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