Sunday, September 28, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW The Equalizer
In A Media Summer Of Hell And Indignation For Some Black Men In America, An Anti-Hero "Rises"

Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, the title character in "The Equalizer". 

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, September 28, 2014

There's an intensity in Antoine Fuqua's "The Equalizer" that cannot be ignored.  The title character is all calm, damning righteousness fueled by a brooding anger, indignation, vengeance, tragedy and vulnerability.  Denzel Washington, who teamed with Mr. Fuqua for his second Oscar in "Training Day", is the 2014 edition of Robert McCall, the U.S. government Special Operations shadowist who metes out justice on his own terms on behalf of the voiceless.  The film is based on the successful 1980s television series that starred Edward Woodward.

McCall is a silent, invisible entity, a virtually faceless man long devoid of connectivity after the mysterious passing of Vivian, his wife.  He is more apparition than affirmed.  Call him Banquo's ghost -- a man whose prior values have been killed off.  A phantom avenger whose vengeance, ala Paul Kersey's 1970s New York vigilantism in "Death Wish", is notorious.  (Mr. Washington's film debut was as a villain in the 1974 movie.)  Yet Mr. Fuqua, whose brand of filmmaking is visceral, fetishes the brutality of his 2014 Boston Basher.  "The Equalizer", a 180-degree turn from its forerunner -- the polite, exacting and genteel (and slightly campy) TV series -- pulls no punches and offers little contextual flavor for its antihero. 

The showcasing of violence may trouble and repel some, especially when everything Mr. Washington's psychotic character does overwhelms and surpasses the violence committed by those he stalks in the name of delivering justice.  (This is no different from Steven Seagal's "Marked For Death" or "Out For Justice".)  To that end "The Equalizer" has a conflict of interest it doesn't overcome.  That it lauds its literal and metaphorical Dark Knight in a modern-day America of Boston Marathon bombers, white supremacists, police assassins and other assorted terrorists, through its assorted cartoon violence, shrinks its protagonist's stature, even if his cause is well-supported by some.  McCall isn't a Samaritan.  And he doesn't take to Twitter to exact outrage about crime and injustice, for he (and many others) believes that doing so is a waste of time.  McCall flips on a kill switch but dispenses reasoned advice before doing so.

On the other hand "The Equalizer" is smart and honest enough to eradicate the line between McCall, corrupt cops and the Russian crime syndicate that runs America's eastern seaboard and beats up female prostitutes (one of whom is played by Chloe Grace Moretz, herself a vigilante in "Kick-Ass".)  The strict disciplinarian and precisionist McCall just can't turn away; it's something he struggles with, as if wrestling with post-traumatic stress.  McCall instead employs analogies, anecdotes and careful rearrangements of cutlery and other objects on tables to creepily state and foreshadow his case.  Otherwise, this man of few words lets graphic violence do the talking.

There's a tense, disturbing and gripping atmosphere in "The Equalizer", staged chiefly in Mr. Washington's eyeballs, shot luxuriously and digitally amidst an early scene in an oplulent restaurant.  You sense perhaps that he's trapped in the seconds before his most violent judgments are unleashed, that he is a caged and wounded spirit at his utmost vulnerable.  Violence is actually McCall's greatest fear and regret, but he cannot cure that poison.  His only purge is to exact violence.  There's a sadness deep within those eyes.  Adorned in a dark-colored button-down collar shirt he sits solitary and quietly every late night in a corner diner with a book, waiting like a patient owl. 

Robert McCall is a philosopher, a loner entirely out of step with the increasingly apathetic and disengaged society surrounding him.  He cares but his phantom avenger status as a symbol of questionable moral order or "silent majority" figure gives the audience its reason to cheer violence and rail against the tyranny of apathy.  McCall is as barren as his Spartan trappings.  A glimpse of Ralph Ellison's legendary book Invisible Man is a welcome sight, crystallizing McCall's place in America.  Never mind the actor playing him, McCall looks like a fantasy, a figment not of the white populace's imagination but given recent real-life events, a figment perhaps of some black men's own imagininations: a (wishful?) imagining of a violent backlash against those who have visited such violence upon the black body for centuries. 

True to form, every victim who meets death at McCall's hands is a white male; and that fact surely doesn't go unnoticed by any viewer, regardless of their race.  "The Equalizer" is a radical film in that sense: a black man at its center continuously handing out the death penalty to white purveyors of violence.  Not since possibly "Sweet Sweetback's Baaadaaasss Song" has an American film shown such a subversive display of violence by blacks against those (whites) we are accustomed to seeing portrayed in the movies as supposed law enforcers. 

The difference from Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 film is that the 2014 Robert McCall has no stated political affiliation and his violence isn't used for self-determinative ends.  He has to get "permission" from "The Man" (here that's Melissa Leo of "Flight") to commit violence to eradicate a major crime syndicate.  Consider that McCall's violence is circumscribed by a "higher order".  Note that in the out-of-focus background in one scene over Ms. Leo's CIA Special Ops Chief character's shoulder is a photo of herself and George W. Bush. 

The photo is a calculated touch that gives "The Equalizer" a deeper, more open-ended layering than it deserves.  It's an indicting image of the prior "president", a signal that his own violence (in illegally invading Iraq in 2003) in part and supposedly because of Saddam Hussein's mark against Mr. Bush's father, has a vengeance all its own that rings true.  It's a marker of another brand of American Justice on a far more powerful and hierarchical scale.  McCall's brand of vigilantism is cartoonish to a degree yet it is still far more reasoned and exalted than the self-perceived act of "vigilantism" that George Zimmerman believed he exacted against Trayvon Martin, yet a jury agreed with him.  Compared to the mentality of a fictional McCall, that real-world Florida jury's mentality speaks volumes.

