Although he neither dons a mask nor fires silver bullets, Denzel Washington does virtually everything else that The Lone Ranger would in the Columbia Pictures’ big-screen adaptation of the vintage television crime series “The Equalizer.” For the record, CBS-TV aired 88 episodes of “The Equalizer” between 1985 and 1989. Acclaimed British actor Edward Woodward of “Becket” fame toplined this hourlong dramatic series as Robert McCall, a Good Samaritan vigilante who strode the mean streets of New York City. As a former operative with an enigmatic government espionage agency, McCall applied his skills both as a sleuth and a shadow to help desperate people who could turn to nobody else in their hour of hardship. Bespectacled, sophisticated, and erudite, McCall relied on his brains more often than his brawn. Nevertheless, he could surprise his adversaries with swift, physical action when required. Best of all, McCall never charged his woebegone clients a cent for his services.
Now, a quarter of a century later, “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua and “Expendables 2” scenarist Robert Wenk have appropriated only the character’s name and the show’s basic premise. Nevertheless, “The Equalizer” (*** OUT OF ****) is a pretty exciting saga. Unlike Woodward’s McCall, who was a widower with a son, Washington’s McCall is a widower who works at a Home Depot sort of emporium. In adapting the series, Fuqua and Wenk have fashioned an above-average, suspenseful, but wholly outlandish crime thriller that takes McCall back to square one after he left ‘the Agency’ under mysterious circumstances, but before he established his altruistic private eye business. As much as I loved the television series, I think Fuqua and Wenk have done a splendid job of reshaping it to accommodate two-time Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington, who played reasonably similar characters in both “Man on Fire” and “Safe House.”
After a car bomb nearly claimed his life while working for an inscrutable government outfit, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington of “Unstoppable”) has retired to the relative obscurity of Boston, Massachusetts. Everybody knows him now as a jovial, hard-working, mega Home Mart store employee. McCall prefers to immerse himself in a good novel at a nearby diner that artist Edward Hopper could easily have immortalized on canvas. Indeed, the quiet and unobtrusive McCall lives a simple life without anybody to clutter it up, until he befriends a naïve, 16-year hooker, Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz of “Carrie”), who hangs out at the same diner when he reads. Teri is not a conventional hooker, but prostitute who works for the local Russian mafia. Eventually, she offends these brutal dastards that possess all the subtlety of grizzly bears, gets badly beaten up, and lands in the local hospital. McCall is swift to retaliate. He dispatches five tough guys as easily as if he were stomping cockroaches.
Typically, before he goes into action, our hero sets the stop watch and then checks it afterward. When he isn’t intervening on Terri’s behalf, McCall helps an obese Hispanic coworker, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis of “Noise Matters”), achieve his dream of becoming a security guard. Poor Ralphie eats all the wrong foods and lacks discipline until McCall coaches him and transforms the affable oaf. When Ralphie has to quit his Home Mart job to help out his mother (newcomer Luz Sanchez), who is being preyed on at her restaurant by corrupt Boston cops, McCall not only helps them clean up their store but also straightens out the dirty detectives who were extorting cash from her as well as other business owners.
Naturally, since Fuqua and Wenk want us to feel sympathetic toward McCall, they pit him against the most psychopathic mob enforcer on the planet. Teddy (Marton Csokas of “The Bourne Supremacy”) appears to be a fastidious, dapper, and inoffensive fellow who utters each syllable of each word with hopelessly precise clarity. When he arrives in Boston, the local corrupt cops treat him as if he were a sissy. It doesn’t take them long to learn that he is far from effeminate. Teddy behaves like an efficiency expert as he launches his investigation to see who had the audacity to kill five members of his mob. Boston detective Masters (David Harbour of “The Green Hornet”) escorts him to a rendezvous with the local Irish mob boss, Little John Looney (Shawn Fitzgibbon of “Mystic River”), who displays nothing but contempt for the Russians. By the time, Teddy has smashed Little John to a bloody pulp, Masters has had to gun down both of Looney’s heavily-armed henchmen. Teddy scrutinizes anybody who entered the bar where the five Russian gangsters died and kills at least one person who lies to him about the people involved in the incident. Eventually, he figures out by studying surveillance camera footage that Robert McCall is the most likely suspect. As ruthlessly murderous as he is, Teddy isn’t prepared to tangle with a man like McCall who is far more merciless.
Director Antoine Fuqua is no stranger to action thrillers. His credits include “The Replacement Killers,” “Bait,” “Shooter,” “Tears of the Sun,” “Training Day,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” He stages with style to spare each combat sequence, and he must have relished Guy Richie’s “Sherlock Holmes” movies because he imitates the way that Sherlock inventoried his adversaries when McCall appraises the Russian mobsters. Some of McCall’s weapons, includ-
ing the power drill and the nailgun, have been used before in “Lethal Weapon 2” and “The Driller Killer.” Rated R for strong bloody violence and language, including some sexual references, “The Equalizer” isn’t as gory as it could have been. Nevertheless, Fuqua delivers several memorable action scenes, and Washington is so charismatic you will stand up and cheer as he whittles down the villains. Marton Coskas qualifies as a truly creepy villain, too. Clocking in at 132 minutes, “The Equalizer” takes its time, leisurely building up to its bullet-riddled, Tarantino-style climax. By the time he has exacted vengeance on these homicidal fiends, McCall emerges as a larger-than-life power who could scare the Grim Reaper.