RECAP: The Equalizer
The Equalizer (2014): Antoine Fuqua
Denzel Washington has spent much of his career being America’s sexiest man, charming all moviegoers with his million-dollar smile and 2.3 billion-dollar worldwide box office handsomeness.
In the current century he’s discovered a new talent: ass kicking. With Man on Fire, The Book of Eli, and 2 Guns, Denzel’s occupied a niche quickly expanding in Hollywood: old guys killing people.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Loner badass Bob McCall right wrongs across Boston, sells lumber in spare time.
The Equalizer is perhaps Denzel Washington‘s most violent and most lonesome action flick to date. He plays Robert “Bob” McCall, a man steadily working his way through a list of the 100 greatest books to read in one’s lifetime, a list his late wife almost finished.
The film’s first few minutes show Bob’s apartment. It’s spare and overlooks the Charles River. Every item has its place: plate, knife, fork, toothbrush, etc. We see Bob shaving the gray hairs on his head, as if he knows he’s doing it to stave off Father Time.
Bob uses a toothbrush to clean his shoes. He times this routine on his massive wristwatch because he’s a time freak, a trait that will come in handy later. He times all his routines.
Bob loves his routines. They call him Pops down at Home Mart, the home improvement behemoth where he saws lumber as his day job and helps coworkers like Ralphie cut enough weight to pass the security guard exam.
When not working, Bob often stops by the Everyday Diner, at 2-ish AM, to read and banter with Teri (Chloe Grace Moritz), a call girl/sex slave. Among acting as a surrogate father figure, he tells her, early in the film, “You got to be who you are in this world, no matter what.”
One night Teri’s beat up real bad. That sets off something in Bob, a rage only hinted at as the movie progresses. He lost his wife a few years back (we don’t know how), and he promised her he wouldn’t revert to his old habits. “But for you,” he tells the villain near the film’s conclusion, “I’m going to make an exception.”
And what an exception it is. Bob McCall will singlehandedly reduce the East Coast’s largest Russian crime syndicate to ashes, some parts literally. After an early hit on the men holding Teri hostage, local news claims that the attack showed all the hallmarks of a gang turf war. Nope, just one man.
Bob shows utmost calm during his string of hits. Denzel uses his patented lower lip jut throughout the film, including moments when he’s cutting through necks with garden shears.
It’s a long time before we learn anything about Bob’s past. He was a CIA spook who faked his death. His closest colleagues learned of the faked death when Bob drove to their house to gather intel about his adversary. If anyone could find a way out of the spy world, they say, it’s Bob.
To say Bob is resourceful is like saying the sun is hot, or that rain is wet: resourcefulness is Bob’s nature. That stems from fastidiousness that the camera carefully captures. For example, Bob wraps a teabag in a napkin to take on his nightly diner trips. He likes his spoon upside down and placed on a napkin. He knows the dance moves for Gladys Knight’s Pips.
Nothing fazes Bob, and if anything could, he wouldn’t be…The Equalizer.
When last you saw Marton Csokas, he sported the long blond hair of the elves, playing Galadriel’s husband in The Lord of the Rings. This time he plays the bad guy, not-so-cuddly Teddy.
After Teri’s beating, Bob kills a handful of Russian mobsters, stopping shipments of the big dude, some guy named Pushkin, who sends Teddy to clean up the mess. Teddy is as mean as he is well dressed.
Teddy is not a friendly, soft, cuddle bear. He’s one of Europe’s most feared mercenaries, and he’s on American soil, trying to fix a problem for his employer. “Who I am,” he says, “is complicated.”
What’s not complicated is his murderous rage. Teddy tours the Boston ethnic gangs to find out who corkscrewed the Russians. He visits the Irish on their turf, at a sand and gravel company, and stirs the pot. After being told not to call the head Irish thug “Little John,” he goes ahead and calls him Little John.
Little John doesn’t like that, but that doesn’t prevent Teddy from smashing an ash tray into his mouth and punching his face one, two, three…nine, ten, eleven…like, 20 times. I’ve never seen anyone punch another person that many times. Teddy’s got issues.
Fear isn’t one of those issues. That Irish guy he beat to death, remember, was the head of the Irish gang and sitting in the middle of his castle, so to speak. When a corrupt cop working with Teddy asks him why he did that, Teddy says, “It’s a message. It says, ‘I’m here.'”
