In The Equalizer, Denzel Washington looks thick and jowly. His head is bald, and his face, while round, is hard and tense. By day, his character, Robert McCall, works as a manager at a big hardware store in East Boston. By night, he steps out of shadows and beats crooked cops straight. He spills the blood of a jittery cash-register robber and, as part of the plot’s centerpiece, takes down a Russian crime syndicate, using wits, weapons, and opportune slow motion. In the finale (one of them; this movie keeps ending), he seems to sail through the soak of fire sprinklers like a float at the Macy’s parade.
It barely matters where you stand on Washington as a star to recognize that this absurd, grisly, relentless, subversively feel-goodish entertainment amounts to one thing: Denzel pornography. (The multiple endings are multiorgasmic.) You might not be able to arrive at an intelligible definition, but you know it when you see it. And when you see McCall doing one of those calm walks away from a massive explosion, you know you’re seeing Denzel porn. This is a man so cool, he takes a city bus to the film’s first finale.
Click here for more 2014 awards season coverage.
The movie is based on the old, smoothly plotted and photographed CBS show. (Film now gives it the retroactive look of cinema.) That series lasted four seasons, with Edward Woodward playing McCall as a sexily seasoned, lapsed English dandy. He wore blazers and trench coats and styled his hair. He was debonairly haggard. Washington’s version appears to be childless, but sports dad jeans. The show worked because almost every week presented a fresh occasion for Woodward to elegantly pull the trigger on killers, racists, and rapists — and to do so with a moral clarity and synth score that keep it a pure 1980s specimen. It was too socially polished and a touch too politically correct for the Dirty Harry era.
The movie makes McCall’s vigilante Good Samaritan–ism cold-blooded. Before he wastes a roomful of Russian gangsters, he looks through the doorway and surveys their lair for the appropriate tools to reap maximal damage most expediently. The camera zeroes in on each object (a corkscrew, a lowball glass) and McCall then goes haywire with their deployment (the corkscrew goes up through a chin). But his pulse doesn’t seem to rise. He counts down to himself (“twenty-seven one thousand, twenty-eight one thousand …”) and bobs, weaves, and impales. He offers to take a young hooker off the gangsters’ hands and is refused. When McCall is done, he sits beside the last of his victims and serenely tsk-tsks him: All this over nine grand?
Washington’s detached serenity is the key to the movie. He doesn’t seem crazy. He just seems right. It’s the other guys who are like psychos. The hoods McCall kills in that scene work for a Russian oligangster named Pushkin. The media is reporting the incident as a turf-war massacre, so Pushkin dispatches his most Bond-style villain — a demonically tattooed nut named Teddy (Marton Csokas) — to Boston for a shakedown of the ethnic criminal underworld. Only an Irish American boss gives Teddy lip and more or less loses a mouth. Teddy is McCall’s opposite number, an easily vexed sadist. We know he’s evil because he lurks in a slick new skyscraper that overlooks downtown. McCall lives in an old, sparsely furnished walk-up in a blue-collar multiethnic neighborhood. Teddy senses that McCall seems to be highly trained and, game recognizing game, taps the corrupt cops in his stable (David Harbour is pretty good as one of them) to help him find out who McCall is and what makes him tick. But psychologically, McCall isn’t wearing a watch.
Eventually, with the brief help of two special guest stars, scraps of the character’s background emerge — ex-military something or other; a dead wife. The McCall we see is a good friend and colleague. He helps a coworker named Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) get in shape to pass a physical for a promotion to security guard and offers to help clean up after Ralphie’s mother’s restaurant is trashed. McCall isn’t two different people in a comic-book or even a Dr. Jekyll–and–Mr. Hyde sense. His keel remains even whether he’s dancing to oldies at work or pushing a drill through somebody’s skull. He’s pathologically moral where Teddy is pathologically amoral.
The movie is a touch more highfalutin than the show. For whatever reason, McCall frequents the same diner where a teenage prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) is also a regular. She drags herself to the counter. He’s parked in a booth. These scenes are bad on their own. She’s dressed in drum-tight everything, can barely walk in her elevator sandals, and wears silken wigs with bangs. It’s playacting at playacting. With Morgan Freeman–esque grand-paternity, he explains to her the lesson of The Old Man and the Sea, and she half-absorbs it. Just once, I’d like for a movie to cut the pretentiousness and do that scene with a copy of Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, or Dianetics.
These scenes also seem meant to evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper and the interplay between Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster in Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver. But the most evocative allusion is sitting on McCall’s shoulders. His planet of a head and its vengeful compartments reminded me of one of the movies’ most iconic pates: Brando’s in Apocalypse Now. The Equalizer isn’t that movie — director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen) works more directly, with almost zero poetry or painterliness. He can give a movie bombast, just not Francis Ford Coppola’s grandeur. Brando’s Kurtz was a defected, defective colonel living among indigenous Cambodians and expressing admiration for the Vietcong. But watching McCall’s bald head lurk in dark alleys and unlit rooms, waiting for a bug to scurry into his web, I did remember the explanatory speech General Corman gives to Captain Willard near the beginning of Apocalypse. “In this war,” Corman says, “things get confused out there: power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.” Coppola’s movie was about judgment, about the will to “terminate with extreme prejudice.” It dramatized the thorny business of being human yet behaving inhumanely out of either a dearth of humanity or a perverse excess of it. That discrepancy ought to be the basis for a ring in hell. The Equalizer mines from it an easy, crowd-pleasing fantasy of justice whose release falls a few days after our real-life president has adopted a more aggressive tone in foreign policy.
