PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Everything About 'The Equalizer' Is Wrong

As much as Robert (Denzel Washington) delivers action and melodramatic conventions, he also hints at another possibility entirely.

The Equalizer

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chloe Moretz, Melissa Leo, Haley Bennett, Marton Csokas
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-09-26 (General release)
UK date: 2014-09-26 (General release)

"Did he get the fish yet?" Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) sits at the counter in a Boston diner, late at night. She wears a cheap wig, lots of makeup, and a short skirt, which is to say, she's a prostitute. As she digs into her slice of dessert, Teri glances over at a table by the window, where she sees a regular, Robert (Denzel Washington): as always, he sits silently, his silverware and plate arranged just so, a book in hand. This night, it's The Old Man and the Sea.

Robert's scrupulous ritual and kindness toward Teri are revealed early in The Equalizer, just a couple of minutes after you've watched him not sleeping in his spartan apartment, washing a single dish, and riding the bus to work, a Home Depot-style warehouse where he's a prudent mentor for younger employees. And yes, the Hemingway reference looms large. "He saw himself in the fish," explains Robert, a plot point that kicks into gear when Teri arrives at the diner one night with a black eye.

You and Robert both know what happened, and can imagine what will happen, when she reveals that she fought back. This in a conversation that breaks Robert's routine: Teri sits across from him at his table, her Russian accent and tale of woe making clear that she has no options, despite Robert's earnest encouragement, offered in the form of his assessment of his book: "Old man's gotta be the old man, fish gotta be the fish. You gotta be who you are in this world."

Err, okay. Teri, who wants to be a singer, nods. Next night, Robert learns (via the extraordinarily well informed diner owner) that she's in a local hospital, nearly dead after a beating by her pimp (David Meunier). Robert later explains his decision to save her in the cryptic moral code that structures so many avengers' stories: "One day, someone does something unforgiveable to someone else." What the pimp does to Teri serves as Robert's tipping point, sending him into a tizzy of profoundly precise brutality, transformed, apparently, into what he's gotta be, which is to say, The Equalizer.

Sort of inspired by the 1985-89 CBS series, Antoine Fuqua's movie is prone to make its metaphors very literal, if also brilliantly choreographed. More than once, Robert enters a space filled with bad men, takes their measure in a moment that begins with a close-up of his pupil, which in turn reflects the about-to-be-dead-guys, inevitably bearded or ponytailed.

From here he imagines -- and you see -- the violence he plans to do, and then you see it again, when he does it. The lenses are wide, the colors are red and brown, the instruments of penetration sharp and shiny. The décor, too, tends to warrant horrific devastation: the pimp's office is full of skulls, an alley where Robert confronts bad cops is deeply shadowed and strewn with trash and, a meat-packing plant doubles as a drug-prep facility, so as to feature half-cows hanging from hooks.

Such surroundings are slightly, but only slightly, more crass than Teddy (Marton Csokas), the Russian sent to finish Robert after Robert has finished with assorted other Russians. Teddy, who's been in the game for a while, intuits that Robert's not just a home improvement store manager, and so sets a team of researchers to sort him out.

When they come up with all kinds of dead ends and no identifying documents anywhere, Teddy is furious and also feels confirmed: "Everything about him is wrong!" You and Teddy can guess just what that means, and indeed, Robert's grim history includes an apparently legendary stint with "The Agency."

Robert amplifies the legendary aspect by oblique references to some top secret cases and personal losses (you get one guess who's been lost). No matter how oblique his stories may be, you know exactly what a former colleague (Melissa Leo) means when she says that Robert's current, self-appointed mission is making clear, again, "who you've always been."

Or maybe you don't know. Maybe she means he's a gifted assassin. Perhaps she refers to his generous soul, always wanting to help the underdog, that is, the Russian teenage prostitute or the Latino family whose tamale shop is threatened by cops on the take, or the store clerk whose wedding ring is stolen by a walk-in robber.

That Robert takes on each of these injustices as his own cause, and takes them to extremely violent ends, is to be expected in an aspiring movie franchise called The Equalizer. It's less than thrilling, however that his executions are rendered in such overwhelmingly familiar terms.

He and the villains do battle on rainy streets (and in rainy interiors, when the fire alarm goes off in the Home Mart), face off in noisy bone-breaking, fast-cut fights, use surveillance tech that's both super-advanced and super-misleading, and walk away from explosions in slow motion, from multiple angles, for what seems like ever. Even when you're invited to play your own anticipation game when the final showdown begins in the Home Mart, as to which tool will show up when, that goes on for ten minutes too long.

Amid all the clichés, Robert's essential enigma serves as small, welcome respite. As much as he delivers action and melodramatic conventions, he also hints at another possibility entirely.

He's asked by his young coworkers what he did before working at Home Mart, because even they can see that he must have done something else, something very different. He smiles, does a few steps and rolls his arms as he asserts, "I was a Pip." They're dumbfounded, and aren't even sure what this can mean, until they use a cellphone to find a Gladys Knight TouTube clip. And oh my god, there's a Pip who looks, in his grainy, slender, full-head-of-hair way, like he might be Robert, or Denzel, or anyone who ever wanted to be a Pip.

It's a little bit of metaphor that doesn't turn literal. And for that you're grateful.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.