Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: The Equalizer

by Adam Riske
This shit’s checkers. It ain’t chess.

I can’t say that I’m surprised or disappointed by the end result of The Equalizer, directed by the competent if nondescript Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen). I wasn’t expecting it to set my world on fire, but I was expecting it to be better than...this. It’s a lousy movie, one rung below an interesting failure, in which Denzel Washington is actually its biggest problem. He is miscast and acting as much as an executive as a star.

Denzel Washington carries a different type of energy than that of The Equalizer. Where Denzel is intelligent and a little grim, this movie is fucking ridiculous so it needs a lighter touch. Patrick mentioned in a Heavy Action column way back the concept of “the other,” which is (I’m paraphrasing) essentially a larger-than-life presence who is an outlier, someone uniquely different than everyone else. Denzel Washington is not that. The Equalizer should have been played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal. It’s their type of movie. It’s not Man on Fire.
I thought this especially during The Equalizer’s endless climax inside a Home Mart (the movie’s stand-in for Home Depot), where Denzel’s character takes out an endless string of bad guys utilizing power tools and other home and garden equipment. This sequence should play like the end of Commando, but instead it feels similar to the dock sequence in Batman Begins with Washman jumping out of the shadows. The tone is off. We have a ridiculous story trying to be gritty.

The plot in brief: Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is trying to lead a quiet life and leave his mysterious past behind him. McCall fills his days with a regimen that includes visiting a local diner late every night, having a cup of tea and reading a book. At the diner, McCall meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl who is a prostitute for a ring run by local Russian gangsters. Knowing he has to help her (and he’s the only one who can), McCall chooses to exact vengeance against the employers who abuse her.
The movie is not without its charms. Some of it actually works, which makes its march downfield into Shitty Town all the more disappointing. The opening 30 minutes, where we get to know Robert McCall, is well done with nice touches, such as the fact that he’s reading his way through the “100 Books You Need to Read Before You Die” and that he’s mildly OCD about his place settings and tea bags. There is a series of diner scenes that open the movie used to establish the relationship between McCall and Teri which are all excellent. Denzel Washington has a way of elevating the work of the actors he shares scenes with, and it’s definitely the case with Moretz. She’s rarely been this good. I think it’s just something about diners. Have you ever noticed that 95% of scenes that take place in diners are good scenes? Must be the Formica. It’s an elevator of acting.

I mentioned that the movie is one rung below an interesting failure and I mean that, because while the movie more or less sucks, it has interesting elements. I thought it was neat that the Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo characters have their roles reversed, where Leo is Washington’s old chum and Pullman is basically the supportive wife. It doesn’t lead anywhere, but the effort is admirable. I also found The Equalizer to have an interesting spin on the superhero genre. A big portion of the reason Leo’s character is on hand is so she can acknowledge that McCall is essentially asking her permission to be The Equalizer again. It reminded me of Peter Parker’s existential plight in Spider-Man 2, or the speech from David Carradine at the end of Kill Bill where he extolls on how Superman is Superman, pretending to be Clark Kent. In this case, McCall is The Equalizer and not the man trying to leave his past behind. He does what he does because it’s in his DNA, figuratively, to do what he does because he can. The superhero motif is also supported by an interesting shot mid-way through the movie featuring The Equalizer’s main villain (played by Martin Csokas), who is filmed upside down momentarily so that it looks like he’s an evil tattooed presence flying over the city, ready to swoop down on people like a vulture.
This raises a question I have for you all. What movie do I review here? The one that sucks in the actual experience of watching it? Or the one that lives on in my mind after seeing it because it has some interesting elements? I think judging both equally is the answer, but it’s tough because one should weigh more heavily than the other. I think movies are primarily trying to make you feel as opposed to think, so the experience means more.

That being said, The Equalizer is sludge to get through. I was bored. It’s lazy and mindless. The movie is over-the-top in a way where it’s just a slow retreat into violence for the sake of violence, but not dealt with in a fun way. It’s all heavy-handed. The pace in endless. It’s not entertaining in the way that great trash can be. Sigh. There’s a scene about 2/3 of the way into the movie where Denzel walks away from an explosion and it’s so ludicrous that it made me pause for a minute and think "This is the guy from Philadelphia and Malcolm X!" Is he officially in his Joseph Cotton/Dr. Phibes phase? I wanted to scream out “No!” It’s such a waste of talent.
The Equalizer is a movie that’s all about its marketing. It’s based on an IP people know and can make the studio and its star a bunch of movie. It’s a product. It’s made by executives and not artists, and I’m including producer Denzel Washington in that critique. Whatever. Whatever the fuck ever.

