of enemies, he uses the same kind of hyper-stylized, overcranked, step-through-time planning method employed by both Guy Ritchie’s and the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. McCall is also fond of assembling homemade traps and weapons culled from home invasion movies. It’s not just that the film grows dumber as it proceeds; it’s that director Antoine Fuqua almost seems to take pride in stapling together a rough assemblage of appropriations.
What’s additionally dispiriting is that the film, loosely based on the late-1980s TV series, doesn’t start out that way. The first third sticks pretty close to McCall, a quiet man who works at a hardware store and tries to be kind to the people around him, like helping a coworker lose weight or lending an ear to a prostitute, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), who frequents his neighborhood diner. The script from Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Expendables 2) is a little predictable and overdone here — there’s an amateurish quality that seems eager to broadcast that all this talky emotional stuff is just prelude to the bloodshed, and metaphors are beaten about so clumsily that there’s never subtext, just neon-bright text — but Fuqua maintains a control that keeps the story nicely focused on these characters’ small worlds. You get the sense that, broadly drawn though they may be, these little lives have meaning. Fuqua doesn’t try to be flashy, instead relying smartly on Washington’s ability to hold a scene with just a look or tilt of his head. Few stars have ever looked as effortless on screen as Washington does in every one of his movies, and his ability to whip between contemplation and warm humor goes a long way.
Yet, almost as if he’s unable to stop a process more powerful than he, Fuqua soon turns the film from a modest little mystery (what’s McCall’s deal?) into an all-out slaughter (oh, he’s some kind of former government agent with next-level killing skills and, possibly, Jedi powers). After Teri is beaten one night, McCall tries to buy her freedom from her Russian pimps, and when he’s turned down, he executes the entire room of them without breaking a sweat: they all die hard deaths, though the man who gets stabbed repeatedly with corkscrews, only to wind up with one shoved up through his jaw and into his tongue, takes the brunt of McCall’s sociopathic tendencies. From this point forward, the film is just a series of falling dominoes, as the Russian crime lord responsible for the prostitutes and other illicit acts sends waves of bad guys after McCall, all led by Teddy (Marton Csokas, going for broke) and all in for the kind of punishment usually seen in Eli Roth movies.
Washington is a magnetic, charismatic performer, and he’s capable of so much more than The Equalizer wants to let him do. Maybe it’s because movies like this, where an older man goes on a murder spree for a younger woman, are in vogue right now. Or maybe it’s because, as Washington has said, “good scripts are hard to find.” But the few flashes we see of Washington’s range and personality here only underscore how he’s being held back with such inferior material. There’s nothing in the film to recommend it.
There’s a kernel of something smarter in the film, too. McCall, prone to insomnia, sleeps soundly after coming home from killing the men who beat Teri. This would seem to indicate some genuine emotional problems, or at least hint at a character who’s so broken that we’re asked to consider the implications of his actions, as well as our rooting for them. But moments like this are passed over quickly, and as the body count grows, Fuqua’s style grows more abstract and uninspired. (There are more overexposed images and close-ups of McCall’s eyelashes than you can count.) Generic threats are made, crooked cops show up, and McCall continues to dispatch of his enemies with cold fervor, accompanied by Harry Gregson-Williams’ overbearing score. It’s the kind of schlocky, 1980s-inspired work that doesn’t have enough sense or skill to be self-aware, knowing nothing more than to trod glumly on through a pile of corpses. There’s even a scene, staged without a hint of irony, where McCall detonates a tanker ship and strides away from the explosion in slow-motion. It’s meant to be a victory, but it feels like a sigh of defeat.