The protection of violence (and endorsement of it) by juries, by governments or owners in the NFL also speaks those same volumes, as do the fans of the NFL who continue to support players who have been convicted of or admit to such violence.  "The Equalizer" asks, who is the more problematic, McCall, or us as a society?  If he's the only one who cares, the only one who can help those in need, then what does that say about the rest of us?  If we criticize Robert McCall's methods, what would we do as an alternative?  Would we be like those in "Compliance"?  None of this, of course, excuses Robert McCall's actions anymore than the state is excused from administering a death penalty because its citizens kill.

Unlike in "Training Day" here Mr. Fuqua is dedicated to showing Denzel Washington's McCall as pure anti-hero, and the proposition that everyone has unclean hands.  "The Equalizer's" sepia tones suggest a sewer that McCall has been entrenched in since his days in Special Ops; in scene after scene there are signs for "Boston Cement", and the "HomeMart" (read: Home Depot) McCall works at has bags of cement for sale.  McCall's either dead spiritually, or looking to be buried.

In its unapologetic torpedoing of a British sentry-type (Edward Woodward's McCall had upper crust classist patriarch trappings), Mr. Fuqua's "The Equalizer" posits graphic violence as the most expedient justice and leveling of the field, though does so with a hollow story, a character (and a Boston society) removed from everything, including themselves.  The violence in the film looms even larger because of the poor script, though both Mr. Washington and his onscreen adversary Marton Csokas (smarmy and appealing as a Bond villain-type) have some good one-liners. 

Beyond its flaky story whether you like "The Equalizer" may also depend on whether you are comfortable with who it is that is dispensing the violence in the name of justice and retribution.  Clint Eastwood did a lot of this onscreen as Harry Callahan, as did Charles Bronson as the aforementioned Paul Kersey.  There have been many others.  "Dirty Harry" and "Death Wish" had a little more context and were better than Mr. Fuqua's latest. 

Mr. Washington does exactly what Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Bronson, Liam Neeson (and Tom Cruise, though a contract killer in "Collateral") did.  "The Equalizer" borrows (as every film does) from such films as "Heat" (in the latter stages of "The Equalizer") with Moby's tune "New Dawn Fades" playing.  Mr. Fuqua throws in a shot of Mr. Washington sitting by the window in a bus, a reverse shot of the one of Ethan Hawke in "Training Day".  The shot of Mr. Hawke in the bus had the look and scowl of Eastwood vengeance.

On a not-so unrelated note: it has been an awful American summer for some black men.  America's foremost black man has betrayed his own presidential promises about starting a war.  He's been besieged by criticism from day one (including by myself on numerous occasions.)  Other select black men have been accused or convicted this summer of assorted crimes (Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald, Jonathan Dwyer, Jesse Matthew, Alton Nolen) or have been unarmed and killed by police (Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Roshad McIntosh, Kajieme Powell, who had a knife at his side when killed.)  Another, Levar Jones, was fortunate.  (It's worth noting that several black women and girls have been sexually assaulted or killed by police this summer, too.)

For me "The Equalizer", a film in principle both absurd and ridiculous, was a welcome escape from the summer's avalanche of negative media stories (tragedy/outraged-based or perpetrated) about black men, and it is in that specific realm -- offered in Mr. Fuqua's two-plus hour story as would-be corrective -- that struck and impacted me.  This summer's events have created a trauma in America among many, and something about this film, as a meaningless "answer", albeit an ephemeral panacea to the hurt and pain of relentless violence against people and its deeply alarming spate against black people in particular in the U.S., hit the spot.

"The Equalizer" offers a timely glimpse of subjects that are perpetual; police corruption and domestic violence.  McCall snaps when Ms. Moretz's prostitute is beaten by her Russian custodians.  He doesn't stop there.  He just keeps snapping.  There's a mental trauma that carries through in McCall that is likely connected to his departed wife.  Mr. Washington expresses this pain in the subtle ways he did in "Training Day" but even more subtly here, though the director doesn't let those moments breathe enough. 

In any other time of year "The Equalizer" would be a forgettable exercise but it's a film (a far, far, far from perfect one) that's right on time given the sociopolitical atmosphere in America this summer around race and violence.  The film's fiction, based loosely on the TV series, doesn't apply, but the film's overall effect is an unspoken but unmistakable outlet and rejoinder for a powerless and patriotic portion of America.  (If you had been in the diverse audience I saw this film with you'd agree.)

The 2014 McCall is more "of the people" yet disconnected from himself, and, not surprisingly, more anti-social.  "When you look at me what do you see?"  he repeats in one scene.  McCall may or may not be addressing that question more broadly to the white moviegoing audience.  How do you view the man doing the equalizing?  Do you relate to him?  Or could you care less because he isn't or doesn't "look like us"?

Despite any lingering absurdity about the film's premise, Mr. Washington's credibility, craft and commitment to an enigma of a monotone character and thin story, make "The Equalizer" perversely enjoyable.  I had a ball.  It's an unsettling, crowd-pleasing extravaganza of violence and vengeance that the Paul Kerseys, Dirty Harrys, Bernhard Goetzes and Larry Davises of the world would be proud of.  That may not say much, but it is enough that however flawed "The Equalizer" is, it lives up to its title and delivers, though more in blood than true justice itself.

Also with: David Harbour, Bill Pullman.

"The Equalizer" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong bloody violence and language throughout including some sexual references.  Its running time is two hours and 13 minutes.

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