Later we learn that Teddy was an orphan, adopted by a kind family in Russia. He always feared he didn’t belong with said family, so one day he killed his family so they wouldn’t find out how undeserving of their love he was. You begin to see why the Russia that produced Teddy also produced Chekov, Doestoyevsky, and Rasputin.
Bob and Teddy set themselves up nicely as each other’s chief adversaries. The movie does the same. When Bob meets Teri for the first time, he’s reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
They discuss the old man’s struggle with his greatest foe, the fish, when he thought that time in his life was over. “He saw himself in the fish,” Bob says. “Maybe he’s just too old,” Teri says. It’s almost as if they were setting up the rest of the movie.
Bob and Teddy fight other people before they meet each other, letting us see each person’s skills apart. Bob shows off his abilities inside Boston’s poshest Russian restaurant and hub of Slavi, Teri’s pimp.
Bob enters the room as Slavi and four other goons enjoy their evening. These guys are armed and inked and dangerous, but Bob gets in there. He offers $9,800 to buy Teri’s freedom. Slavi offers a month of her time. Bob dislikes this.
He’s about to leave the room of knuckleheads to fight another day, but he has a better idea. Bob locks the door, turns around, and things change. The movie slows and the camera focuses on Bob’s eyes, catching his looks. The eyes barely flick, but they see worlds. He guesses 16 seconds will do it.
Start the clock. The first guy comes at Bob from behind holding a silenced pistol. Bob grabs the gun hand, punches the man, turns his body, and shoots Slavi through the hand and neck. He finishes the gunman off with a shot…glass to the face.
Here comes another hulking goon, knife out. Bob deflects that knife right into the goon’s gut. He uses that knife to slice the throat of a third man, who collapses onto the glass table, before returning to the goon with a hole in his gut and returning his knife…into his jugular.
One person remains. Bob uses the corkscrews he spotted earlier to stab the man in the arm twice and the gut twice, turning the screw, as you do with such a tool, and finally plunging the screw up through the man’s chin and tongue.
Stop the clock. “Twenty-eight minus nine, nineteen.” Nineteen seconds. Getting old, man. I guess the nine seconds subtracted were for taunting. But he’s not done taunting. Slavi is still alive. Bob makes certain he realizes that his life is going to end on the floor over $9,800.
Bob is a lonely man. Why else would someone go to a diner at 2AM to read? Someone who doesn’t want to read, that’s why. He chats with Teri often, taking to her in a fatherly manner, and we can assume the diner’s lone late night employee knows to keep the small talk small with Bob.
When Bob decides to take out a Russian mob cell, he decides alone. Teri doesn’t ask him, and he asks no other. The closest to a sidekick is Ralphie, the overweight coworker from Home Mart who transforms into underweight, enough to pass the security guard exam and get that job.
Ralphie struggles with his weight, but he’s smart enough to ask Bob to help him cut weight. Bob snoops out the potato chips laced inside his hummus and bean sprout sandwich. Ralphie labors dragging a truck tire across a parking lot, a workout that is all the rage these days, because our urban society is littered in truck tires.
Ralphie plays an important role in the climax, but aside from that, Bob rampages through Boston’s criminal underbelly alone.
Teddy runs the show when arrives in Boston (via private jet). He enlists the corrupt members of Boston’s Finest. Several cops help Teddy try to kill Bob, but one stands out. David Harbour plays Frank, a detective or something, who is in far too deep to come clean for anybody.
Frank first makes his mark when he talks down to Teddy, refusing to drive him around because Boston is “our town.” Teddy immediately makes clear why he’s in their town and that he doesn’t give a shit about Frank’s opinions.
Frank is the guy who kills to Irish mobsters while Teddy beats to death the other guy. That scares Frank, showing that he’s small time in a world of big time killers. We see Frank fearful much later, knowing Bob hunts him, when his yard sprinkler makes him jump.
Frank is nothing more than a stooge, a chauffeur for Teddy, but one who will kill for him. Bob tracks him to his home and rigs a nice little interrogation chamber: he handcuffs Frank to his steering wheel, inside his own car, where Bob’s taped shut the windows and affixed a hose that expels carbon monoxide into the sedan.
Bob convinces Frank to help him find a drug and money distribution center, which Frank reluctantly does, following Bob’s lead. This cop is not a good cop, though he claims he once was. “I was a fucking good cop,” he shouts at Bob as he awaits BPD’s non-corrupt officers.
