The Equalizer would have us believe that Denzel Washington's Robert McCall is just another helpful sales clerk at a big box store. He wears an apron, pushes a dolly, directs customers to the lumber aisle and the plumbing fixtures.
But, of course, in Antoine Fuqua's satisfyingly moody action piece, the Home Mart's polite, watchful team member happens to be played by one of Hollywood's biggest names, a man of gravitas and cool who won his best-actor Oscar exploring the psyche of a rogue cop in Training Day. Did you catch that flicker in Bob's eye as he walked past the power tools? A memory of another, perhaps deadlier use for drill bits?
The Equalizer takes its title and core concept - an ex-secret ops guy who did some awful things in his day and now takes it upon himself to help the meek, the mistreated, the victimized, "equalizing" the odds - from the 1980s TV series starring Edward Woodward. The show was set in New York; Fuqua's quiet, noirish update is in Boston. But there are still plenty of folks who can use McCall's help.
The movie opens innocently enough with McCall alone in his modest apartment, shaving, blending a nutritious smoothie, tidying up, going to work. At night he makes dinner, tidies up, heads to bed, and awakes like clockwork in the smallest hours of the a.m. He dresses, walks around to the Bridge Diner, takes the same corner booth, and cracks a book - always a classic. There he sits, with his Hemingway and mug of tea, the short-order cook behind the counter, and a few regulars on the stools. Edward Hopper's Nighthawks sprung to life.
One of those regulars is Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute run by the Russian mob. Robert and Teri will exchange a few words, then he turns back to his book, she to her slice of pie. But one night she gets brutally disciplined by her boss, and winds up in the ICU.
Robert's not going to stand for this. He finds the nightclub where the Russians hold court, walks in - unarmed - on five of them, casts an assessing gaze, calculates the tattooed thugs' moves, and, improvising with a corkscrew and other accessories, takes the whole gang out. And I don't mean for dinner.
The Equalizer, which reteams Washington with his Training Day director, Fuqua, is an origin story, like the birth of Batman, or Daredevil. If audiences and star are so inclined, it's easy to see this premise and this character - a tough, taciturn gent burdened with regret and a very special skill set - going into Roman numerals.
There's some hokey you-can-do-it business with an overweight, underachieving Home Mart coworker (Johnny Skourtis) and a couple of crooked cops who need to learn their lesson. But mostly, the action, intense and bloody, revolves around the aftermath of McCall's courtesy call to the Russians. Their overseers in the Motherland are not pleased, and so an equalizer of their own is dispatched (a grim and agile Marton Csokas) to find the mystery avenger who eliminated his clan. He is a daunting adversary, but Washington's McCall is dauntless. He is without daunt. He will do what he must.
The Equalizer *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Antoine Fuqua. With Denzel Washington, Chloë Grace Moretz, Marton Csokas. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText