The Equalizer seems to be attempting to make you understand that it isn’t just another action movie. Everything from its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time to its muted color palettes to its big IMAX presentation seem to be screaming that this is an IMPORTANT thriller. Well, it’s a thriller that’s sporadically successful, but also falls down in some massive ways.
The film is, in many ways, attempting to hearken back to the meaner, more nihilistic action movies of the late seventies and early eighties in my opinion. The pacing is slower at the beginning and the film seems to be taking place in perpetually overshadowed, rainy locations. The few scenes that take place in the daytime still feel underlit. And the non-stop grimness is the biggest thing it borrows from that earlier breed of meaner action movies. Washington’s performance is incredibly minimal; he watches men die in increasingly gruesome ways with an impassive, cold look in his eyes; the only problem is that if he doesn’t care, it’s not entirely clear why the audience should either. The film succeeds a good bit of the time if this kind of amoral, implacable violence is your kind of thing. But those meaner action movies of yesteryear were also leaner and the incredibly excessive running time here is just punishing. A good forty minutes needed to be (and could be) stripped right out of this film: ditch the entire hippy-dippy subplot with the fat security guard; excise Moretz’ final scene; remove whatever the hell that whole side-trip with Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo was supposed to be. The climactic fight in the Home Depot-esque store could stand to lose a decent five minutes; that’s how long even the action sequences in this movie are.
Ultimately though, it’s a real disappointment at how badly the film butchers what could have been a compelling character. Washington’s character isn’t likeable really and he seems somewhat compelling at first, as he seems to be a highly moral, nearly puritanical really, figure and people with genuine moral codes are always more interesting than cardboard cutouts. But then the film brings in some stuff about his wife and his past and by the end of it, the character has been butchered beyond all recognition. He literally says at one point that this situation is making him break a promise he made his wife; he says that he’s making an exception “this time.” And then next thing you know, he’s started some sort of Craigslist ad where he sells ultra-violent justice. Who is this guy actually? Well, the filmmakers have no idea really; he’s just whatever he needs to be at the moment in the scene.
It’s too bad really because when the movie works, it’s darn good. The biggest pleasure of the film is Marton Czokas as a vicious, psychotic mob enforcer. It’s a good old fashioned villain of the kind we rarely get anymore, where we spend significant periods of time just watching him do his thing and learning to absolutely loathe him. The couple of times that he and Washington share dialogue are easily the best bits in the film. The opening scenes setting up Chloe Grace Moretz and her character are well done; they seem to come from a different kind of movie, a darker, subtler neo-noir or something. Moretz is pretty minimal and nearly unrecognizable – it may be her finest work to date actually, which makes the decision to have her return for an unnecessary, cheesy scene at the end a disappointment to me. The action is occasionally hard-hitting and lo-fi. An ambush in an all-night café was maybe my favorite, despite how short it is.
On the whole, it certainly doesn’t transcend its genre, though Czokas comes close a couple of times, but as a genre piece, it’s basically good, if very flawed. I give it a conditional recommendation. 3 stars.
tl;dr – overlength and poor characterization cripple this brutal, vicious action film, but good performances and solid direction keep the film on a mostly solid path. 3 stars.