The first fifth or so of The Equalizer is an exhaustive introduction to a mysterious protagonist. Bob (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged widower who works at a Boston big box building supply store. Though he volunteers to coach a co-worker through a weight-loss regimen, Bob has no close friends. No one knows much about him or his past, though Bob claims to have once been one of Gladys Knight’s Pips. Bob seems like a square, lives like a monk, and, while his public persona seems laid back, he takes an almost autistic approach to discipline, timing everything he does with a stopwatch, scrubbing his sneakers daily, and carefully wrapping his own teabag in a pristine napkin before going to the local diner where he spends his sleepless nights reading Hemingway, Cervantes and Ellison or exchanging friendly banter with a young sex worker (Chloë Grace Moretz) who, one quickly surmises, is in a lot of trouble. It’s trouble that animates the hidden Bob, the Bob we came to see, the Bob who takes out a quintet of very scary Russian heavies in half a minute with a corkscrew and a paperweight and whatever else is at hand.
Written by Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Expendables 2), The Equalizer, inspired by the eponymous 1980s television series about a former CIA operative, reunites Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua knows we came to see Bob kick ass but wants us to wait for it, approaching The Equalizer as equal parts character study and exploitive vigilante actioner. My problem with this approach is that there’s only so much character to study and the action sequences are even more belaboured than the quiet ones. Fuqua chooses, for example, to gives us an awkward prelude to Bob’s first act of violence that’s a bit like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Googlemap street scan in Premium Rush, shooting the camera into Washington’s eyeball before showing his analysis of his adversaries, the room and its contents. Fuqua shoots actions from four angles when one would suffice. He lingers over things when swiftness seems called for.
It needn’t be thus. One elegantly edited sequence elides an act of violence altogether, moving from a scene in which Bob witnesses a robbery and memorizes the perpetrator’s licence plate, to a scene in which he calmly borrows a sledgehammer from the store’s supply, to one in which a cashier discovers that one of the stolen items has inexplicably reappeared to one in which Bob calmly cleans and replaces the sledgehammer to its original place. This sequence is a fine example of narrative economy very much in keeping with the central character’s sensibility. It also drew great laughs from the audience with whom I watched the film. We understood exactly what transpired and took perverse satisfaction in the compact way it was implied. This sequence is, unfortunately, an exception in The Equalizer, a 132-minute film that ends four times but could have been a sleek, say, 93 minutes and ended at its peak of inevitable vengeance.
What irony. Washington is well cast as Bob, and Bob, though his murderous, pre-emptive ethics are exceedingly dubious, appeals to us because he’s obsessed with making everything clean, mean, efficient, no bullshit. I would much rather have seen his cut of the movie.