Bob is an expert in close-quarters combat. In one scene in the diner, he’s attacked by a hired goon. Bob uses the spine of a book to jab the guy’s throat. Who says literature isn’t dangerous?
Bob’s best moment comes in the Home Mart. He must fight a mustachioed villain in an area full of broken glass, because the goon shot all the mirrors, probably because he didn’t like seeing his stupid mustache reflected everywhere.
Bob attacks the guy by stabbing a glass shard into his torso. But this dude is large, bear-like, and bear only get mad when you stab them. They fight for a while, Bob even dragging the goon’s face along the floor, the floor covered in broken glass.
In the Russian restaurant, Bob uses a corkscrew to stab a guy three times, including through the jaw, turning the screw to prove a point.
Bob is so good at fighting that we aren’t even shown the time he uses a mallet from the store to beat down a thief and return the heirloom ring stolen from one of Bob’s coworkers. All we see is Bob wiping the blood off the weapon as he replaces it on the rack.
Stunt fighting was quick and painless, well, for Bob it was painless. He’s one of the planet’s best fighters, and he doesn’t need exhausting blows to fend off an opponent. Sixteen seconds should about do it.
Bob takes a trip to the country to gather intel on Teddy from his former CIA colleagues. He returns to the city to meet with Teddy while the latter eats a fancy dinner. We learn Teddy’s life story, from Bob, and it’s a juicy one. Orphans, parent murder: a world from which a mercenary is born.
As the two sit across from each other, we know it will be for the last time. Bob sets out to do the most damage he can. With Frank’s “getaway” package in his apartment, he prepares the mother of all Watergate Deepthroat scandals.
Bob finds a flash drive detailing payments from Pushkin’s company to American Senators and Representatives. Attaching that to an email, Bob calls an FBI agent, as you do, and sends it to him, warning him, “Make sure you’re sitting down.”
Next, Bob visits the local tanker dock, where Pushkin is unloading dirty (in both senses of the word) oil into trucks. Bob blows that up and casually strolls away, inches ahead of the firestorm.
Teddy’s had enough. He takes five hostages at Home Mart, including Ralphie, the beloved security guard. Teddy, tracking one of Bob’s many phones, believes his adversary to be traveling to the tanker’s ruins, when actually Bob is raiding the (otherwise deserted) Home Mart. Major miscalculation on Teddy’s part. He should have known Bob well enough.
Bob starts the party with some Gladys Knight (remember, he was a Pip). Teddy’s left about four goons to guard the five hostages, and one of them heads to the security control room, with Ralphie, to check on it.
We spot Bob on a monitor, standing in the doorway like a vampire ghost. Really, Denzel can stand still like Charlie Manson. He kills that guard by breaking his neck with a handgun.
Teddy, wise to the call forwarding trick Bob played earlier, arrives with two other men, one of whom wears a mustache long enough that it can literally be twirled. Bob is so happy to have his dinner partner there that he turns the lights down to make it real romantical.
Bob slinks around the store setting traps and hiding amongst giant bags of sand and gravel. The bad guys have night vision scopes affixed to their rifles. That doesn’t prevent one bad guy from stepping on crunchy sand, alerting Bob, who throws a barbed-wire noose around the guy’s neck, kicks down a counter weight, and drags the writhing body to Bob’s eye level. Bob watches him die as he would watch a bag of popcorn in the microwave.
More slinking. All the goons are out looking for Bob, allowing Ralphie to aid the hostages’ escape. Bob uses hedge clippers in an inventive way: slicing them through a human neck. Teddy’s there, though, and he shoots Bob’ shoulder. That’s not a problem, because Home Mart has blow torches, and Bob uses one to heat a doorknob and press onto that bullet wound. Bob winces at this. Winces.
The next guy dies when Bob power drills the back of his neck. I wonder if drills are this powerful, because Bob uses little weight to drive the drill bit through. Whatever, he’s the expert.
Next he must fight Mr. Mustache, as detailed earlier. Bob wins, and is immediately grabbed by–Ralphie. You said not to leave anyone behind, he says as he helps Bob limp away, also while being shot. Those two shots come from Teddy, neither kill shots. “Buck 90 my ass,” Ralphie laments as he drags Bob away.
