Once upon a time—nearly twenty years ago—there was a television series called “The Equalizer.” It played on CBS for four years, and starred Edward Woodward as ex-secret agent Robert McCall, who used his skills to help people who faced what seemed to be hopeless situations. Now the concept has been resurrected as a possible franchise vehicle for Denzel Washington, just as “Mission Impossible” was for Tom Cruise, and in a similarly hyped-up style. At least in this case, however, the resuscitation process—overseen by congenitally unsubtle director Antoine Fuqua—turns out to be a bust.
The Woodward version of “The Equalizer” wasn’t without action, but its main strength was cleverness in plotting. This big-screen version abandons that emphasis in favor of simple action-movie clichés. You can imagine the movie having been made years ago with Steven Seagal or Sylvester Stallone in the lead; the only plot element you’d have to jettison is the bit about McCall reading through his late wife’s list of classic books—maybe you can believe that wrinkle with Washington in the part, but it would have stretched credulity past the breaking point with either of the other two.
This McCall, unlike Woodward’s, who sought out people to help via classified ads, is truly and certainly retired. Still grief-stricken over his wife’s passing, he left the agency at the top of his game and now works at a huge Home Depot-style megastore in Boston while living in a small, sparsely furnished apartment and regularly catching a bite at a local diner. Though he’s an avuncular chum to all the employees, the only active assistance he’s giving anyone is the advice he showers upon one of the store’s stock boys, chubby but amiable Ralphie (Johnny Skouris), about what he needs to do to become a security guard—like lose weight.
McCall’s old do-good instincts kick in, however, when call-girl Teri (Chloe Grace Moritz), a sweet young thing he’s met at the diner who pours out her dreams of becoming a singer to him, is manhandled by her pimp and his enforcers. He goes to the bar where the Russian mobster who runs the “escort” operation holds court with his crew, and when the villain refuses to listen to reason when McCall tries to buy out Teri’s contract, he dispatches the whole bunch in a bloodily violent set-piece that proves he hasn’t forgotten a whit of his old craft, and that he’s still not just an agent, but a super-agent.
That’s just the first of the over-the-top action scenes in the movie. Others follow as Masters (David Harbour), a crooked police detective in cahoots with the Russians, welcomes to town a brutal mob enforcer called Teddy (Marton Csokas), the right-hand man to oligarch Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) back in Moscow. (Could screenwriter Richard Wenk have coined a name that would sound any more like Vladimir Putin, while also tipping the hat to a famous poet?) After assuring himself that the murder of their men wasn’t just a hit by a rival gang, the vicious Teddy aims to track down McCall. That proves a difficult task, however, as The Equalizer is always one, or two or three, steps ahead of him—one of the truly boring aspects of the screenplay, which turns its hero into a virtually infallible and invincible fellow who can apparently, in an especially ludicrous finale, even make his way into Moscow at will—even if he does have to get a bit of help from his erstwhile boss (Melissa Leo), whose husband is played, in what amounts to a truly odd cameo amounting to little more than lurking about their secluded estate, by Bill Pullman.
After a good deal of cat-and-mouse activity between McCall and Teddy, the nasty Russian sets a trap for his quarry at the big-box store, which, with its emphasis on family paraphernalia, is apparently intended to be a symbol of the homeland itself, and thus where our hero must make a stand for all that is right and just against the evil Russkies. The confrontation, pitting McCall—with a modest assist from Ralphie—against Teddy and his small army of minions, seems to go on forever, and one has to wonder whether any movie that has him use a nail gun as one of his weapons is really worthy of Washington’s substantial talent. In an earlier scene, it might be noted, McCall borrows a big hammer from the store to deal with a robber, and later just wipes if off and returns it to its place on the shelf. Shouldn’t it at least be marked as used?
In fact, the whole of “The Equalizer” seems to beg for a “used” label, not primarily because it’s based on an old TV series, but because it stubbornly embraces the tired tropes of every dumb action movie Hollywood’s ever made. The second-hand quality can’t be concealed either by Washington’s presence or by a slick production in which Mauro Fiore’s gloomy cinematography combines with Naomi Shohan’s dark-hued production design to convey a brooding sense of foreboding that’s somewhat at war with the messy choreography of the action scenes. Nor does the supporting cast do much to improve matters. The talented Csokas is utterly wasted as a snarling cliché, Moretz continues the downward spiral of “If I Stay,” and even the reliable Leo is unable to bring anything imaginative to her stock role.
At one point in “The Equalizer,” McCall admits that he’s done a lot of things in his life that he’s not proud of. Washington might well take that admission to heart, and include this movie among the things he regrets. After all, if fans forgave him for “The Book of Eli,” they should be willing to overlook a lesser disaster like this.