Thursday, September 25, 2014

A store clerk who' s really an avenger

Denzel Washington gets serious about taking out Russian mobsters.
Hardware store salesman by day. Avenger by night.

He's The Equalizer, the title character of a new thriller that reunites Denzel Washington with Antoine Fuqua, the director who guided Washington toward his best-actor Oscar in 2001's Training Day.

In The Equalizer, which is based on a 1980s TV show, Washington plays Robert McCall, a loner who works at a Boston big-box store called Home Mart. A believer in healthy eating and physical fitness, Robert helps an overweight co-worker prepare for a fitness test he must pass in order to become a security guard at Home Mart.

Health-oriented as he is, McCall is also an insomniac. He stays up all night, drinking tea in a 24-hour Boston diner and reading number 91 of the 100 great books he's set out to conquer.

Robert's monkish existence (as well as his reading of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea) is disrupted when he meets a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) who's been badly beaten by her pimp. Thus stirred, McCall's desire to protect the weak sets him on a course in which he tries to free the young woman from the tyranny of her vicious Russian mobster pimps.

In his battle with the Russians, McCall displays so much physical prowess we immediately know that he's no ordinary guy: After all, ordinary guys don't usually know how to push a corkscrew through an opponent's chin.

Later, we learn (as if we hadn't already guessed) that McCall's a former secret agent who's trying to live an anonymous life.

Washington wastes his gravitas and star power on a thriller that takes itself more seriously than it should and which culminates in an over-the-top battle in the Home Mart store, a series of deaths by hardware that's as gruesome as it is preposterous. Watch out for nail guns and power drills.

It's probably best not to think much about the social dynamics at work here. McCall is one of those disconnected characters who's trying to move through life without leaving traces.

The supporting cast tries to match Washington's intensity. Marton Csokas plays a sadistic Russian who has been sent to Boston to slow McCall's vengeful roll. Melissa Leo turns up in a small role as one of McCall's former associates, and, in what surely qualifies as the most thankless acting job of the year, Bill Pullman portrays Leo's husband, a true afterthought of a character.

The Equalizer probably will score big at the box office, but for my money, the movie traffics in the kind of revenge that works best when not presented in A-list, IMAX super-productions.

Washington's substntial presence pushes The Equalizer into the center ring, but the movie never really establishes itself as anything more than another over-amplified butt-kicker. And Fuqua's attempt to create a near-superhero -- while simultaneously maintaining an atmosphere of gritty urban realism -- hardly encourages plausibility.

Impressive as it is, McCall's vengeful spree doesn't prove emotionally satisfying. By the end, McCall's violence no longer express our collective outrage or our desire for moral balance: It's just what the man does.

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