For more than a dozen years now, Antoine Fuqua has been dining out on the success of his most acclaimed movie: Each new project comes touted as “from the director of Training Day,” perhaps because nothing Fuqua’s made since—not the Bruce Willis vehicle Tears Of The Sun, not the failed franchise launcher King Arthur, certainly not last year’s lousy Olympus Has Fallen—counts as an enticing proof of talent. In the case of his latest, The Equalizer, the career callback is a little more applicable. After all, the film does reunite its maker with his Oscar-winning Training Day star, Denzel Washington. Alas, the relative complexity both men brought to their previous collaboration is almost nowhere to be found in this jacked-up vigilante fantasy. It’s just more joyless junk, another title to bury at the bottom of Fuqua’s resume.
As in Training Day, Denzel plays a character whose motives and true nature are meant to be unclear at the onset, though even those who walk in completely blind should have no trouble seeing the lion hiding within the lamb. For a while, Robert (Washington) does nothing but sulk around Boston, burying his nose in classic books and exchanging pleasantries with a teenage prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he meets at a quaint diner. This opening passage is pure wheel-spinning, a protracted prelude to the carnage: While Robert’s co-workers may wonder aloud what this soft-spoken, sagely bachelor did before he got hired by The Home Depot, savvy moviegoers will wait impatiently for the other shoe to drop. And drop it eventually does, as Robert goes all Man On Fire on the stereotypical Eastern European scum pimping out Moretz’s character. So long, perfunctory quiet introspection. Welcome, belated sadistic retribution.
Excellent actor that he is, Washington pumps a little poignancy into those early scenes, before shifting into stoic, unflappable avenger mode once the bodies start hitting the floor. The role is just beneath him, and the movie, based on an ’80s television series, is worse—a kind of superhero origin story invested with half-assed gravitas. Though no one actually refers to him as The Equalizer on-screen, Robert quickly earns that silly moniker, adopting the pointless affectation of timing his bone-breaking rampages with a stopwatch. Blessed with the fighting skills of Batman, the magical perceptiveness of Sherlock Holmes, and the nonexistent mercy of The Punisher, this badass Samaritan is basically unstoppable—and so watching him dispatch the various thugs that threaten his friends or simply drift into his line of vision becomes boring quickly.
At best, The Equalizer offers a few stray laughs, as when Robert calmly complies with the stick-up man robbing his place of employment, only to then walk back and select a huge mallet from the tools department, which he’s seen cleaning and returning two scenes later. The comedy, however, is largely unintentional; Fuqua remains completely humorless in his approach to fragrant pulp, leaving one to wonder what fun the late Tony Scott might have had with this material. At the very least, that director would have injected a little crazed energy into the plot’s numbing barrage of violent comeuppances and twisted interrogation techniques. Fuqua, a journeyman of studio tripe, takes his greatest missteps in the finale, a Die Hard-in-miniature climax that demonstrates no sense of spatial or acoustic credibility. Maybe that won’t matter to audiences; they made a hit out of Olympus Has Fallen, and that didn’t boast Denzel’s considerable star-power. Regardless, something tells us that Fuqua’s next movie won’t come advertised as the latest “from the director of The Equalizer.”