Before its regular-Joe hero gets bitten by a radioactive equation and becomes the Equalizer, who's sort of the Rain Man of puncturing Russian mobsters' windpipes with corkscrews, Antoine Fuqua's eye-gouging, brain-drilling, crowd-pleasing latest gives you a reel or two to remember what movies felt like back when they were about people. Denzel Washington's Bob McCall toodles about a Home Depot-like store, helping customers, decked out in New Balance shoes and jeans so last-century you'll be looking for pleats. McCall smiles a lot, coaches a coworker in healthy eating, and play-acts he was once one of Gladys Knight's Pips. He declaims a term paper's worth of thoughts about The Old Man and the Sea to his prostitute pal (Chloë Grace Moretz) at a greasy spoon. Surprise: The themes he IDs in Hemingway turn out to be the themes of the movie too. The Equalizer is so dead-set on not playing like some cheapjack TV adaptation that it actually includes a thesis statement.
Moretz's character tells him he has sad eyes, that he looks like he's lost something, but we know that already: Fuqua shows him reading alone, then contemplating the light through sheet-plastic curtains on a loading dock, the things thoughtful folks actually do but in Hollywood denote unmanly listlessness. Here's a man without a mission.
As luck would have it, just after he tells that prostitute he's now reading Cervantes, McCall gets some windmills to tilt at — and shoot and gut and let bleed out while delivering hard-ass monologues. Russian pimps rough up his sex-worker friend, so McCall one-man-armies them in a howlingly crazy scene that's mostly too fast to make sense of: He sets his stopwatch, mutters he'll take them down in 18 seconds, then dispatches each lickety-split. The shot from beneath the glass coffee table that one hood gets body-flopped onto was clear and surprising enough to ring my bell; the rest you just have to take the movie's word for.
The contrast between friendly McCall and this murdering savant isn't played for laughs, really, but it is wildly funny. A heartbeat after one bloody triumph, McCall is beaming and sunlit and surrounded by flowers in his big-box store's garden department. It's like the producers decided the reason Larry Crowne bombed was that Tom Hanks never killed every motherfucker in the room. Once the killing starts, Washington still works a few oddball tics — love the way he fumbles with the tchotchkes on a villain's desk — but all the promise of getting to know an interesting character is dashed. What we're left with is increasingly upsized action. The badass pageantry offers pleasures, but it's tough to shake the loss: What does it mean when corporations get to be people but movie stars can't?
The Equalizer is gloriously dumb, hilariously violent, even neurotically embarrassed. As Marton Csokas' chief Russian bad guy revenges himself against McCall by strangling a second prostitute, Fuqua frames one shot as the reflection in a mirror, as if this tense, quiet, despicable scene is about something: Reflections? Duality? Directorial fussiness? Later, Fuqua cuts from a close-up of a knife slicing a slab of meat to one of C-notes being shrink-wrapped into plastic bags, which is as succinct an indictment of modern Hollywood as I can imagine. If that's a mea culpa, it doesn't make up for sticking Washington with the old don't-look-back routine as Death Star-sized explosions unleash hell behind him. A better apology for the hackneyed stuff is the surprising stuff, the imaginative and bewildering stuff: McCall getting a crook to talk by cuffing him in a car and pumping the interior with its own exhaust; the drillings and hangings and other mad deaths during the long, climactic stealth battle inside a warehouse-sized hardware store; the way a corrupt cop (David Harbour) confirms the movie is set in Boston by shouting, just a minute after we've met him, "This is our town! You're a fucking guest!"
The Equalizer is generous with such memorable lunacy. It's also, for all its pretensions, egalitarian in its borrowings — full of Heat-style "He's watching us!" switcheroos, Home Alone-style jury-rigged traps, and Amazing Spider-Man-style plugs for Sony: The parent company's logo appears on electronics in (at least) nine shots. Most amusingly, the movie adopts some of the old Equalizer TV show's freelance equalizing: As the Russians come after him, McCall keeps finding other minor problems to solve — everyone he knows, it seems, has just been victimized by burglars or corrupt cops. His beatdown of the latter is the film's most invigorating, and it's proof of Washington's Everyman appeal; the mixed-race crowd at the screening I caught burst into applause at the sight of a black man stomping white cops.
Fuqua steadily parades his big moments, and the movie works as unhinged spectacle. As a thriller, it's less certain. Once he's revealed as an impossibly skilled killer, McCall never seems in danger for a moment. Contrast that to the caution Liam Neeson's Matt Scudder displays in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a film whose New York felt like it might disembowel him at any moment. McCall's Boston is more like a declawed cat he might one day have to put down. Outside the first battle and a cheat scene in the middle where the editing suggests McCall's in danger when he absolutely isn't, the movie's only tension comes from our wondering when — and in what horrible way — he'll kill the next guy. He spends much of the last 20 minutes in the dark, offing baddies with power tools. It's great if that's what you're into, but is this the best use our culture has for a talent like Denzel Washington?