You Talkin’ to Me? Are You Talkin’ to Me? You Couldn’t Be Talkin’ to Me, ‘Cause You’re Already Dead.
Review by Ken Burke The Equalizer
Denzel Washington stars as a former secret agent now devoted to private acts of vengeance against deserving lowlifes, in this case a gang of brutal Russian mobsters.
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If you’re like me (But, then again, that’s not too likely, is it? There’s hardly anyone like me—much to the sorrow relief of the rest of the human race.), you don’t know much about the 1985-1989 TV series, The Equalizer, featuring a guy who used to work for some secret U.S. agency but now spends his time making life miserable for those abusive idiots who’ve used their resources to make decent people’s lives miserable, even though those others didn’t deserve such trauma. While I suppose you could spend time catching up on the past of this televised narrative with websites such as this one and that one, you could also get a quick updated lesson (although I’ve read that not much of the original show has been retained save the title and the basic premise of the main character) by buying a movie ticket for the new Denzel Washington action-barrage, The Equalizer (Antoine Fuqua), that is, if you’re up for a legitimately-R-rated-attack on a good number of human bodies that make the mistake of displeasing the orderly, intense, spartan-living, constant-advice-offering, but helpful to those who need it, Robert McCall. That basic premise as presented here is that McCall (seems to be his real name, although given how he’s trying to completely disassociate himself from his past it’s not clear why he wouldn’t have changed it) was some sort of government operative (confirmed by his visit to Brian and Susan Plummer [played by Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo], with clear CIA implications but even with them we get the sense that McCall might have been in a super-secret-Jason Bourne-type-insider-group) who was superb at taking out antagonists but put that life behind him for some reason, seemingly because of his wife’s death (it’s not clear to me if he had anything to do with it, although McCall seems to be doing some sort of personalized penance for her loss and/or his former life, yet he involves himself in the undeserved misfortunes of others which brings back his most ruthless abilities, so there are signals here that this is a quite complicated guy although such signals are about all that elevates this story above the level of pure brutal revenge and self-preservation actions). This plot begins with McCall in a bland day-job at Home Mart (Home Depot without trademark-infringement-problems), as a regular 2 a.m. customer at the Bridges Diner in a nondescript neighborhood of Boston, and as a regular conversant with late-night-hooker, Teri (Chlöe Grace Moretz), where he encourages her literature-enhancement by discussing his project of reading the 100 Great Books (at first he’s explaining the significance of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea  to her, at another point he’s into Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote [1605, 1615] where the intended connection is made without saying it between Quixote and McCall as men attempting to be knights in a world where they don’t exist, thereby bringing problems for both of them), a project he’s doing in honor of his ex-wife in that he didn’t devote his time to such enlightenment when she was alive.
Teri, an unwilling part of the Russian underworld in the U.S. Northeast, is the source of McCall’s actions in The Equalizer because she’s under the brutal thumb of pimp Slavi (David Meunier), who beats her so badly after some meaningless infraction that she ends up in a hospital’s ICU. When McCall finds out he pays a visit to Slavi’s private office (despite seemingly having no ongoing contact with his former intelligence agency resources, McCall can locate just about anybody, anywhere he wants in a matter of no time) where he offers the tough-talking Russian $9,800 to simply set Teri free; after Slavi's haughty refusal of the offer, McCall simply takes visual stock of his environment (in a matter that reminds me of how Lee Childs describes Jack Reacher [a guy much like McCall, who’s also found his way to 1 screen adaptation so far with the possible promise of more given the financial response of audiences to both of these movies: see Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2012; review in our December 23, 2012 posting)] in his novels, calculating—seemingly in slow motion—how he’s going to dispose of his would-be-attackers), a strategy marvelously shown on screen as the camera zooms into McCall’s eyeball, then shows us what he sees around the room regarding the 5 guys with weapons ready to react to any move, then zooms out again to the external environment where McCall sets his watch in timer mode (noting 16 seconds to himself) before proceeding to terminate them all using either their weapons or whatever is available, such as twisting a wine corkscrew through the jaw of 1 adversary. The gore is quick (although it takes more than his estimate, all of 28 seconds, possibly indicating to McCall—and Washington—that he’s an aging “knight” who’s not quite as efficient as he once was [later, in another confrontation with another pack of goons he gets shot in the leg, proving that he’s not as charmed as a good many non-superhuman comic book heroes (Batman, Ironman, etc.) either, whose bodies never seem to come in contact with bullets that could bring their storied careers to an end]), graphic, and effectively terminal, a necessary situation when your protagonist is outnumbered and nominally-unarmed, doing a good deed on behalf of the enslaved sex workers of the world (seriously, a group of people who could some help, although legal protection rather than this kind of vigilante counterattack would be more long-lasting). However, what McCall soon finds out from the Plummers after he becomes the target of other associates of Slavi’s is that this scumball was the New England head of the Russian mafia, so now an even more ruthless killer, Teddy (Marton Csokas)—shown in the above photo—is determined to take revenge on McCall (somehow, based only on a surveillance photo of him entering Slavi’s restaurant, Teddy’s able to identify our unknown hero, track his movements, and set up a hit that goes awry [although McCall is wounded, as noted, but that hardly slows him down nor prevents him from providing his own medical treatment), proving himself to be the very definition of “grotesque” (he even uses his bloody cruelty on Irish mobsters who merely annoy him) just as McCall shows himself to be the epitome of “brutal” when called upon to act in such a manner.
