Got to be who you are in this world, no matter what.

Got to be who you are in this world, no matter what.

There’s nothing wrong with being unassuming. In a world where everybody pretends to be a celebrity living the high life, one wishes more people would keep their head down and keep to themselves. When they do, they develop a quiet confidence; an ineffable quality that emits wisdom and intelligence. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work to be unassuming. It requires a resistance to temptation that most of us just don’t have…whether that temptation is looking flash, or filming a hero walking slo-mo through the rain.

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) doesn’t seem like much from a distance. He’s a sales rep in big box hardware store. He takes the bus back and forth to work. He lives in a sparse, modest apartment in a blue-collar part of Boston. After dark, he sits in an all-night greasy spoon and drinks tea while he reads old books. Nothing about him seems designed to impress. Nothing, except his attitude. McCall is personable and outgoing with everyone he meets, and never above offering a hand. That could mean helping another employee at the hardware store work towards a promotion, or that could mean encouraging a young prostitute to get out of the game.

It’s that second offer of help that sets wheels in motion for McCall.

Every night in this greasy spoon, he encounters a young girl named Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz). He encourages her to follow bigger dreams, but isn’t brazen enough to push her. However, one night when he sees her walk in a little rougher around the edges than usual, he feels compelled to intervene and look out for her. While walking her home, he ends up meeting her pimp – a no-nonsense thug in the Russian mob named Slavi. Their encounter leads to Slavi really laying a beating on her, this time putting her in hospital. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with McCall.

He approaches Slavi at his splendid office – which surprises Slavi, since nobody should be able to just walk into his place of business. McCall offers Slavi over $9000 for Alina’s release, an offer Slavi can only mock. This mockery, and the threats that come along with it cast the die for McCall. He locks the door, and kills all six members of the crew in less than thirty seconds. McCall might not seem like much, but clearly he is much. A whole lot of “much”.

Unfortunately, the crew McCall takes out is connected to some very powerful people in the Russian underworld, and they aren’t all that happy about the disruption to their business. So shortly after Slavi’s murder, a higher-up named Teddy (Marton Csokas) is sent to America to clean-up the mess. This isn’t good news for McCall, but he’s already surprised us once. Who’s to say he won’t be able to do it again?

Chloe Moretz in The Equalizer
As THE EQUALIZER slowly unfolds we are witness to an interesting promise. Watching Robert McCall move through his routine, we witness someone who obviously has a past. Only a person with a past would be this disciplined, this quiet, this aware of his surroundings. We don’t know whether he is hiding from someone or atoning for something, but all of the earmarks are there of him being more than just a hardware store clerk who reads in diners. The story doubles-down on that promise by painting him as a man who believes in helping others. Too often in this world, we get surrounded by people who want to tell us why we can’t do things. Seeing a man like McCall do just the opposite is inspiring: witnessing just how simple it can be to be a force for good.

As the film goes about fulfilling this promise, we begin to think we are going to witness something wonderful. McCall wants to protect Alina and give her a chance to still make something of herself. He doesn’t do this because he’s in love with her in some wildly inappropriate way – he does it just because he can see how her another way. He’s been watching over her from a distance, and now when she’s really in danger, he wants to step up and watch over her in a much more involved manner. So seeing McCall dismantle an entire room full of Russian thugs in nineteen seconds because he can sense the repercussion coming seems like it’s well on the way to making good.

However, the film fails to deliver on the promise.

The first letdown comes with an allusion to explanation that instead just skirts the issue. McCall is far too good at what he does to be passed off as “one man facing the odds”. While the film could well have painted him as an average guy standing up for what’s right and got away with it, we see that he has what Liam Neeson would describe as “a certain set of skills”. While we get an explanation where those skills came from, we don’t get any real inkling about why he is employing them in blue-collar Boston diners. Why did he walk away from his old life? What happened in his last relationship that makes him want to be a crusader? We don’t know, but we should, and that’s a big mistake.

The second letdown comes in the way of execution. After we’ve bought McCall as the ultimate badass, the film delights in painting him as a rogue member of The Expendables. Where once he was taking down thugs with intense hand-to-hand-combat, he eventually finds himself walking away for earth-shaking explosions without flinching. As if that’s not enough, he gets a hero moment where he walks slo-mo through a rainstorm – an indoor rainstorm – to deliver his “Hasta La Vista, Baby”. How no doves were employed in the filming of this film is a mystery. There is a place for this sort of silliness, but it doesn’t click with the picture this film paints in its first two acts.

The real pity of THE EQUALIZER is that the theory it stands up and presents to the class is such an intriguing one. It’s full of contrition and selflessness while still leaving a lot of room for fun action. Like what McCall sees in Alina, it’s full of potential. It evokes memories of John McClane and The Man With No Name,; furthermore, it offers a way to ground them. Unfortunately, the film cannot prove its film and gets especially sloppy when it comes to showing its work. It takes what should have been fun and turns it into something silly.

Such a shame: there are few things sadder than wasted potential.

Matineescore: ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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