Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF'14: The Equalizer: Denzel is On Fire

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)

***(out of four)

I'm too lazy to search for it, but I'm sure somebody on Youtube has done a mashup between the CBS series, The Equalizer and the 1973 version of The Wicker Man. Both share the late Edward Woodward, and one's premise supports the other. Every week on The Equalizer, Robert McCall would help someone in dire need of protection or saving, free of charge. All you had to do was call him. In The Wicker Man, Woodward's Sergeant Howie answers a call for help and shows up, free of charge, to find a girl who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Robert McCall has better luck than Sergeant Howie, but you could seamlessly edit footage from both series' together into a coherent narration.

You can also seamlessy edit Denzel Washington's version of The Equalizer with another of his productions: Man on Fire. Director Antoine Fuqua gets his Tony Scott on, making a movie where mild-mannered Denzel is eventually revealed to be more lethal than Death itself. Viewers discover that Denzel, like so many cinematic heroes before him, has remorsefully given up killing. His moratorium on whacking people ends when his hand is forced by a villain who's just itching to be shot in the face with a bazooka. The girl who inspires Denzel's reacquaintance with ultraviolence may be older in The Equalizer, and Fuqua's camera is thankfully less hyperactive than Scott's, but truthfully, this is pretty much the same movie as Man on Fire.

Yet I liked The Equalizer better. The quiet moments Washington's Robert McCall spends, at home, work and with costar Chloe Grace Moretz, are achingly delicate. They have the movie-movie sheen of Scott's work (Mauro Fiore's cinematography is one of the film's best assets), but Washington grounds them in an everyman's reality. He totally sells you on the notion that Robert McCall is just a regular schlub, a lonely widower who works at a Home Depot clone and brings his own tea bag to a diner so he doesn't have to read his books alone in his room.

It's at that diner that McCall encounters Teri (Moretz). They have an easy rapport that suggest that seeing each other is a daily routine. Teri is clearly a prostitute, though she has aspirations of becoming a singer. She sits at the counter, he sits at the table closest to the door, and they make idle chat about the books McCall is reading. When Teri finally decides to join McCall at his table, screenwriter Richard Wenk gives her a lovely line about "breaking protocol." Moretz and Washington are excellent in this scene, which capitalizes on Moretz's ability to simultaneously play tough and vulnerable. An entire movie could be made from this scene--My Dinner with Denzel.

Alas, this is an action movie, so poor Teri has to be in trouble somehow. She's working for the Russian mob, who pummel her viciously when she fights back against a client. When they come to retrieve Teri from the diner, McCall gets a feel for his soon-to-be nemeses, one of whom gives him a card with an address and number on it. "Call this number," says the cardholder, for reasons I assume have to do with hush money.

It's a mistake. Robert McCall is not a regular joe. He's a former assassin and special ops agent who, like William Munny in Unforgiven, gave up the life at the request of his wife. Once Teri is put into the ICU, McCall pays a visit to her pimp, offering him $9,800 to "buy" Teri off the street for good. The pimp and his hencemen seem surprised this uppity Negro would show up at their unlisted location and try to make it rain with $9,800. They call him racial slurs, which is an even bigger mistake than than giving him their business card.

It's no spoiler to say that McCall kills the shit out of these people. It's our first taste of McCall's capabilities, and a warning that this movie is going to be more sadistic than you ever imagined. McCall surveys the room, and Fuqua teases you with quick cuts to a corkscrew, a bottle and the vulnerable human flesh of the enemy. When McCall lept into action, the person next to me covered his eyes. A measure of the carnage: that corkscrew is used in a way that would make Dario Argento proud.

The Russian mob is not happy. The leader, Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) sends his number one henchman Teddy (Marton Csokas) to investigate what he believes to be a hit by one of the other mob factions in Boston. Teddy is just as skilled, and as ruthless, as McCall. They're two sides of the same coin, though Teddy just isn't interested in keeping his violent impulses in check. (I'm glad Teddy doesn't say that "two sides of the same coin" line in the movie.)

Viewers of The Equalizer know where this is heading. The showdown, at McCall's place of employment, should have been called "Home Depot Alone." To protect innocent victims, including the "he's so nice, he's doomed" character played by Johnny Skourtis, McCall takes on Teddy and his henchmen using every sharp, dangerous item you'd find at a hardware store. Drills, hooks, nail guns and other sharp objects find squishy body parts with casual regularity. There's a not-so-subtle wink for lovers of the old TV show as well, though you might be too busy averting your eyes to see it.

The gruesome violence didn't bother me, but I feel I should at least warn you it's there. And Fuqua and Washington take the "walking away with an explosion behind me" action movie trope to an extreme that even Joel Silver might call bullshit on them. "How the hell did he make THAT blow up?" my brain asked, but I was too mesmerized to truly care.

This is Denzel's show, but his supporting cast is memorable. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo show up in an effective two-scene cameo. Leo is so restrained I had to check the credits to make sure it was she. Skourtis is likable enough to make you fear for his safety, Csokas is formidable foe and Moretz is a stand-out in her smaller than expected role.

The Equalizer isn't so much an origin story of Woodward's TV character so much as it is the pilot episode--McCall's first case. At the end of the film, we see the familiar ad that got Woodward his business every week on CBS. I'm not sure how fans of the show will react, but anyone looking for a an exciting, incredibly violent actioner should enjoy themselves here..

1 comment:

le0pard13 said...

Another on my must-see list.