Though it doesn’t immediately feel like one, “The Equalizer” is a Denzel Washington film by default. He’s by far the biggest star of note in the action thriller, with only his face on the poster. He’s in virtually every scene that does not feature Russian mobsters plotting to find and kill him. And, relatively rare for any movies these days, he spends many of those scenes in solitude, reading books, riding the bus home from work, applying home remedies to fresh bullet wounds, strolling calmly away from gargantuan explosions.
This is harder work for an action hero than it may appear, because the tendency when shooting and getting shot at is to overact. Washington, who will turn 60 this year, is one of the most talented actors of his generation, and in this turn as an average lunchpail sort of dude who can, for reasons undisclosed, kick every variety of ass known to science, he plays it quieter than your typical shoot-’em-up hero.
Quieter, in fact, than Washington himself tends to play his crime dramas. The obvious point of comparison is 2001’s “Training Day,” for which Washington finally won an Oscar for Best Actor. It, like “The Equalizer,” was aggressively gritty and directed by Antoine Fuqua. Yet there, Washington brought a menace borne from braggadocio and sheer volume. In “The Equalizer,” he’s the only subtle element of the film, and thank goodness he’s so chill, because the rest of this thing is about as retrained as your average train derailment.
It is also, unabashedly, a crowd-pleaser. Washington plays a widower named Robert McCall (fans of the ’80s TV series “The Equalizer” will recognize it) who lives a simple life in Boston, working at a home improvement megastore, helping his friends where needed. He shows compassion to a young prostitute in a diner (Chloe Grace Moretz, echoing Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”) and is moved to intervene when some harm befalls her.
Turns out the sleazebags who were pimping her are an arm of Russia’s most ruthless underworld kingpin. McCall’s response nearly sparks a gang war before the villainous fixer who arrives to set things in order (a delicious Martin Csokas, seething with savagery) gets a line on our hero and goes about trying to exterminate him, with spotty results.
“The Equalizer” lands on so many rote notes of this genre that it’s almost impossible to consider on its own merits. We have the reluctant, heavy-hearted hero with a shaded past. (We also have an endearing, everyman touch on the part of this hero, as he encourages a heavy understudy at the home center — Johnny Skourtis — to get in shape for a promotion.) We have crooked cops, and we have women, beautiful women, in clear peril.
Also, we have cold-blooded criminal elements swathed in tattoos and in possession of menacing foreign accents. In this case, we’ve figured out a way to make them Russian, another callback to the action-movie heyday of the ’80s, when the Cold War cast Soviets as foils to whichever vein-straining triggerman was wasting them in slow motion.
A few of the sequences in “The Equalizer” veer into that sort of stylized hyperviolence; McCall analyzing threats in a room recalls the numbers freezing time in “A Beautiful Mind.” Then he breaks faces, calmly and smoothly and, yes, a bit sadistically. (The variety of gruesome deaths delivered to bad guys in “The Equalizer” surpasses your average “Friday the 13th” installment, p.s.)
It would be a stretch to call this movie “good,” by your usual metrics — it’s gratifying enough, as a revenge flick. But it’s fair to say that without Washington its ludicrous overindulgence would sink it. This is, it turns out, is a Denzel Washington movie, or it’s not much movie at all.