‘There’s the makings of a great modern-day exploitation thriller’ in The Equalizer, says MacDara Conroy

Only a week after Liam Neeson’s latest ‘Liam Neeson kicks ass’ vehicle, we get The Equalizer: an extremely loose adaptation of the ’80s Edward Woodward TV series with the Best Opening Credits Ever, and another instance of the similarly themed ‘Denzel Washington kicks ass’ genre. Which has actually been going a lot longer than the Ballymena bruiser’s, if you trace it back to Training Day (he was old enough then), but you don’t really think about it because he’s been smart enough to switch up those wizened hard-man roles with more traditionally heroic or dramatic fare.

That sets him apart from Neeson, who’s definitely found his niche as the stone-cold avenger against the odds, though A Walk Among the Tombstones is among the lesser of such efforts. Forgetting the key premise – keep the plot as threadbare as possible so we can cut straight to the violence – writer/director Scott Frank teases a Dirty Harry rip but over-eggs his pudding with heavy-handed symbolism and damaged-soul clichés, sub-par student film performances (I hesitate to watch The Guest because its lead Dan Stevens is so cringeworthy here) and a homophobic subtext that belongs in a different era. It’s like a parody played so straight the joke is lost. This from the same Scott Frank who wrote or co-wrote such good stuff as Out Of Sight, Get Shorty and The Wolverine? Are we sure he hasn’t had a stroke?

The Equalizer does the minimalism part better, at least at the start. The opening montage tells us everything we need to know – but not what we want to know – about Washington’s Robert McCall. He leads a spartan existence, his barely furnished home, his shirt-slacks-anorak uniform, his firm daily routine and geometric habits giving no indication of any identity beyond a man who wants order and discipline in his life. It’s the context around him, though, that emphasises the mystery: Why does he constantly time himself with his stopwatch? Why does he spend his nights in a diner booth? Those questions are pregnant with anticipation for the inevitably explosive reveal. But director Antoine Fuqua makes us wait too long for it.

There’s the makings of a great modern-day exploitation thriller in The Equalizer, that’s for sure. Fuqua proved with the preposterously overblown spectacle of White House invasion fantasy Olympus Has Fallen that he has a flair for the extravagant when it comes to on-screen violence. Not since the days of John Woo’s Asian output have we seen such brutality meted with a steely, Zen-like calm. And the most brutal scenes here nearly outdo Fuqua’s previous efforts. There is a lot of blood and brain matter splatter. It’s not for the squeamish.

But before it really gets going, The Equalizer makes us sit through a series of superfluous relationship-establishing scenes because god forbid we don’t have an emotional connection with McCall or any of the distressed damsels sucked into his orbit. So we get the jolly fat-man work colleague with low self esteem (Johnny Skourtis) who only needs a little brotherly love and encouragement – of the kind that will come in quite handy towards the end, of course. And at the centre of it we get a reimagining of the final-act salvation angle from Taxi Driver, as McCall’s casual acquaintance with an underaged hooker (Chloë Grace Moretz) turns into a thirst for vengeance when she’s hospitalised by her pimp, who just happens to be a link in the chain of a hardcore Russian crime syndicate.

McCall’s spectacularly gruesome dispatching of the pimp and his crew means a dangerous wolf (Marton Csokas) is set on his trail, but Fuqua plays it more like a cat-and-mouse game, meandering through sundry subplots that only underline the unsatisfactory superhuman aspects of his death-dealing abilities before we can get to the next ass-kicking session. Again, Fuqua does those very well, and Washington is the right man for the job; director and star in tune, the poeticism of the end game recalls Takeshi Kitano at his best, even with the snowballing ridiculousness of the preceding destruction (mark off ‘explosion ignoring’ on your action movie bingo card). If only the film as a whole were as stripped back as McCall’s ascetic vigilante figure, and not so desperate to appeal to as broad an audience as possible in spite of its stone-cold killer core.

The Equalizer opens nationwide on Friday September 26th

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