This isn’t a meditation on vengeance or violence or mankind. It’s just men being violent. Fuqua gets off on that. He shoots one strangling from at least five different angles. He replays McCall’s massacre as Teddy looks over the crime scene photos. The action sequences are hopped up on all kinds of noise effects and digital scratches. Goosing the slaughter is what Fuqua’s into, but that’s all he’s into. There is a thrill to Washington in this righteous mode. The movie is like Tony Scott’s appalling hit with Washington, Man on Fire — but the man is on ice, and by comparison, so is the filmmaking. Scott’s too-much-is-never-enough approach to action feels like a touchstone for Fuqua, who goes from a shot of raw meat to one of cold cash. He’s made an Obama-era blaxploitation picture in one sense — a polished, globalist, reasoned defense of a small, brownish community from posh white invaders. In another sense, it’s still porn. The two senses come together in a superbly done monologue that Washington delivers in amusement seated at a restaurant. The speech is more effective as an exertion of principled power than the shooting and impaling and drilling that follow. But not unlike the situation with the president elsewhere in the world, this is what some people want to see: might.
McCall is three moves ahead of his targets. (Although it’s a mystery how he doesn’t think to prevent what trips him up during the first finale. In fact, it’s laughable, given how out in the open McCall is, that no one in Teddy’s dwindling retinue manages to apprehend or sharpshoot him.) With the vengeance so idealized, Fuqua has to find a way to keep us interested. It’s not by developing characters. The villains are like a block of Top Ramen: Add water and stir. Csokas’s idea of evil isn’t anything new. He spends the movie making the face of a man who’s just removed the lid from a boiling pot. I do like what he does with his body, though — not the way he’s littered with obvious body art, but how he makes himself rigid with confidence and pliable with fear. He can’t emote with a part this robotic, so he opts for another language: modern dance. What Fuqua does is turn up the volume on the crime and the punishment. He luxuriates in both the slaying and his star until both reach a full, edge-of-the-seat convergence.
I could have done without the barbed-wire noose and glass-shard fight on shattered mirrors. But I couldn’t have done without Washington, who, like Liam Neeson, has reached a new cruising altitude as a leading man. (He turns 60 in December; Neeson is 62.) There was a point when violent action films were a trip to the acting ghetto for these two. Neither seemed to enjoy the petulance and righteousness of fighting satanic demons and hunting down psychopaths. Still, obliterating crime paid. When those movies were hits (and many of them were), the worry was that neither actor would ever do his respective sort of great acting anymore — that, for Washington, who’s been doing these junk movies longer and more convincingly than Neeson, The Book of Eli and Safe House were going to be all he did. If he wanted a challenge, he’d find one on the stage.
But he and Neeson have found comfort in these persecuted-crime-fighter incarnations of themselves. Washington has never had a problem being a badass. Now he appears to be enjoying it. Thanks in part to his own charisma and to Shonda Rhimes and her addictive, bizarre, morally inside-out Scandal, the culture has changed just enough to embrace a bad character who does so much good that he no longer seems bad. It’s anti-antiheroism. By the time McCall has placed his services on the Internet, The Equalizer has redefined what it means to be a craigslist killer.
Washington isn’t the only actor shattering the rules of what it means to mean to be good. English actor Dan Stevens dons an American accent and a killer smile to play a tightly wound psycho in The Guest. The movie is comprehensively the opposite of The Equalizer. Its shabbiness is a look, its jokey, mock-1980s-thriller immorality a stance.
Stevens plays David, a soldier who visits the family of a fallen comrade with whom he served in Afghanistan. The mother (Sheila Kelley) invites him to stay, and soon even the more skeptical of the surviving siblings — a 20-year-old emo-goth named Anna (Maika Monroe) — lowers her guard. Presently, David is beating up the bullies bothering Anna’s young brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer), having sex with her best friend, and, as McCall does in The Equalizer, amassing quite a body count. Anna’s guard goes right back up and, out of nowhere, the movie jumps into a parallel plot in which government operatives are panicking about David’s whereabouts.
Stevens has a lean, generic handsomeness (his hipster ice-cream flavor would be Somebody’s Boyfriend) that the movie turns into a joke. He shows up at a party with a keg on his shoulder so that we can see his upper arm bulge. It’s the physique equivalent of the sparkling “ting” that goes with a close-up of a killer smile. Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard know what they’re doing. Wingard has control of the mood, the shoot-making, and the characters’ stupidity.
That said, I don’t like this movie, and I do like it. The Guest is aping bad movies from 25 and 30 years ago (while loading the soundtrack with high-calorie dark wave and electropop). In doing so, Wingard and Barrett embrace a lot of what’s formally awful about those films without exactly transcending it. As the camera pulls in on David, the score starts banging its head against a wall. This might be something that happened in, say, The Stepfather, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to repeat it here.
Barrett and Wingard also made the 2013 home-invasion thriller You’re Next, which was like the artisanal cheese shop of horror movies. Don’t tell me how you sourced your scares, just scare me. But the ridiculous sloppiness of 1980s and ’90s action thrillers gives the lunacy of The Guest a bouncier springboard. The crazier the movie gets, the better it is — the climax is set in a homemade fun house complete with billowing artificial fog, and it works first as comedy, then as mild suspense, and, finally, as surprise.
Toward the end, the filmmakers find their own jokes to tell. They also find Monroe, whose side eye, dropped jaw, and relatable skepticism are masterful. The Guest is another adventure in quotation-mark homage. This time, though, the marks are sarcastically real (see the first name in the closing credits). That sarcasm is all over the movie, and it’s tricky. There’s no reason for them to take any of this seriously, and they don’t. But they do care just enough to communicate that they like their winking psycho. So do I.
An earlier version of this column misidentified actress Maika Monroe as Maika Moore.