22 comments:

  1. Damn. I like Denzel and whens he's good he's great.
    You mentioned Philadelphia and Malcolm X! Im gonna go with Ricochet and The Bone Collector. Two films I like him in especially Ricochet. I had hopes for this film. I wonder if the Book of Eli effect might go to work on this film. It might be a Denzel thing. They have to grow on you? You already by the end of the review seem to be turning. Cheers Riske

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    1. I'm not coming around on this movie. I didn't like it. I'll never see it again. Sorry Dennis.

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  2. Haha. Brilliant.

    I was just kinda feeling the movie in your head as you mentioned was growing in strength and one day might make you revisit it because of this. The movie in your head can sometimes change the movie watching expereince and make you think. I like the ideas. I like Denzel. I might need to watch again just to check. You know what I mean

    But I like your definitive answer. F that movie. I ain't watching it again :)

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  3. Man, this looked like it could have been an opportunity to start going gi the movies again. I don't think I saw anything new the entire month of September. Nothing that was interesting, anyway. Oh well, only a few more days until Gone Girl. That's bound to be good.

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    1. There's a few from September worth seeking out. The Drop and The Guest are both very good. I liked The Skeleton Twins. I am even a fan of Tusk.

      I'm really looking forward to Gone Girl. Gonna have to SMM cheat with that one.

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    2. The Drop and The Skeleton Twins never corm around to my vicinity, as far as I can tell. :( Actually, I think TST might be playing somewhere around here, but it would be quite a hike to see it. I think at this point I'll just wait it out and seek those two out from the comfort of my own home later on.

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  4. Great review, Adam. I was more neutral because the cast generally does a good. As you pointed out the writing is disappointing in its ability to respect the viewer in some instances but then be over the top and cliché at other times (e.g. reluctant teen prostitute with Russian pimp-gangster). Overall, it's a violent revenge movie banking on Denzel Washington's appeal.

    The Equalizer - $35 million opening weekend
    The Drop - $9.6 million YTD
    Snowpiercer - $4.6 million YTD

    As Patrick says, that's why we can't have nice things.

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    1. ... the cast generally does a good job.

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    2. That's a great point you make Ivan on the box office. It's a crying shame.
      It also refers to a point I've heard before, just because a lot of people turned out to watch it doesn't mean a lot of people enjoyed it

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    3. Thanks for commenting Ivan. In terms of grosses I'm always interested in a movie's multiplier - does it do 2x its opening weekend gross (which means people didn't like it)? Or 3x (which means people liked it)?

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    4. I like that. A great balancing scale. The Multiplier. Sounds like a 80s action movie. If The Equalizer is busy, Call The Multiplier

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    5. Adam, as of 21-Dec-14 the box office ratio for Equalizer was 2.96. Not sure that means it's a good movie, though.

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  5. "The Equalizer is a movie that’s all about its marketing. It’s based on an IP people know and can make the studio and its star a bunch of movie."

    When movie takes over money, that's definitely greedy.

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  6. This was a great review. The diner observation is so right on.

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  7. I eventually caught up with the Equalizer last night. I did not have high hopes remembering this column. And then the timeline popped up. 1hr 52. What happened to 90 min movies?

    To copy someone elses line. Its Fine! But only just. It had a few scenes I liked and the first 30 mins I also enjoyed. But overall I was bored a lot. It could easily be tightened up. And there is like Adam said a problem with the casting. Denzel dosent really work well in the part. And some of the over stylized camera work doesent play well for me. Its worth a watch. Kinda

    Cheers

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  8. I too just caught up with the movie on video. I generally enjoy revenge films but this one was just dull and brutally violent with no impact. When you watch any Tarantino movie there are moments of graphic violence that rock you to the core. Equalizer features Denzell punching a corkscrew through a dude's throat into his mouth and it's almost comical.

    The story is a predictable, by the numbers plot that takes forever to get where you know it has to go.

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  9. The familiar can be welcome when the practitioner is so good at what he does. And there are few actors more commanding than Washington when he's taking out bad guys.

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  10. Interesting review and comments. I have to see it a second time to check some of the points made in the review.
    Generally I liked the film at first viewing, but it is way too long for the story it has to tell. The finale is pretty drawn out and not very dynamic. And the over the top explosion scene could have been directed by Michael Bay.
    I enjoyed watching Denzel as much as always. What I really liked was Marton Csokas portrayal of the bad guy, who is as bad ass and clever as Washington, at least until the finale. And Moretz gave a performance that wasn´t only relying on doing something with her lips.
    All in all I had a good time with the movie, but it's clearly far away from being a really good one.

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  11. This is a GOOD movie. Really good plot. I wish they had extended the end a little bit, but I don't really mind that they left me slightly in suspense about the relationship with the girl. It was realistic the way they did it. I'll be watching it over and over, which is the highest compliment I can give it.

    Mariz
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