At the two-third mark of Denzel Washington’s latest,The Equalizer, a question troubled me all of a sudden: why am I even watching this film? My disappointment had some context — a) the film, up till that point, had barely shown anything original or interesting, b) worse, thanks to a scene that was playing in front of me, I knew exactly how the movie would end. Before talking about that scene, some background information on the film and its “hero” is necessary: McCall (Denzel Washington), a retired black ops officer, befriends a teenage girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), who’s been forced into a prostitution racket. When the girl is badly bruised by one of her clients, McCall vows to take revenge. He systematically kills the five people in charge of the prostitution racket, but he isn’t satisfied; he won’t rest till he’s obliterated the entire gang. (Because, obviously, why stop at five, when you can kill 25?) Now, the scene: McCall, having killed the girl’s pimp and his associates, is looking for someone named Teddy. He visits his fellow retired black ops officer to solicit information about the guy. His friend brings out the file, and informs McCall the identitiy of the guy and his boss, who is the head of a Russian mafia group. We all know what’s going to happen next: hell hath no fury like a movie star scorned.
Films like The Equalizer, for all their consistent and consummate vapidity, do prompt a certain kind of question: why do gifted actors take on mediocre roles in indifferent productions? The most obvious and pragmatic answer that comes to one’s mind is, an actor’s need for money, but what if the reason is something professional? Does he believe that his presence alone can enliven a wholly unoriginal film — is it, then, some sort of a sly exercise to check on his audience: whether they flock to theatres to see a film or to see him? A definite answer, obviously, is nowhere to be found but in the minds of these movie demigods, but while watching The Equalizer, this question kept coming back to me. Because it’s been proved beyond doubt that Denzel Washington can act. His last film, for instance, was Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (2012), a film about moral turpitude, serendipity, obstinacy, and the healing power of redemption, where Washington plays the role of an alcoholic pilot, coming to terms with his addiction, with much poise. His performance in The Equalizer, however, is a sharp contrast to his previous outing: here, he’s not supposed to do anything else, but vanquish the people who have wronged him — or the people he likes.
Even such a simplistic film could have been salvaged with a bit of mirth or subversion, but Washington isn’t interested in inventiveness of any sort. So what is he interested in this film, then? Unbeknowst to him, he wants to be Salman Khan. There’s hardly anyone in the film that can prevail over Washington’s McCall. He kills people with abandon and nonchalance, but never carries a weapon. He walks into a room full of armed opponents, mouths a few vague lines to threaten or negotiate with them, and when that doesn’t work, he stands frozen in his place, slowly scanning the room, noticing the small details about his opponents; in the process, he also sets a timer on his watch (presumably the amount of time he will take to kill these poor sods), and then mutters that time duration, which is invariably less than 30 seconds. Watching McCall destroy scores of opponents without even an iota of resistance gives you a sense that this guy is playing a video game with cheat mode enabled. Films — or their characters — don’t necessarily need to make sense all the time, but if your film is so bereft of common sense, why not have some fun in the process? I half-expected McCall to defend the film’s inanity by invoking Bhai’s Gospel: “Mujhe samajhne ki koshish mat karna, dil me aata hun, samajh me nahin (don’t try to figure me out because you can’t).” Without the self-aware chutzpah, this Being Washington enterprise never quite takes off.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian