Looking back on Training Day, the Academy Award-winning first collaboration between actor Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua, it seems like it was probably an accident. The potboiler script by David Ayer gave Washington a great and bombastic role and the story mostly gave him excuses to say cool things and play against type. In its own way, Training Day was kind of a great movie, but it could have gone a very different way. You know, like the rest of Antoine Fuqua’s movies.
Since Training Day, Fuqua has helmed one stylish but rather straightforward action thriller after another. Tears of the Sun, Shooter and Olympus Has Fallen are all respectable action movies (more or less), but he’s never used the critical acclaim of his breakout hit to make more ambitious, gritty dramas with interesting characters at the heart of them. But Denzel Washington seems to bring out the best in Fuqua. Lightning doesn’t strike twice with The Equalizer, but there was at least a noble attempt to make this straightforward vigilante thriller a little more interesting than it needed to be.
The extremely loose adaptation of the hit 1980s TV series stars Denzel Washington as a former Black Ops specialist named Robert McCall, now retired and living a quiet, private life as a blue collar schlub at a home repair depot. He reads a lot, and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (not that this little character detail ever amounts to anything). When a casual acquaintance – an underage prostitute played by Chloe Grace Moretz – gets beaten to a pulp by her pimp, McCall decides to take matters into his own hands, unleashing a beast that’s been hibernating for many years and sending him off on multiple missions to better the lives of his co-workers. Mostly by brutalizing their enemies.
The script by Robert Wenke cleverly plays with The Equalizer’s TV origins, not by referencing the original but by using the dramatic structure of television to diversify the story of the film. McCall undertakes various missions throughout the film that would otherwise be worthy of their own episode, which keeps the movie moving as the larger story – about the Russian mafia taking revenge on McCall for killing their men during the first equalization – simmers in the background, finally taking center stage in the third act.
But Antoine Fuqua’s bipolar direction is a puzzler. The Equalizer begins slowly, as if it were a serious drama about a nice guy just trying to stay out of trouble, and this pace goes on long enough that it gets a little dull after a while. Then, after McCall finally accepts his McCalling, Fuqua blows up the action to compensate. It’s a decent enough storytelling device, differentiating between the hero’s life before and after they become an action hero, but The Equalizer begins so matter-of-factly and concludes with such utter nonsense that it leaves the film feeling kind of scatterbrained.
By the finale – in which Denzel Washington walks away from a slow-motion explosion for what feels like five minutes and then spends what feels like half an hour disposing of mercenaries with the clever application of power tools – the first, relatively subtle half of the movie feels like a long set-up to an even longer punchline. And it’s not very funny.
But the action is filmed excitingly enough and Washington is, as ever, a convincing action hero regardless of the circumstances surrounding him. He holds The Equalizer together pretty well, even when the rest of the movie collapses around him in a deluge of Tony Scott-inspired visual flourishes and dorky action movie clichés.
It’s a little too easy to point out that a film called The Equalizer is wildly uneven, and a little too sad to remark that it never captures the same magic that once turned Training Day into something special. But it’s still a fun movie; overblown on multiple levels perhaps, but entertaining and visceral and worthy of an audience all its own. If they’re willing to lower their brows, that is.