The vengeful old man genre has since receded from the mainstream consciousness. The funniest part about it is that it began and ended with the same franchise (Taken), the most popular series (or at least the first movie was) out of the bunch. But what about the ones that came in between and before? Gerard Butler, Jean Reno, Matt Damon, Jason Statham, and others have starred in their own everyday-man-goes-on-a-rampage type of flick, and believe it or not, Liam Neeson ain’t the only one who can make it look good.
This time we’ll be looking at Denzel Washington, a deservedly celebrated actor who has played everything from an apocalyptic apostle to an airline pilot to a wrongfully convicted boxer. Diversity is the surest marker for gauging an actor’s talent, and Denzel has proven his mark. In the The Equalizer (2014) he plays a retired government agent who becomes embroiled with a Russian mafia’s affairs after avenging a neighbourhood girl’s beating from her pimp. This review will examine the good, the bad, and a theory on this film’s genre and why it’s been so popular.
This film’s greatest accomplishment by far is that it manages to portray its character without being cheesy. Think about it: a retired old guy who works at the local home improvement store beats up a gang followed by an ex-Spetsnaz thug. It could’ve so easily been another corny and ridiculous rehash. However, the film succeeds by giving us subtle clues as to Robert’s (Denzel) past. The best hint was how the character has trouble sleeping at night, and ends up drinking tea at the local diner. It is there that he meets Alina regularly for friendly conversation, which is also the starting point of the action. After his first night of kicking ass (on Alina’s behalf), we get a brief scene of him sleeping like a baby. This is great, because it establishes that Robert may secretly miss his old life (or is so tuned by it that he can’t get a good night’s sleep in his normal life) and him meeting Alina initiates the main plot point.
The action is also sufficiently brutal and intense, with still shots (shaky cam is still the worst thing in the world) and stylized visuals presenting the action to the audience. Denzel does a fantastic job portraying the professional killer: in his first fight scene we see his glossy dead eyes surveying his surroundings and calculating the best method of kick-ass, reinforcing the image that Robert is a stone-cold killer. It’s these little details that forces us to take The Equalizer seriously, and I think that’s a part of every movie-goer’s consciousness: if the producers/directors show TLC for their projects, we, the audience, will see that and respect it.
The acting isn’t bad, but this movie being what it is, the performances are serviceable but unremarkable. We only care about the action scenes anyway. The presentation of this film is also consistent and striking, with most scenes making good use of light and dark for thematic purposes.
While this film can be taken seriously for the most part, it does commit one grave cinema sin: it has the one scene where Robert walks away from an explosion in slow motion. It’s a tanker followed by several tank trucks, and he’s pretty freaking close to them too! This stood out as something that we wished wasn’t in the film, because The Equalizer up to that point had felt like something different, so it was a shame it did something outlandish that every other generic action movie ticks off its list.
The antagonist was also disappointing and underwhelming. The movie tries very hard to make Teddy (yeah, not even his name works out for him) badass and intimidating, but fails for the most part. You can have a character do bad things on screen, but the problem is that without backstory and motivation we can’t really become afraid or dreadful of him/her, and Teddy’s motivation is pretty vanilla: he’s an enforcer, and that’s it. A guy just doing his job is boring. Compare this to Denzel’s character: he’s using his skill set from his former job, but he’s doing it to help a girl he doesn’t know, and because he has a strong sense of justice and standing up for his own beliefs. Even Ralph, a side character, is more interesting than the antagonist. Ralph is trying to become a security guard not just for the money, but to support his mother and validate his own self-worth. The antagonist in this film is just going through the motions and has no character development, and that’s how you fail to make a character interesting; giving him a foreign accent just isn’t enough.
On top of this, it also felt like he was never a match for Robert. This is not a problem of Denzel’s character being overpowered or over-skilled, but rather a problem with the antagonist’s characterization. Lex Luthor is a formidable opponent to Superman despite being a normal human being, and that’s because his advantage is his incomparable drive, hatred, and cunning, and these things perfectly offset Superman’s character. Robert is a highly trained killer, and unfortunately he doesn’t face anyone who’s stronger, smarter, or more motivated than him, and as a result we never feel like our protagonist is in any danger. Not that this needs to be the case in order for a film to be good, but vulnerability is always a nice and humanizing touch.
The Equalizing Effect
This film cashes in on a prevalent trope that has been established ever since the advent of the Superhero (beginning with comics). It’s the idea that a normal every day guy can make a difference. Sure, Robert isn’t really your average joe, but he’s presented as such. Corny as it may be, this fantasy and its appeal gives me hope for humanity.
Superman and Spiderman ain’t real. Heck, even Batman, a normal human being, remains only a fantasy despite there being plenty of multi-billionaires out there. But while we don’t see superheroes stopping terrorists or cosmic threats to Earth, we do hear of philanthropy efforts and everyday people making the news by doing something different and helping someone out. The reason superheroes appeal to us, I think, is because at our core we do wish for the world to be a fair and better place. and one could argue that ideal is more important than reality in this case, because the latter is where we are, and the former is where we’re going. In the same way that we can’t fly or lift freight trains and trucks in the air, we don’t need to have the combat skills of ex-special ops personnel to make a difference. This movie begins out of the simple desire to help a stranger get out of some trouble.
Pretty good action film. Highly recommended if you’re a fan of any movie that has starred Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, or Liam Neeson. It’s a whole lot of kickass presented with style and professionalism, helped immensely by the fact that the producers and director seemed to care about their characters and the plot, making The Equalizer something that is unequal to its competition (sorry, that’s the best I got).
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.