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The Equalizer

September 26, 2014
The Equalizer

Every summer, as the broadcast television seasons come to a close, I take the opportunity to burn through old series that I never got to watch in their original run. So when I heard that there was going to be an adaptation of The Equalizer coming to theaters this fall, I made sure that one was on my list.

I’m glad I did; I was aware of The Equalizer during its original television run in the ’80s, but I wasn’t old enough to watch it, and wouldn’t have gotten it if I did. Looking back, it was among the better-produced shows in its genre, and it featured guest starring roles for almost every rising actor you could care to name. Beyond the frequent “message” episodes, it managed to push boundaries with some early motions towards ongoing continuity in an hourlong TV drama. The movie is, well, a brutal action thriller featuring Denzel Washington.

It’s not really that it’s a bad movie. Antoine Fuqua directs the action well, just like he did with the initial assault sequence in Olympus Has Fallen. And Washington looks like the coolest guy in the room at pretty much all times, which he’s great at doing. But, I have to ask, what exactly makes this The Equalizer.

Yes, Expendables 2 screenwriter Richard Wenk has pulled in some of the plot points from the series. Washington plays Robert McCall, a former intelligence agent now trying to be a force for good in his community in part to atone for his former shady dealings. He drives off a protection racket in one sequence, and recovers a stolen heirloom ring from a thief in another. But while this McCall is an exactingly precise and preternaturally capable killing machine, Edward Woodward’s original version of the character could deal more damage out of sheer righteous indignation than he could with physical force. Samuel L. Jackson may be able to match Woodward for over-the-top operatic delivery, but that’s just not how Denzel do.

Woodward’s McCall, in fact, made a big deal of not resorting too violence until absolutely necessary; he was disgusted with his former life, and saw the skills and contacts he still had as a sometimes — and always regrettably — necessary evil. He works as much through espionage and psychological warfare as through confrontation, and he had a network of former associates to draw on for help with bugs, surveillance, and even computer hacking, presented far more accurately than Hollywood seems capable today.

Washington’s McCall, on the other hand, is always ready to throw down, even timing his performance. There is a turning point where he seeks permission from his former handler (Melissa Leo, who had a guest part in the series’ first season) to “be [his former self] again”, but that seems only to be the difference between brutal, gory murders and even more disturbing techniques. He employs one method of torture far worse than the waterboarding that turned stomachs in The Railway Man and Zero Dark Thirty, but since it’s Denzel we’re meant to cheer him on.

But fine, stylistic changes aside, the movie adaptation misses pretty much all the subtext of the television series. The Equalizer came out in the late ’80s, at the end of the Cold War, just after we as a society had became aware that our government was sometimes using the CIA to go into foreign countries and do some pretty shady things in our name. Robert McCall was a direct reaction to that new awareness; we wanted to reassure ourselves that even though we had used the global powers we’d amassed towards unsavory ends, that didn’t mean that we ourselves were evil. McCall was attempting to take his power and turn it towards the good, just like we wanted to believe America could.

And it’s not like that can’t translate to our own times. We know damn well that out government has been doing plenty in the shadows that we wouldn’t be very proud of if it were exposed. The histrionic response to Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning should suffice to prove that. But The Equalizer we see in theaters this weekend is not about subverting and abstaining from our darker impulses; it’s an adolescent fantasy of power and revenge that seeks to justify the abuse of power as long as there’s a good excuse to cover it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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