With the current vogue for ageing action heroes – Liam Neeson, the Expendables, more recently Kevin Costner – it's easy to forget that Denzel Washington has been doing this for ever.
For a decade or so anyway, ever since his ex-CIA officer John Creasy tore up half of Mexico in Tony Scott's Man on Fire. Here he reunites with another former collaborator, Antoine Fuqua (with whom he won an Oscar for Training Day), to play former black-ops commando Robert McCall. And this time the nation that needs to watch out is Russia.
The Equalizer is a remake of the 80s TV series that starred Edward Woodward as a sort of refined Charles Bronson, taking out street scum with a Walther PPK and a stiff upper lip. This film begins in similar territory with Washington's McCall volunteering to assist a young prostitute called Lena (Chloë Grace Moretz) who's been bloodily assaulted by her pimp.
McCall has come to know Lena as part of his meticulous daily routine. He has a smoothie in the morning, gets on the bus to work, is a cheery adviser to young colleagues at a DIY superstore, then returns for dinner in a local diner that really should pay Edward Hopper some royalties. It's there that he chats with Lena, sharing his vaguely hippyish wisdom ("mind, body, spirit") and ploughing through classic works of literature. He's organised to the point of mania, holding himself together for the memory of his dead wife. It's a small drama with a vague air of menace and it's all quite compelling.
Then McCall heads to a well-appointed private bar and takes out Lena's assailants in all of 28 seconds, putting a corkscrew to effective use in the process, and things go entirely to pot. The pimps are, naturally, the lowest orders of a massive Russian crime syndicate who trade in everything from people to oil. The organisation is headed by a man called Pushkin who sends his enforcer, Teddy, to tie things up. Soon enough dozens of people are being blown up, shot dead and having their testicles shoved in their mouths.
There are two problems with this turn of events. Firstly, there's the desensitisation-to-violence chestnut as Teddy (a just about convincing Marton Csokas) starts popping people with ever more lurid brutality. Secondly, there's the even older chestnut of how the audience suspends disbelief as the toughest (and most tooled-up) killers east of the Danube get laced by a man who can remember the moon landings.
Fortunately for Fuqua, this ain't just any old 59-year-old. Denzel is so cool, so made of pure nails he can make even the most preposterous action scene feel thrilling. But Denzel's strength is also his weakness. He's so convincing at being tougher than everyone else that we never get that end-of-the-second-act moment where it looks as if everything is lost. Instead, he just takes a quick trip to a country house.
As McCall returns refreshed to singlehandedly overturn an oligopoly, a film that had started by engaging with issues of ageing and loss has forgotten such petty concerns entirely. Maybe they'll be remembered again when McCall returns for a sequel, which this film is obviously quite determined to set up.
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