Now there’re two guys left, and Bob has the best in store for them. All that timing practice comes in handy. He gives Ralphie his watch, tells him to turn the lights back on in 40 seconds. Bob grabs oxygen canisters and leads a goon to the break room. As the lights come back on, the goon and the viewers realize that oxygen tanks should never be placed in a microwave, because BLAMMO! The sprinklers activate.
Ralphie struggles to leave the building, but the emergency exit door has been tampered shut. Teddy senses a kill, but makes his third mistake of the night, trying to kill Ralphie and not Bob. Ralphie draws his gun, but hears a shot go off before his. He looks to his left. A bloody nail protrudes from the wall, where before was none.
Cue badass guitar riff. Bob saunters around the corner, in slow motion, in the rain, carrying a nail gun. He shoots Teddy again, shooting and cocking the gun one-handed. His left hand is just hanging there. Bob don’t need it.
Teddy doesn’t stand a chance. He can’t stand at all, because nails hurt. The film delivers a perfect noir shot, angled up onto Bob’s face, side-lit, (sprinkler) rain pouring down, as Bob slowly points the nail gun barrel at Teddy’s neck. Once more, the camera captures Bob’s subtle eye flicks. Bob kills Teddy. Bob doesn’t even check on Ralphie before walking away.
Three days later, Bob’s inside the Moscow bathroom of Pushkin, the top dude. Pushkin emerges from his shower and asks Bob, “What do you gain from my death?”
Just before Pushkin’s electrocuted, Bob answers, “Peace.” Fin.
You won’t laugh very often watching The Equalizer. Bob is not the kind of man to quip after killing someone. Killing is deadly serious. Plus, he’s mad. When asked why his knuckle is banged up, he says he “hit it on something stupid.” That’s as close as we get to a joke. I give one point because Denzel is so damn charming.
Boston is often seen in Hollywood movies, and almost never the nice parts. The Equalizer strikes a balance, placing its characters in the regular parts of town. Bob lives in a spartan apartment, but can walk the streets late at night without fear.
The climax occurs inside a home improvement store. That’s amazing. Few movies or TV shows have ever been set inside large retailers. The current NBC sitcom Superstore comes to mind. But hardcore actioners? Never. Until now.
Bob draws his adversaries to his place of employment, and Bob shows a masterful knowledge of the the store. I hate big box stores a lot of times. Most importantly I hate not knowing where I am. Ever walked into a Target and, after several minutes, not knowing which Target you’re in? I hate that feeling of placelessness.
Imagine what the Russians must have felt. They probably never went into Home Mart before, which likely helped them, because they wouldn’t ask themselves, “Wait, isn’t this supposed to be the plumbing aisle?”
We get a tour of Bob’s Home Mart in the climactic showdown. The security office, break room, gravel aisle, garden tools, and emergency exit all play a prominent role. If I stop by Bob’s Boston Home Mart, I’ll know where to go.
Boston is a corrupt place. When it’s not Russians running drugs and guns and girls, it’s the Irish. The Irish mob boss insinuates that each of the city’s ethnic groups has a mob wing, and all have their toes dipped in the pot of the Boston PD.
What’s up with Teri? Her beating and slavery are the impetuses for Bob’s rampage through Boston. In a few days he cripples the East Coast’s top mob syndicate and the corrupt parts of the Boston Police Department. All because some douche wouldn’t accept $9,800 for Teri.
Once Teri’s in the hospital, she disappears. I forgot she was in the movie. Only after the Bob returns from Moscow do we see her again. She’s changed her hair, is being seen in daytime, and has a real person job. Good for her. Could have used a little more of her during the film’s violent parts.
- Most of The Equalizer is set at night, but it’s not until Bob goes Commando that he’s in the dark. His early scenes inside his apartment and in the diner are well lit, but he lingers in the dark once the mob is on his tail. If the lights aren’t out, he puts them out.
- Bob’s (presumably) last book is Invisible Man.
Summary (36/68): 53%
Stylized, and with an impressive performance from Denzel, The Equalizer delivers a tale of vengeance. Problem is, the person needing revenge, Chloe Grace Moritz’s Teri, disappears for most of the film. We forget that she sparked Bob’s Pain Train.
In most cases, the more we know about a character, the better. In this case, it was better to know less. Bob’s actions are so implausible that they edge into mythical. Less humanizing makes him more believable as a myth.