A great “non-scene” in The Equalizer deals with a robbery at McCall’s Home Mart where you sense that he could probably disarm and dispatch the jittery guy with the gun at the cash register who insists on taking the cashier’s ring (a present from her now-deceased mother) along with the cash but thinks better of it because of the potential collateral damage to innocent bystanders. Instead, he runs to the parking lot, notes the license number, then (off-screen) locates the perp, followed by quick scenes of the ring back in the cash drawer the next day (to the delighted, surprised relief of the cashier) and McCall wiping a sledgehammer off before putting it back on the rack; by this time in the movie we don’t have to see him in action to know what he’s capable of. Teddy’s capable also, so it’s clear that McCall will have to stay a step ahead because if he were ever captured there’d be no tying-up-and-tough-talk-scenes, just a quick execution in response to McCall escalating the stakes by locating a contraband-laden-ship this mob was about to send overseas, then blowing it up, which brings in an ominous Moscow phone call to Teddy from the true “baddest of bad asses,” the head of the operation, Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich), to finish off McCall or else. This leads to Teddy first attempting to hold some of McCall’s Home Mart colleagues hostage while demanding that McCall surrender himself, then coming after our hero when McCall goes instead to the store, dispatches the 2 hostage-takers, then prepares himself for the final battle with his sworn enemy (after having done some hostage-taking of his own with a corrupt cop, Frank Masters [David Harbour], working for Pushkin’s operation, resulting in the mob’s money depot and its workers being turned over—anonymously, of course—by McCall to the Boston police, an even bigger act of restitution than done earlier by McCall when he beat up 2 other corrupt cops, also part of Slavi’s shakedown crew, forcing them to return protection money to the mother of a McCall friend after her restaurant had been torched by these guys [Pushkin’s response to being outmaneuvered: the cops are soon dead]). Teddy and 4 well-armed henchmen arrive at the Home Mart only to be outsmarted and outfought by McCall who never bothers to use the machine guns wielded by each thug as McCall kills him, rather he does his business with convenient items such as power drills and nail guns (obviously explaining the Home Mart setting), not only because such tactics produce more pain for the imposed-upon but also because they show McCall to be able to channel his own brand of “vicious” when called upon by the actions of the scum he’s battling, releasing that inner demon that he vowed to put behind him but still gleefully ready to activate when needed. (We get the sense that this level of homicide was what determined his exit from that unnamed “spook” agency, a voluntary decision to no longer impose such a level of controlled ultraviolence, even on enemies of the state—and he would have stopped after the Slavi massacre because at that point the vengeance was settled but he then had to defend himself from Teddy, which was a personal need, not an attempt to disrupt Russian mafia operations, although that proved to be an available benefit as well, maybe just for “old times sake”-satisfaction from his previous training and law-enforcement-affiliation.)
