The Equalizer Dir. Antoine Fuqua

[Sony Pictures; 2014]

Styles: action, thriller
Others: Training Day, Coffy, Taxi Driver, Red Heat

People like thrillers and action movies because they almost never ask you to think. One can hardly blame anyone for wanting to turn their brain off every once in awhile, but sometimes it pays to keep it switched on enough to realize what a film (or book, song, etc.) is really saying to you.

Based on an almost-forgotten 1980s TV series (as are all studio films slated to be released for the next five years or so, when they’ll finally get around to adapting My So-Called Life and Sliders for a new generation), The Equalizer is a prime example of a movie designed to provoke absolutely no advanced mental activity in the average viewer. In the film, Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a mysterious figure who works at a big-box hardware store during the day and spends his nights at an old-fashioned diner reading The Old Man and the Sea and striking up platonic friendships with plucky teenage prostitutes (or “PTP,” in this case Chloë Grace Moretz doing her best impression of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, but ending up more like Fairuza Balk in Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead). He can’t sleep, which is probably because he’’s haunted by his mysterious past as a government agent, a past which he studiously avoids acknowledging by working a boring job, dressing like a schmuck, and handing out health tips to coworkers.

The aforementioned PTP gets into trouble with the Russian mobsters who act as her pimps, and they beat her within an inch of her life. This event flicks a switch in McCall’s brain, and he decides to use his past career’s skill set to do something about it. What follows is a standard-issue revenge flick, a violent climb up the Russian mob ladder where weaker men would stumble over the preponderance of obvious plot points and cheap stereotypes (one of the Russian enforcer types even has a twirly mustache, and not the hipster kind). Not McCall, though: the guy is basically a superhero, Batman in dad jeans.

It all pans out exactly as you’d expect. No plot twists, no artful touches, nothing… just a cookie-cutter action thriller with a slightly schlubby (but likable) middle-aged Denzel in the hero role. That said, it works as well as any other action movie, and the acting is mostly better, so I have no complaints about the movie on a formal level.

The film becomes problematic (if you’ll pardon the leaned-upon blogger nomenclature) when one considers what The Equalizer might imply to its target audience. Initially, its shady Russian bad guys evoke the Cold War and its concomitant anti-Russian propaganda films, until one remembers that the Cold War is, basically, back on. That’s when it becomes clear just what’s going on here: McCall is the reluctant-but-powerful American who’ll do “what he has to do” to keep the peace, a blatant stand-in for Obama. The guy at the top of the Russian mob is the amoral thug who must be stopped. He’s even fucking named Vladimir Pushkin (not kidding). This film, with its sympathies very much on the side of American vigilante justice, is blatant war propaganda. Its gender politics leave something to be desired, too (why does a man have to save the vulnerable prostitute?), but The Equalizer proves most questionable in what it suggests about foreign affairs.

I don’t think it’s hypocritical of me to be critical of these implications while at the same time acknowledging that The Equalizer is an extremely entertaining film, but that’s a matter of opinion. Either way, there are worse ways you could spend a Friday night. Just make sure you switch your brain back on when you’re done.

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