I am old enough that I watched Edward Woodward as the original Equalizer in the tv show as it aired on CBS.
As someone who is very rarely happy with remakes, I wasn’t too enthused with the idea of a movie. Particularly when these days, all movies seem to be attempts at starting franchises, but in this case, also because my nostalgia made me remember the series as being really good.
Then, of course, I saw this:
And all bets were off.
I am an unabashed Denzel Washington fan.
So no one should be surprised that when I saw a while back that I could rent it as amazon for a couple of bucks, I couldn’t resist.
I enjoyed the movie because I completely buy him as a totally badass, utterly focused and merciless, stone-cold killer. However, I never lost sight of the fact that the basic premise is “the law is useless at best, and corrupt at worst, and the downtrodden public needs vigilantes to give them justice.”¹
This movie serves as the origin story we never really saw in the television series, with a few tweaks (for the better, I think). It is also seriously violent, and graphic with it, though I think the most actual blood is shown in the trailer; the total body count is ridiculously high, though.
As a retired government operative for some unnamed ultra secret agency, Robert “Bob” McCall lives a quite anonymous and unremarkable existence. He works in some sort of minor supervisory capacity at a fictional home improvement store. By all appearances, he is one of those low key guys, personable and kind, yet not truly close to anyone at work.
He is friendly with his coworkers, and spends the most time with Ralphie, one of the clerks, who has asked Mr McCall’s for help training, so he can qualify for an open position as security guard at the same store.
As the audience follows him through the day, we also realize that he’s is lonely and grieving. He is also an insomniac who spends hours every night at his neighborhood dinner, drinking tea and reading LITERATURE.²
Alina is a very young prostitute who frequently rests at the dinner in between customers. It is obvious to both McCall and the audience that her pimp is abusive, and while our hero does not judge her, through their interactions he gently encourages her to find a different way to make a living.
The picture of a quiet, harmless, yet considerate and helpful man, is perfect.
This is important for several reasons: it establishes McCall as a creature of habit, and introduces one of the major motivations for what happens in the second half of the movie.
Eventually, of course, someone pushes him hard enough, and the veneer falls away.
Once the genie is out, there is not trapping it back in the bottle.
As we see in the trailer, a bum with a gun threatens and scares one of McCalls favorite cashiers, before taking off. The cops are called, but McCalls does not stand around waiting for the official investigation to bear fruit.
Later, when he learns the truth about Alina’s relationship with her pimp, he tries to buy out her contract. When money doesn’t work, he finds new uses for some unremarkable objects within reach…and, as the trailer so helpfully spells out, he takes out the East Coast hub of the Russian mafia.
Things get more complicated, and exponentially more violent, in the second half of the movie. Chases, cat and mouse games, hundreds of gunshots, explosions, etc.
Inevitably, McCall prevails over his foes, in a manner reminiscent of the ‘scorched earth’ approach.
As the movie ends, he sits back at his regular table in the dinner, with his habitual cup of tea, reading replies to his “Need help? Contact the equalizer” online add.
So how does the 2014 film version compares to the 1985 original conceit?
As I said at the beginning, several of the changes are excellent.
It’s great to have a black man be the ultimate badass, but what was remarkable for me was that the rest of the cast was quite diverse as well. We had Russians, Latinos, WASPs, Irish, blacks…I think the only ethnicity missing (or I just didn’t catch them during all the shooting and exploding and mayhem) were Asians.
This is a vast improvement over the television series, which was white bread through and through. The handful of people of color we saw then were either victims–generally Asians–or the criminals–most often blacks, but occasionally Latinos.
As you can imagine, I loved that McCall’s temporary sidekick happens to be Ralphie, a less than slender Latino character. I loved even more that Ralphie is neither solely comedic relief nor suddenly becomes a killing machine. Instead, he is a regular guy who find himself in an extraordinary situation, doing his best to survive.
I also liked that McCall is not made of Teflon. While no one can entertain any serious doubts as to who will be left standing at the end, his victory is neither easy nor painless.
The script flirts with cliché by portraying the main antagonist (one among many, mind) as a violent psychopath, but by making plain greed the main motivation of the bad guys, it not only avoids becoming dated, it also makes the movie a lot more accessible to audiences abroad.
In the beginning of the original series, this was also the case, which made the first season very easy to relate to for me as a Mexican living in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, someone somewhere soon decided to emphasize the political aspect of McCall’s previous life. Between that³ and increasingly predictable writing for those episodes dealing with regular people’s issues, I stopped watching the show sometimes during the third season.
Is this a good movie?
Well, it’s an action movie. The actors are very good, the action and fight sequences are well done. There are a lot of bullets, a lot of explosions, and plenty of carnage. It will not change your life and won’t likely make a lot of people ponder any of the realities or potential consequences of vigilantism in any significant way, but it’s not a terrible way to spend a couple of hours.
For what is worth, I liked it a lot more than I did Man of Steel.
¹ A look at the news for the past few years will easily explain why this particular trope sells so well.
² Rant the first: we are told later on that his wife was a reader, and that she read all the books in one of those 100 book to read before you die, and that he started reading them so they would have something to talk about after his retirement. Pardon the hell out of me, but seriously? She couldn’t have made him a list of the books she enjoyed instead? Of course not.
³ Even as a typical, self-centered twenty years old, it irked me to see life reduced to the United States vs eeeeeeeeeevil! (aka, whichever country is the enemy of the moment)