If I had paid attention to the mixed reviews, I might have never caught the most recent Denzel Washington film, The Equalizer. However, my wife graciously fed my action-film addiction when she discovered it on TV a couple of weeks ago. I’ve watched it three times since.
The Equalizer falls into a genre of films that has enormous appeal to my lizard brain, that part of me that wants there to be a force for good that will stop at nothing to correct an injustice, that will relentlessly punish evil-doers, that refuses to acknowledges the grey areas of morality. It’s tough and contradictory. I’m anti-war. I’m anti-death penalty. But, as I read the paper daily and see the outrages being perpetrated around the world on innocent people, I find myself wanting that drone strike, wanting US special ops, wanting SEAL Team 6 to storm in and make things right. However, we all know that this is a dangerous road to go down. Just this morning, I read that the United States estimates that we have killed nearly 500 innocents in our air war against ISIS and undoubtedly thousands more in our infamous “war on terror.” How can we justify that?
But in the world of Robert McCall, Washington’s character in The Equalizer, the enemy is always clear, his justice swift and precise. In the two hours of the film, he evens the score for a young woman he has befriended who is badly beaten by her pimp, one co-worker who is terrorized at gunpoint, and another whose family is being extorted by corrupt cops. In the process, he destroys the criminal empire of a powerful Russian mobster.
So, how do I justify my world-view with my pop culture choices. I can’t—not entirely. I did discover though that there were certain elements of this film, and others like it, that I find absolutely irresistible. To tip the scales of justice against and insurmountable number of very bad men, these heroic characters must be imbued with crazy, mad skills—think Matt Damon in all three Bourne movies and, Liam Neeson in the Taken franchise all rolled into one. McCall “equalizes” with cool, efficient, resourceful brutality, barely breaking a sweat as he takes on the Russian mob, cleverly using supplies from his low-level home improvement store job. He finds a way to make the simplest tools lethal for those who pursue him. In fact, I’ll never look at a tree-trimmer (or a cork screw for that matter) quite the same again.
If you are a Denzel fan, you can’t watch this film without noticing the similarities to his 2004 effort in Man on Fire, which critics rightly point out is a more complex and nuanced performance drawn from a much more complex and nuanced script. Both characters allude to a tortured past about which they have regrets. Joyhn Creasy (Washington) in Man on Fire asks his friend (Christopher Walken), “Do you think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?” Compare this to McCall’s conversation with the man who has been sent to kill him: “I’ve done some bad things in my life, Nicolai… Things I’m not proud of. I promised someone I love very much that I would never go back to being that person… But for you, I’ll make an exception.”
What I especially like about McCall is his selflessness. Mills (Neeson) is trying to save his family, and Bourne is trying to both discover and escape his past. Early on McCall befriends a young prostitute who is subsequently severely beaten. He checks in on her at the hospital and then quietly begins his pursuit of the men who harmed her. He tries to explain to his CIA contact: “I couldn’t tell you why it mattered. Why what they did to her that mattered to me so much. One day somebody does something unspeakable to someone else, to someone you hardly knew, and you…do something about it cause you can.” He gets nothing from risking his life except a bit of revenge and a dose of redemption.
Critics complained about the lack of development of McCall’s character, but I don’t see it—not for this kind of film. We hear about his military background and know that he carries guilt for some of the actions of his past. We know he has loved someone deeply and tries to be a good man in her memory. He is a troubled man who cannot sleep and who spends his nights reading at a local café and his days working a simple job at a home improvement store where he cares about the people he works with and silently works to protect them. Oh, and in his spare time, he takes down Russian oligarchs with ruthless efficiency. Retribution, redemption, and plenty of action that develops logically and relentlessly. Not one car chase in sight. Just one man trying to tip the scales of justice, because he can. Irresistible! I may have to watch it again tonight.