A young girl who is put in harm's way by a bloodthirsty criminal syndicate. A former military operative who will stop at nothing to do away with everyone involved in endangering her life. Granted, Denzel Washington (2012's "Flight
") already starred in a film with this premise2004's "Man on Fire
"but "The Equalizer" is so stylish and riveting in its own right that it hardly matters. Loosely based on the 1985-89 television series, the film has been directed by Antoine Fuqua (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen
") and written by Richard Wenk (2011's "The Mechanic
") with an engrossing blend of unflinching brutality and dramatic sensitivity. Its vigilante plot is of the homespun variety, but the way in which it is so voraciously tackled helps to pull in the viewer instantly and keep him or he right there, rallying behind the lead character for the whole 131-minute running time. The anointed hero of the piece is responsible for taking an untold number of lives, and yet within the context of this pulpy story there isn't a single casualty that feels uncalled for or extraneous.
A widowed middle-aged man with a private past, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) has settled into a quiet life, working by day at home improvement store Home Mart and voraciously making his way through his late wife's unfinished reading list by night. Suffering from insomnia, he regularly stops by the 24-hour Bridge Diner for a late-night bite and, in doing so, strikes up a friendship with underage prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz). She dreams of one day being a singer, but aspirations such as this seem like an impossibility as she works under the controlling thumb of a mob-run escort service called Russian Nights. When Alina ends up in the ICU after a savage beating, Robert dusts off his professional combat training and sets his sights on the men responsible. What he doesn't anticipate is that they are only a small part of a much larger Moscow-headquartered crime ring with its footprints in the local Boston police force. Once hitman Teddy (Marton Csokas) arrives stateside with a mission to kill, no one in Robert's life is safe.
"The Equalizer" is an exceedingly well-made action-thriller with one foot skirting the line into grisly horror territory. A film both ruthless and heartfelt, director Antoine Fuqua dishes up plenty of just desserts but also cares about his characterseven some of the "bad" ones. Aided by ace cinematographer Mauro Fiore's (2013's "Runner Runner
") brooding, glittering location lensing in Boston and editor John Refoua's (2013's "21 and Over
") unhurried but always absorbing pacing, Fuqua displays an emotionally attached control of his production's many facets. While Robert is equipped to handle himself, a foreboding layer of suspense builds up like propane tanks ready to explode (and many of them do, coincidentally). The only plaguing question within the script is why the vengeful Teddy never goes after the hospitalized Aline, especially since one narrative thread revolves around his vicious extraction of information about her from fellow prostitute/friend Mandy (Haley Bennett).
Has Denzel Washington (2012's "Flight
") ever given anything less than a solid performance? The definitive answer is no. Perhaps because he is one of the most commercially successful actors of the modern age, his rarified talent sometimes gets taken for granted. Yes, he is a two-time Academy Award winner (for 2001's "Training Day
," also directed by Fuqua, and 1989's "Glory"), but the emphatic honesty, freshness and nuance with which he imbues every one of his roles ensures that each character is a living, breathing original. There is a melancholy earnestness in Robert McCall's soul, a very real sense that he has lived a full life, done and experienced things of which he is not proud, and still holds onto the belief that goodness will prevail over the evils of the world. He wants to abide by his late wife's wishes for him to go straight, but also knows right from wrong and when justice is most vitally called for. Washington is an irreplaceable powerhouse here, as he so often is.
Pairing the veteran Washington with a standout ingénue of Chloë Grace Moretz's (2014's "If I Stay
") caliber ismuch like he and Dakota Fanning in "Man on Fire"a smart casting coup. Moretz's screen time is limited to the opening half-hour and an affecting closing scene, but she makes a permanent impression of forlorn yearning as the lost, streetwise Alina. Even when she is out of the picture, it is always clear that Robert's action started with his desire to give her a chance at a fresh start. Marton Csokas (2014's "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
") is outstanding as Teddy, the malicious heavy whose mightier-than-thou ego keeps getting overshadowed by slyer, quicker adversary Robert. Csokas cuts a threatening, hateful, captivating presence, but his eventual comeuppance (or at least the expectation of such) keeps one glued to the screen. In noteworthy supporting turns, David Harbour (2012's "End of Watch
") gives enticing added shades to Masters, a crooked cop who realizes his life is over the moment he is forced into helping out Robert; Johnny Skourtis is genial and sympathetic as Robert's pal, Home Mart security guard Ralphie, and Haley Bennett (2011's "Kaboom
") leaves a haunting impression as Aline's doomed co-worker Mandy.
"The Equalizer" isn't above excessthere is a slow-motion walk away from one of screen history's most bombastic explosions, for instancebut it delivers upon all of its gritty, crowd-pleasing pursuits. The climaxa to-the-death showdown through the dark aisles of Robert's place of employmentappears to be undeniably influenced by the slasher genre, what with characters meeting their demise by way of barbed-wire nooses and power drills to the head. Jittery and tense, underscored with an eerily placed pop melody, it is a superb set-piece. With the conclusion of "The Equalizer" comes a self-evident franchise setup, a peek into how Robert McCall could return for further score-settling missions. If big-screen, Denzel Washington-led follow-ups are as inspired as this one, bring them on.