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The Equalizer review

Denzel Washington tilts The Equalizer past popcorn action to escapist masterpiece

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have is a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career; skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

Liam Neeson’s now iconic Taken speech is nowhere to be found in The Equalizer, director Antoine Fuqua’s hard R-rated action movie adapted from the 1980s TV series of the same name. But it’s a spiritual cousin to many of the monologues made by Denzel Washington throughout the film’s 131 minute runtime, and its bloody promise — “Resolve this now, or proceed at your own peril” — is central to everything The Equalizer represents.

There’s really nothing that McCall can’t turn into a weapon.

Oscar-winning Washington stars as Robert McCall, a Boston man who puts three principles above all else: Body, mind, and soul. He’s a physical specimen, even in his late 50s, as evidenced by how hard he trains an overweight colleague hoping to make the Home Mart security team. He keeps his mind sharp by constantly reading during his resting hours; he’s 91-percent of the way through completing a list of 100 essential books. As for his soul, McCall keeps it clean by staying away from what he’s best at — killing people.

But McCall’s holy trinity of self-regulation comes under fire when his fourth, unspoken tenet stops working: Time. McCall lives and dies by the clock, up every morning well before 7:30 a.m., still wide awake well past 2:00 a.m. He brings his late-night reading to a local diner, where he sips hot tea and keeps a watchful eye over Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute working for some nasty Russians. She’s at the diner at the exact same time, every single night. Until one night, she’s not; instead, she’s in the hospital, badly beaten by her employers.

With his by-the-numbers cycle broken, McCall pays the Russians a visit, and gives them a Neesonian ultimatum: Lay off now, or else. You can guess which door they choose to open, and you can guess what’s on the other side.

Once the Russians make their choice, the door never closes again. McCall’s former life of high-level violence and vigilante justice returns, transforming the seemingly humdrum home improvement employee into the fast-moving, trash-talking killing machine he was once upon a time. At around the 30-minute mark of the film, The Equalizer is no longer a slow crawl through a retiree’s life. It’s the physical, mental and spiritual reawakening of an ancient soldier — except instead of swords and shields, or guns and ammo, as his weapons of choice, McCall veers toward a significantly more unorthodox arsenal.

The Equalizer might be Washington’s most extreme effort yet.

Corkscrews, nail guns, blowtorches, boiling pots of honey, security cameras, cellphone footage, even an entire warehouse — there’s really nothing that McCall can’t turn into a weapon. Credit that to his mental sharpness; he sees the world differently, looking at everything as a possible means of offense and defense, should the need arise. And the need very much arises, not just because McCall’s active desire to mete out justice is restored, but because some of the Russians’ very mean friends are on his path.

Indeed, there’s one Russian in particular who tastes McCall’s blood in the water, and wants to make it a meal: Teddy, a sharklike soldier of old Russia, with old-school brutality, confidence and tactics. He’s played with chilling intensity by New Zealand actor Marton Csokas, slow-talking through meaty lines of tough-talk dialogue, and skull-smashing his way toward McCall. An utter psychopath in a fine-tailored suit, Csokas’ Teddy almost steals the whole show — almost.

The Equalizer

But in the end, The Equalizer belongs to Washington. Where Taken was Neeson’s big break into the world of ridiculously over-the-top action movies, Washington’s already a seasoned pro, what with films like Man on Fire and The Book of Eli under his belt. But Equalizer might be his most extreme effort yet. Washington’s charm remains firmly in place here; he’s not a steel-jawed, icy-eyed badass the entire time. His big pearly-white smile is all over The Equalizer when warranted; his Neeson-inspired speeches sizzle with vibrant life, a stark contrast to the words of doom coming out of his mouth and spilling out of his hands. Washington’s natural charisma combines with McCall’s unique set of skills to create a character worth fearing for all of his violent mayhem, and worth celebrating for the exact same reasons.

Like Neeson’s Taken, Washington’s Equalizer is an absurd, way-beyond-the-line thrill-ride of skin-piercing, bone-breaking, and blood-letting violence. It’s escapist action at its best, thanks to one of our best actors working ’round the clock to bring a weary warrior to tireless, threatening life.