Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: The Equalizer

Let me start off by saying that I've never seen the show that The Equalizer is based on. I'm completely ignorant about it. So I can't speak for how well this movie does as an adaptation.

Basically, what I can speak for, is my experience in the theater watching the movie. And to tell the truth? I had nearly as much fun watching this as I did watching Guardians, which I didn't expect to say this year, let alone so soon.

Note that it's a very different kind of entertainment. The Equalizer is rated R, and the action scenes seem determined to earn that rating. But I was grinning like an idiot for the entire last third of the movie, and I walked out at the credits with that dumb grin still on my face.

When I first saw trailers for The Equalizer, I thought what most people probably think: Ok, a typical Denzel-led Action Thriller. But that's all right. I like typical Denzel Action Thrillers. So I'd probably enjoy this.

Then, a day or two before going, I learned that the director, Antoine Fuqua, last worked with Denzel on Training Day, the Ethan Hawke Suspense Drama about the new cop who's shown the ins and outs by the corrupt veteran. Hearing that Fuqua and Denzel reunited for this project got me a little excited. I was prepared for this to be a good movie, a prime example of what a popcorn flick should be.

I still wasn't prepared for how awesome this movie is. It's harsh, brutal, and no-nonsense. The plot is solid at its worst points, and managed to pleasantly surprise me more than once. It avoids typical cliche, for the most part.

I've never seen Denzel give a less than awesome performance, but even so, this is one of his better ones. The role has enough meat on its bones for him to perform. One might expect a typical "retired bad*** gets pulled back into violence" role. What is delivered is a deep, layered, dynamic character that outshines most characters of the type. Fuqua, in an interview on AMC Movie Talk, says that we don't truly meet McCall (Denzel's character) until we see that first fight scene (the one from the trailers). And it's true, in a way. There is a dichotomy between who McCall is at the start of the film, and who he once was. Denzel makes you believe that this man has put away his past, and as it slowly resurfaces throughout the movie, his performance evolves to reflect McCall awakening.

We don't get to see that awakening for a good time, however. This is a slow-burning movie that takes its time establishing the characters and making you care, before the action commences. I applaud the decision to invest more than half an hour into establishing the characters. Unlike many action movies, the characters feel like people, and not just a checklist of necessary pieces in a script.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays a teenage prostitute who's trying to escape the life. She befriends McCall, but when she is brutally beaten and left in a hospital, it is the catalyst for McCall's ultimate return to violence.  In my opinion, Moretz has had a career arc similar in a way to Kirsten Dunst. She had a celebrated performance in her childhood (Hit Girl, to Dunst's Claudia), and seemed to coast on the spotlight that provided. In several other movies Moretz has been in, I have found her to be nothing special for the most part, giving acceptable if slightly lazy performances. But there's nothing lazy about her performance in this movie. Battered and broken by the world, jittery from a possible addiction, clinging to that one last strand of hope, her performance is by and large inspired. And while her character as a whole could be a cliche, it's executed with skill and care, and given the individuality needed to transcend the role.

Marton Csokas has been in a dozen pieces I've seen, but I didn't realize it until I looked at his IMDB. He's a wonderful character actor. He relishes his role as "Teddy", the Russian mob man and the main villain in The Equalizer. The writing for his character may be the major weak point in the movie; for the first two thirds, he's simply a typical, sadistic sociopath of a villain, who commits violent acts "For the Evulz" (more on that here: It's only in the last third that we really get a sense for who this character is, and by then, it's almost too late. Csokas, however, manages to sell this character to the viewer in a way that many couldn't.

The other problem that I had in the film was the inconsistent shooting. Most of the camera work was very good. It's obvious from the opening scene of the movie that the cinematographer knows how to frame a shot. But there were a few bits that seemed artsy for the sake of being artsy. For instance, one shot flips over Csokas to show off all of his character's tattoos (tattoos are a status symbol in the Russian mob, I've heard, so maybe someone who knows more about that would get useful information out of the shot). But it ends upside down, and fades to a rightside-up shot of the city. I don't have a problem with the director experimenting with style. But this shot was so weird and so out of nowhere that it pulled me out of the movie a little.

The shooting in action scenes is also inconsistent. Some of the shots are wonderful, making masterpieces of the blood and brutality put on display (I told you, this movie earns its R). My brother and I especially liked a slow-mo view of different elements in the room, showing the character assessing danger and forming a plan in a way reminiscent of Peter Parker's Spider-Sense. But then others use shaky-cam, or cut away far too quickly, so that it's hard to get a feel of what's actually happening. There aren't many of these, thankfully, but one is too many, in my opinion.

The action scenes provide possibly the second greatest strength in the movie--the sound effects. There wasn't one fight scene that didn't have a sound that made me flinch and wince. Whether its a man getting his head slammed into a glass table or a sharp object skewering, the sounds are gruesome, visceral, powerful, and effective. They add another layer to the movie. This goes all the way down to something as simple as raindrops or footsteps. Captured beautifully.

The writing is very good, and managed to surprise me by misleading and outsmarting me. The characters are well-established and consistent, the dialogue at once feels both realistic and streamlined, the plot is clear and well-thought-out, and it all leads to a fantastic ending that left me grinning like a madman.

Trying to compare The Equalizer to the other movies I've watched lately is like comparing apples to a blood-splattered nailgun. Is this better than Guardians? No, probably not. Is it as good? Possibly.

I think it's more accurate to compare this movie to the original Taken. Both are smart, modern Action Thrillers with real darkness and awesome heroes. But, while Taken maintains the frantic pace you expect of a thriller much more than The Equalizer does, I think that The Equalizer may be the better film, because it makes the viewer care about the characters.

The Equalizer gets an 8.5 out of 10. A few stylistic choices (and one under-developed villain) hold it back from being a 9. If you're up for a Thriller with surprising heart (and surprising gore), The Equalizer will leave you happy.


SPOILERS/random observations

My brother said that McCall is a combination of PsycheMonk, and Batman. I just feel like he's a slightly less psychotic version of The Punisher.

I'm really, really glad that they didn't bring Chloe Grace Moretz character back in order to either kill her or kidnap her to up the stakes. I much preferred that they took his fellow employees hostage. Very smart writing, and very satisfying for a conclusion.

The mob eforcer, "Teddy", kills a prostitute, one of Moretz's character's only friends, and the only person who could positively identify McCall as being involved. He knows all of this when he kills her. He also kills her in broad daylight, with open windows, an open door, where anyone looking in could see. It establishes him as a psychopath, but I think it goes a bit overboard.

The scene near the end at the restaurant, when McCall and Teddy meet openly? It gave me chills, it was so good.

In the ending, we get to see what my brother called Home Alone (to which I responded, Home Alone was only Home Alone because for some reason a 12 year old had read The Art of War); and that I called "Looking through the killer's eyes in a Slasher flick". McCall is an alpha predator, and he chews up and spits out the mobster enforcers sent after him.

My brother pointed out another issue with the movie: After the climax, McCall traces the men who had been hunting him back to the head of the mob family, invades the fortress that is the mobster head's residence, kills his guards, and then, after a brief discussion, kills the boss and walks out. We only see the tail end of that, which  was a bit unsatisfying. But there wasn't an easy alternative. The only other choices were to 1) Cut that out and deal with it in a sequel (leading to the problem in Taken 2, which is basically Taken all over again), or 2) Run the movie even longer than its already longer than usual 130 minutes. But I ultimately agreed that I would have happily sat through another 20 minutes to watch all the steps in between killing Csokas's character in the climax and taking down the mob head. Heck, I would have sat through another 20 minutes just to have another 20 minutes of movie!

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