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As I was viewing The Equalizer, the new origin film (because that is what it is; it’s not an Equalizer movie, but how the central character becomes the who you gonna call, or in this case, contact via craigslist.com, crime fighter) written by Richard Wenk (from the 1980’s television series starring Edward Woodward and created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim) and directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington who won the Oscar when Fuqua directed him in Training Day and…
Anyway, as I was saying, while I was watching the film, the same thought kept occurring to me:
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
And by that, I mean that in storytelling, we all need bad guys. In the 1950’s and on, the villain de jour were the evil, Russian commies. They would show up all over the place, from spy films to B movie noirs to television shows like Star Trek where they were given the name of Romulans (certainly you knew they were being metaphoric there, didn’t you?).
But then the Wall came down and the USSR collapsed. And the U.S. entertainment industrial complex entered crisis mode. After all, if we can’t count on the Reds anymore for our bad guys, where are we going to find them? We can’t make movies without generic villains made up of an ethnic group or nationality that we can paint with a broad swath of a brush, can we?
We struggled for awhile in our search. Nazis, both of the neo- and the Adolph Shicklgruber variety, came in handy and were exploited from stories based on real life events to such adventure ones as that Indiana Jones that was last in the series until it unfortunately wasn’t. I mean, who can’t get behind hating National Socialists?
Then after 9/11, we sort of, kind of turned to Middle Easterners. This was always a touchy and go villain. Not wanting to be politically incorrect, how do we use them as the nasties without making it look like we think everybody from over there wants to crucify dead babies and drink their blood?
And we can’t us the Chinese because, well, we owe them too much money and they are looking to finance films here, so, you know, that’s that for that.
But have no fear. The Equalizer has found a new villain. And has done so by going nostalgic.
In The Equalizer, the heavies are once again those evil Russkies who once again want to invade our shores and once again want to change our way of life and make it more like theirs. But this time, instead of dirty Commies, we have the Russian mob (which for all intents and purposes in many people’s minds are one and the same).
And man, let me tell you, it’s such a relief having a generic group of people that I can hate guilt free—you know, like drinking diet cola.
Of course, I’m saying all the above with partial tongue in cheek. But I do think it is a clever solution to the problem of who can we revel in despising without being bigoted about it.
The Equalizer, or Robert McCall as he is known by everyone who now knows him, is a bit hard to get into at first and I think that’s because Wenk and Fuqua haven’t quite found a way to make a preEqualizer Equalizer interesting. In fact, he’s kind of a slug if truth be told.
He’s loved by one and all at the massive Wal-Mart type store he works at. He’s helping a fellow worker lose weight so the worker can become a security guard. He gives motivational speeches to the local prostitute that waits at the local diner McCall goes to while he reads and discusses with her the great book collection his wife left him when she died.
He’s just so nice and such a swell of a human being. I mean, he’s a real mensch, you know? And so obviously so nice and such a swell of a human being, it’s kind of hard to like him back, or worse, to find him interesting.
To counter that, the filmmakers give him a touch of OCD. McCall has a very definite way he arranges his diner table and he always brings his own tea bag with him. I mean, it’s something, I guess.
The only real relief in these early scenes is that prostitute, nee Teri. She is played by Kick-Ass/Let Me In’s Chloȅ Grace Moretz and I have to tell you, I did not recognize her. I had no idea that that was Moretz up there and she’s quite striking. She brings such a delicate, doomed quality to her role that it’s easy to understand why McCall goes out of his way to help her. She’s so beautifully frail, with a sweet tremor in her voice, one just has to intervene.
But still, this first third is a bit difficult to wade through…until something happens. Moretz disappears and ends up in the hospital, beaten up by her Russian pimp when she hits an abusive client.
And with that, McCall turns quietly, dangerously green and starts to right the wrongs of the world, while all the time still helping his fellow worker lose weight and become a security guard (hey, it’s good to be able to multitask).
The scenes that follow are never quite believable (McCall is too much of a comic book superhero for that). At the same time, you don’t care all that much. Part of this is because Fuqua is a first rate director of action scenes (as also shown in such movies as Shooter and Olympus Has Fallen). There is actually a certain grace and beauty to when the bad guys and good guys go after each other that helps you forget these scenes are all of the fairy tale variety.
And starting in act two, McCall has a worthy opponent, a sociopathic (well, he has to have a flaw to correspond to McCall’s OCD, doesn’t he), psychotic Russian fixer, sent to the U.S. to, well, fix things. Marton Czokas (Damien Lord of the recent Sin City franchise entry) plays the role, and plays it with a calm fury and with all the intensity of him trying to make it a game changer for him as an actor.
He’s Robert Patrick’s Terminator to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s no longer terminator Terminator and he’s as good as McCall in dealing with those who get in his way. He takes out an opposing mob member with the ease and fury of a Rocky IV Drago (on triple the steroids), and does it with such aplomb that you know it’s time to just sit back and dig into your popcorn.
In other words, he’s the yin to McCall’s yang.
As the story movies along, there are no real surprises. It works out in many ways the way you think. But that’s kinda cool. After all, you’ve been hooked and the cat and mousiness of it all is just too much fun not to watch.
The final battle takes place in that most American of American businesses, a hardware store. How much more symbolic can one get in taking out a bunch of evil Russians I don’t know, but this ultimate battle scene is clever and edge of your seat as McCall turns the location into a booby trapped filled jungle out of a Viet Nam war movie.
At the same time, I did think it odd that once he got all the employees out that not one of them were grateful enough to call the police. But at least the security guard returned and proved himself a worthy sidekick.
Once it’s all over, I felt an odd lumpy thingy in my throat. I actually felt emotionally moved. I wasn’t quite sure why, but it might have something to do with the idea that if your life is such that you have no control over it because of outside forces and there is no one to turn to for help (because all the police are as corrupt as the bad guys), I would really want Denzel Washington there to be my defender.
He’s a vigilante, but at least he’s my vigilante.
With Melissa Leo as the ex-head of an intelligence agency; Bill Pullman, once of Independence Day, While You Were Sleeping and Spaceballs, playing second fiddle as Leo’s husband (I wonder how that happened); and David Harbour as a corrupt cop (my first real memory of him is giving it to Kate Winslet in a car in Revolutionary Road).