When The Equalizer arrived on television in the 1980s, it was notable for two things: being the first Reagan-era show to lionize vigilantism and presenting an "advocate" who broke the Curtis Sliwa-inspired stereotypes. Edward Woodward's Robert McCall could use violence and lethal force when necessary but he was also cultured, older, and British. The Equalizer never felt like every other crime show on network television and the differences allowed it to survive for four seasons. 25 years later, The Equalizer is regarded with a certain amount of nostalgia-fueled fondness by older viewers but this isn't a series crying out for a big-screen resurrection. For that reason, director Anton Fuqua has jettisoned almost everything related to the TV series except the title, the main character's name, and the bare-bones premise. Even the theme song is gone. For all intents and purposes, The Equalizer isn't so much a reboot as it is an entirely new entity.
Fuqua, working from a screenplay by Richard Wenk, elects to develop The Equalizer as a slow-burn thriller rather than a fast-paced one. There are action scenes - some of which are bloody and brutal - but, partially keeping mind the age of star Denzel Washington (59), they are brief and use fast cutting to obscure some of the specifics. For the most part, The Equalizer is a character study about a man haunted by his past, seeking a path to redemption. We never learn the specifics about what led Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) to resign from the CIA but we know it led to his faking his own death and deciding to live an anonymous life as a shelf stocker at Home Depot. Fuqua infuses The Equalizer with a low-key energy and is in no hurry to rush into things. The camera lingers over Boston in the evening, capturing some glorious sunset shots. This moody setup is critical to getting the viewer in the right place so that when the violence starts, it's shocking. McCall isn't a hero who kills as a last resort; he kills because that's the only way to remove a threat.
The villains in The Equalizer are from the school of uber-badassery. There are three of them, each representing a different level of threat as McCall works his way up the chain of power of a Russian mob cell operating on America's East Coast. The first, pimp Slavi (David Meunier), is a frothing-at-the-mouth psychopath. The second, Teddy (Marton Csokas), is as cold and venomous as a coiled snake. The third, big boss Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich), stays in the shadows and moves his operatives like a puppet master. The Equalizer does a good job illustrating McCall's confrontations with the first two but Pushkin's involvement is resolved too quickly and conveniently to be satisfying.
McCall is shocked out of his life of quiet contemplation when Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), an underage prostitute he knows from their (platonic) encounters at a coffee shop, is brutally beaten by Slavi for hitting an abusive client. McCall offers Slavi $9800 to buy Teri's freedom. When the offer is rebuffed, the ex CIA agent uses decisive means to give Teri back her life. It turns out that Slavi isn't just a pimp and drug dealer, however - he's a key cog in Pushkin's multi-million dollar operation. The mob boss dispatches Teddy to Boston where, with the help of corrupt cop Masters (David Harbour), he hunts McCall while, in turn, McCall hunts him. Meanwhile, "The Equalizer" personality begins to emerge as McCall starts helping people with "little" problems like thieves who steal valuable personal belongings and police who demand protection payments.
Echoing the performance he gave in 2004's Man on Fire, Washington shows that he can bring a thoughtful moodiness to a hard-edged character. This is the actor's second teaming with Fuqua and it's clear they have a rapport. Although McCall is less combustible than the character Washington played in Training Day (for which he won an Oscar), he is no less decisive. Fuqua doesn't believe in protagonists who dither no matter how dirty their white hats may be and Washington is capable of delivering a performance that matches this desire. McCall is a heroic figure but he exists in a gray zone. And, while The Equalizer exhibits no powers that would be deemed superhuman, he's clever and resourceful, at times seeming like a McGyver of Mahem.
Although composer Harry Gregson-Williams claims not to remember Stewart Copeland's TV show theme, there are echoes of it throughout the score. The music and camerawork together create a fascinating collage of Boston: incredible beauty hiding a seamy, dangerous underworld. Fuqua orchestrates The Equalizer so suspense builds incrementally, with Gregson-Williams' music amplifying the tension, until it is released in an action sequence. As the movie closes in on its ending, it gives into the generic expectations of the genre and the perfunctory epilogue is rushed. On the whole, however, The Equalizer is likely to please anyone willing to accept a new interpretation of the basic storyline rather than a traditional remake.