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“The Equalizer:” revenge porn

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

If you see a middle-aged man quietly sitting all alone in a corner booth of your local diner, reading a classic tome by Cervantes, as he nurses a late night cup of tea, don’t be deceived. The fellow may look altogether innocuous. However, if you accept the premise set forth in the film version of “The Equalizer,” he might actually be a ticking time bomb. You never know what will trigger his transformation into a sadistic, one-man killing machine.

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is seemingly an altogether ordinary fellow. He works at a Home Depot-like megastore (No product placement here. This film doesn’t exactly enhance the Home Depot brand image). The widower lives all alone in a spare, meticulously neat Boston apartment. He has no apparent family or friends to speak of.

Robert is a nice enough fellow. In an early scene, we see him giving advice and encouragement to Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), an obese, Latino colleague, who works with Robert. The latter is intent on losing weight so that he can qualify to become a vaunted security guard. I did not realize that employers were so picky about hiring for minimum wage jobs.

Although Robert works the day shift, he has the regimen of a night owl. With singular precision, he folds a handkerchief around a tea bag, then proceeds to a 24 hour diner. Upon Robert’s arrival, an employee reflexively provides him with a mug of hot water. As McCall is steeping his tea, a teen-aged girl, Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) tentatively leaves the counter and sits in his booth. When Teri’s asks about the book that Robert is reading, he identifies it as “Don Quixote,” and explains that it is about a “knight in shining armor in a world where knights don’t exist anymore.” Could this possibly be a not so subtle dramatic portent? Could it possibly be that knights still exist in the 21st century? Could Robert secretly be such a latter day knight? Hmmm …. I wonder.

Their chat on the fine points of world literature is interrupted by the arrival of Teri’s john. In case you hadn’t intuited it, Teri is a hooker, who is somehow indentured to the Russian mafia.

Something about Teri has touched Robert. However, the film never conveys exactly what that might be. Is Robert perhaps hoping to recruit her to join a book club with him?

Robert heads to the lair of the local Russian mafia, which is located above a restaurant that they operate. Somehow he gets past security and enters a room of heavily tattooed, well-armed thugs. Robert offers $9,800 in cash to Teri’s pimp, Slavi (David Meunier), to release her from the prostitution ring. When the Slavi scoffs at the offer, Robert has no choice but to kill him and every one of his underlings. Although outnumbered and initially unarmed, Robert manages to kill all five of them with methodical grace, He does so without ever being shot or stabbed. Indeed, Robert is so elusive, he doesn’t sustain a single blow.

So, now Teri is free and Robert can don his apron and resume working at the hardware store job, right? Actually, all of the antecedent text serves as set up for the film’s quickly escalating level of violence.

Back in Moscow, evil oligarch Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) is incensed that his  criminal franchise in Boston has been disrupted. Pushkin tasks his head henchman, Teddy (Marton Csokas), to track down whoever killed the five Russian mafiosi as well as a pair of crooked cops, who are on his payroll.  Clearly, the guy must be eliminated.

As the carnage ensues, we learn more about Robert’s shadowy past in espionage He was a black ops agent for “The Agency” (presumably code for the C.I.A.). After Robert managed to survive a car bombing, he decided to fake his own death and abandon his violent past.

The film devolves into a bloodbath with Robert mowing down Ruskies with seeming ease. McCall makes Charles Bronson’s vigilante character in “”Death Wish” look like Mary Poppins. Give this avenging angel credit for ingenuity. He’s not content to use standard killing implements like guns and knives. No indeed. In the course of the film, Robert wields a nail gun, a wine corkscrew, a power drill, hedge clippers, and a make-shift blowtorch against his adversaries. Just for good measure, in an apparent homage to Ben Franklin, he electrocutes a particularly nasty villain.

“The Equalizer” was a television series, which debuted in 1985 and played for four seasons. It starred English actor Edward Woodward as a retired U.S. intelligence officer, who drives around town in a flashy black Jaguar. He was a refined divorcee with an estranged son. Haunted by his dark deeds, he attempted to atone for them by providing pro bono services to underdogs. In that pre-internet era, he ran a cryptic newspaper ad, which reads, “Odds against you? Need help? Call the Equalizer. 212 555 4200.”

The screenplay retains little of the television precursor other than the titular name, the name of the protagonist, and the fact that he has a background in international espionage. Unlike the television version, this cinematic version of McCall has no surviving spouse or children and takes public transit to a menial job as a shelf stocker. Before her death, Robert had promised his beloved wife that he would never revert to his life of violence. So much for that promise. Did he have his fingers crossed?

Richard Wenk, previously wrote “16 Blocks,” which starred Bruce Willis as another middle-aged action hero, who had to do battle against overwhelming odds. His screenplay for that film boasted textured characters (in addition to Willis, Mos Def’s role was nicely-developed), a nicely structured plot replete with a dramatic trajectory, and a compelling denouement. Disconcertingly, all of those elements are egregiously absent from his screenplay for “The Equalizer.”

McCall (Denzel Washington) takes out one of Slavi's thugs (Nash Edgerton) in Columbia Pictures' "The Equalizer." Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

McCall (Denzel Washington) takes out one of Slavi’s thugs (Nash Edgerton) in Columbia Pictures’ “The Equalizer.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Director, Antoine Fuqua, previously collaborated with Washington on “Training Day.” The film provided Washington with a vehicle that netted an Oscar for him.  Fuqua’s direction of “The Equalizer” is inept. The film’s many action scenes are poorly orchestrated, persistently underlit, and edited in a hyperkinetic fashion that proves obfuscatory.

Washington remains a remarkable actor with undeniable screen charisma. However, even he is unable to elevate this film above mediocrity. Indeed, “The Equalizer” may represent the nadir of the films in which he has appeared. Washington cannot appear in many more schlocky films like this without tarnishing his legacy.

Despite the carnage, this film was rated an R by the MPAA. For context, that is the same rating that the organization recently slapped on “Love is Strange,” a film devoid of a whiff of violence or sex. It committed the unpardonable sin of having gay co-protagonists. I suppose that the take away lesson is that if you are heterosexual film protagonist you can go on a sadistic killing spree with impunity. No NC-17 for you.

“The Equalizer” belongs in the category of revenge porn.

*1/2 R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references) 131 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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