|Something To Read While You're Trying|
Desperately To Escape from The Equalizer
(good luck with the "TRY AGAIN" part)
McCall knows that he has to cut off “the head of the snake” if he’s going to get any peace, though (especially because when all the action’s over he just goes back to his old apartment and that same all-night-diner with no identity change nor any sense that his Home Mart coworkers will drag him into any sort of investigation of why 5 Russian hoods are lying in bloody heaps around the store), so he heads off to Moscow (remember, he’s still got the $9,800 for airfare that Slavi so foolishly didn’t accept from him; whatever other resources he’s got access to—possibly including some of the cash that was in dirty cop Frank’s safety-deposit-box—we don’t know, although, like Jack Reacher, he seems to live a sparse, simple life, even taking public transit everywhere rather than owning a car), kills every guard who opposes him (again, off-screen, because we don’t need to see anything but after-the-fact-dead-bodies on the stairs to know what's happened), then confronts Pushkin in his lavish shower before electrocuting him with a live wire on the floor as water cascades down from the overflowing sink. Once McCall’s back in his diner, though (notably reading Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man , about another Black man operating under the radar in mainstream society), he does show a little tech support by bringing in a laptop to answer an email from someone else looking for help, leaving us with the notion that he does somewhat advertise his services rather than just spontaneously protect the put-upon-hookers in his neighborhood (Teri’s OK at the end too, with a real job and plans to move on to another location) so he truly is a bit of a committed mercenary, not just an elevated neighborhood-watchman (but one that we’re encouraged to root for rather than the George Zimmerman-types who seemingly apply their own brand of “justice” to the Treyvon Martins of the world who disturb the peace of such unwarranted “guardians”). I added this photo above from a ferry I rode during my recent Canadian Atlantic provinces trip because it seems the sort of warning that a guy like McCall would have posted on a ship where someone was intending to do him harm, with the implication that you can try to get away but it’s useless so you might as well heed the paraphrased advice based on what we got as 1950s kids about how to “protect” yourself in the case of a nuclear attack: “Bend forward, put your head between your knees … and kiss your ass goodbye!”
I’ll say goodbye to The Equalizer as well, signing off with my usual musical metaphor, something that sounds like what McCall would say about his actions, “I Shot the Sheriff” (but he would likely expand the title to “But I Swear It Was in Self-Defense”), a song written by Bob Marley (on the 1973 Wailers’ album, Burnin’, with inspiration from feelings of the need at times for personally-motivated rather than strictly-legal justice) with a 1977 live version from him at http://www.you tube.com/watch?v=Xa0HOpQRpLM, but given the body-count-intensity of this movie I think we need another rendition as well, from Eric Clapton (he did a cover on his 1974 461 Ocean Boulevard album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afDo-MnNyBg, a 1988 performance in Tokyo, with additional guitar and vocal support from another master of the fret board, Mark Knopfler. If you enjoy the inspired musicianship of these master performers and can then equate that to straight-ahead-action-movies where there seems to be no moral ambiguity about why any of the killing is happening, then I’d say you’ll enjoy The Equalizer. If, however, you think that a simple shot to the head with a gun to put away a wretched villain like Teddy (in another example of his depravity, he chokes Teri’s hooker friend to death just after he’s gotten some initial information from her about McCall) would be more appropriate than riddling him with nails before the final one is slammed into his coffin (so to speak), then The Equalizer may be a bit extreme in methodology for your preferences (although you can’t fault the choreography of these triumph-of-the-outnumbered-warrior-scenes; as McCall says, “You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what,” with his on-screen actions demonstrating just that, even as he battles tough adversaries who’re being who they are just as intently), but even then the mere screen-commanding-serenity of Denzel Washington is still worth the price of admission (as $34.1 million in opening-weekend-domestic-grosses have already demonstrated), so unless this type of avenger-gone-wild-narrative isn’t soothing to your taste buds I’d recommend you take a look at it before Gone Girl (David Fincher) pushes everything else off the screen and me back to the keyboard this weekend.
And one last thing: As I post this I’m getting over my huge, righteous disappointment that my at-times-wonderful-at-other-times-not-so-much Oakland Athletics were eliminated from the baseball playoffs in the one-game-showdown between the 2 American League Wild Card teams (Congratulations, Kansas City Royals, you just wouldn’t quit even when we almost beat you several times in that game, so welcome back to the post-season for the first time since 1985). This week started wonderfully with the A’s making it into the playoffs in the season’s final game last Sunday, then they lost that must-win-game on Tuesday. However, the good news is that even when my favorite sports team flops I still have my wonderful wife (and most devoted reader), Nina Kindblad, to share my life with me, which is a hell of a lot better than whatever any bunch of overpaid jocks could accomplish for my vicarious satisfaction. Also, this Friday, October 3, is her 64th birthday so at least the week ends on a positive note, in that I’ve been sharing those great occasions with her for 27 years now with hopefully many more to come (no, the photo here isn’t a look into the future from this posting date but instead is from our final dinner in Canada on our recent vacation, a marvelous restaurant in charming Old Town, Quebec City). Happy Birthday, Sweetie! The A’s may have run out of magic this year, but I never will as long as you’re with me. I love you more every day. (And at least now we have more time to do things together that don’t involve watching mind-boggling, heartbreaking baseball games—at least for the next 6 months, when the cycle will inevitably start all over again.)
If you want to know more about The Equalizer here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrXCDPxCmwE (4:58 extended trailer, actually a slightly-sanitized full-length execution scene) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uB1NiNKwueE (short clip of the opening title of the original 1985 TV series on which the movie is based)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.