Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Equalizer (2014)

OK, opening statement first; I fucking loved The Equalizer as a kid in the 80s.

The brilliant TV series starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a middle aged former spy turned righter of wrongs. If you were in New York, had a problem with the odds against you and none to turn to, you called The Equalizer.

This big screen version was a long time in coming, being trapped in development hell since the early 00s. Several names were attached to the project in those ten years; writers like Frederick Forsyth, directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and stars like Liam Neeson, Sean Bean and - my own personal favourite and choice - Ciaran Hinds.

Sadly none of these was to be and when The Equalizer finally arrived last year it reunited star Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua from Training Day and Robert McCall became (initially at least) 'Bob'; a middle aged and black, slightly OCD, Boston based, Home Mart store worker with an appetite for reading classic literature. 

It's always a big ask to adapt a fondly remembered TV series for the cinema so let's start with the faults shall we? You don't actually have long to wait as it comes along in the very first action scene which sees McCall confront an evil, sneering Russian pimp. He offers to buy out the contract of a teenage prostitute said pimp has used as a punchbag thus setting her free from her degrading employment and oppressive employers.

You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to know how this plays out. The Russian says no and McCall, who cannot walk away leaving this girl to a life of further harm and hurt, proceeds to viciously, violently and efficiently dispatch the Russian pimp and his heavies (though admittedly this is after some strange and pointless slo mo stuff that shows the soon to be victims from McCall's POV, a trick that is seen repeatedly before every action moment to come. Don't know what Fuqua was thinking here as it really doesn't bring anything good to the table) 

Obviously this violent revenge approach is what you want and indeed expect from The Equalizer, but the bone of contention I have is how Fuqua's film goes about this level of revenge. McCall takes a gun from one Russian he attacks and shoots the pimp. But instead of then using this gun to dispose of the others, he puts down the gun (!) and picks up a corkscrew (!!) FOR NO GOOD REASON....other than IT LOOKS GOOD.

This bloody X rated 'Home Alone' style approach was an occasional feature in the original series but never to the mind bogglingly daft extent it is used here. Time and time again McCall has the perfect opportunity to arm himself with a gun but instead he chooses to maim and kill with a variety of make-do weapons such as an electric drill, a nail gun, a noose made of barbed wire, cutlery, a microwave full of explosive material and even a book!

You have to ask why a professional killer would constantly purposefully ignore the guns or knives he has ample opportunity to use at every turn. It really is silly at best and at worst gives the viewer a rather unsavoury image that this former intelligence/Black Ops agent was the kind of person at home in Guantanamo Bay with the torture methods that continue to make America uncomfortable. Maybe they're trying to suggest this incarnation of Robert McCall is a much darker character - and indeed there are moments in the script that allude to a somewhat dishonourable past he isn't proud of which resulted in his going to ground being an average Joe at Home Mart - but it's often hard to see the difference between the ruthless enemies he is dispensing with, and the modern day knight in shining armour he purports to be.

There's also an issue with his avenging angel persona, which is the single most important factor in The Equalizer. It's the USP. The film is basically at its best in the early stages when McCall is shown to regularly frequent a near deserted Edward Hopper style diner each evening where he meets and befriends the film's damsel in distress, the young Russian prostitute played by a surprisingly good (for the first time ever she didn't make me want to chuck things at the TV)  ChloĆ« Grace Moretz. These scenes have real heart and are reminiscent of the same kind of relationships that appeared in the original series. However, Fuqua clearly gets bored of them and dispenses with Moretz's character in just over half hour to focus on the extreme vigilante actions of McCall, allowing her to only pop up again in the film's closing moments. It's a cardinal error because it totally robs McCall's actions of any redeeming, sympathetic features. If Moretz was allowed to stick around, or at least show some more of the working girls who are - we can only presume - still suffering in silence night after night, we would at least have some emotional context towards the bloodletting action of our hero who now looks like a lunatic with little motivation or excuse needed to slay half of Boston's Russian underworld.

I never thought I'd say it but yes, I wanted to see more of Moretz.

There are occasional attempts to hark back to some of the style and sentiment of the TV series in the occasional subplot/diversion between McCall's rampant bloodlust. In once scene he takes corrupt Boston PD officers to task and makes them pay back the protection money they bully immigrant small business owners for, in another he  hunts down (albeit off screen) a young hold up artist who robbed his Home Mart store and stole an antique ring of the traumatised cashier, bring said ring back to her. In all these cases he's shown to believe in the responsibility society has for the disadvantaged and to have compassion, heart and time for those people - though the scenes with the overweight security guard at the Home Mart store do begin to grate rather quickly and it is rather silly that after what appears to be a very long time minding his own business and leading a quiet ordinary life McCall suddenly sees corruption and theft everywhere! Anyway,  whilst all of these chivalrous, altruistic moments are in keeping with the Robert McCall Edward Woodward so wonderfully brought to life back in the 1980s, for my money the key moment that felt most true to the spirit of the original series was the scene in which McCall crosses the street taking photos off Martin Csokas' Russian enforcer out to stop him, before watching them ransack his dummy apartment via a series of cleverly and carefully hidden security cameras from the safety of another apartment. That just had the same kind of magic I recall feeling watching the show as a child and that I still feel now whenever I reach for the DVDs.

The Equalizer is a distracting and actually rather entertaining bit of popcorn - I imagine it is especially so, if you're unfamiliar with the original series - but it really doesn't do to look too closely at its workings, because its actually a bit of a mess. But I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that it comes out as one of the better big screen adaptations simply by virtue of tackling the premise with an origins-tale style approach that dares to do something a little different to the established formula. The news announced this week that we are set for a sequel will no doubt be well received by many and I daresay I will check in just to see how they approach the McCall character now he has placed his legendary small ad offering his help to those who feel the odds are against them (online this time, hey its the 21st century guys!) Hopefully second time around they'll rectify some of the daft things on show here.

Though I have to say in completely ignoring Stewart Copeland's superb Equalizer theme tune the movie made a major own goal. Seriously guys, what's wrong with you? That is one of the best TV themes ever!


  1. All of the above, especially the theme!

    1. It's a brilliant theme. Trouble is, Stewart Copeland also provided music for films as diverse as Wall Street and the films from Ken Loach in the early 90s - if you ever watch them you half expect Woodward to arrive with an Uzi to blow away Gordon Gecko or the oppressive spirit of Maggie Thatcher!

  2. I've been curious about this since I heard it was being made. John and I watched the first series when we were first going out. He'll be interested to see the film. :-)

    1. It's a bit like The Sweeney remake Cait. If you can forget the original it's a lot more enjoyable, but though its an enjoyable bit of popcorn (if overlong) it has its flaws notably those I've mentioned here. I'll look out for your review when you get round to seeing it!