The virtues of The Equalizer (2014; dir. Antoine Fuqua) lie in the craft with which it is made, the acting by Denzel Washington, and the deft way in which the film takes a well worn and formulaic plot and makes it fresh. It’s entertaining throughout, it doesn’t drag, it’s fast-paced and engaging. It’s also violent. The main character Robert McCall is a former CIA operative skilled in killing. He fakes his own demise after his wife’s death and goes to work at a store similar to Home Depot. When the plight of a young prostitute who hangs out at the same diner where he reads late into the night attracts his moral outrage, he comes out of retirement and takes action. You can predict the sequence of events from that point forward, but the artful way in which the film works commands your attention. Washington is effective as a pleasant, congenial, low-key man whose placid exterior gives no hint of his past and his capabilities. He spends his idle hours reading great books, a sign that he is a feeling and deep-thinking soul.
McCall’s victims in this film are evildoers—corrupt cops and the Russian mob--with virtually no redeeming value. They’re as evil as he is good. They’re also exploiting vulnerable and decent people. We’re supposed to accept that they deserve justice, and we do. In this way the film justifies its own violence, but there is no escaping the fact of the violence. McCall kills with precise and always effective skill, like a robot. Before he kills, he gives his victims the opportunity to make the right choice. He then pauses to watch his victims die, sometimes counting down the seconds until they lose consciousness. He’s the hero of this film, the avenger of the weak, and as such he commands our admiration and attention. But the fact that this film seduces us into liking someone capable of such viciousness—even when in the cause of moral righteousness—is disturbing. Yet I’d watch this film again.
The diner where Washington reads his books must have been modeled, loosely, on the Edward Hopper painting “Night Hawks at the Diner.”