the-equalizer-denzelDenzel Washington has finally played a superhero. Oh, this film may never out-loud refer to him as “the Equalizer,” but there’s a moment towards the end where a desperate villain asks him who he is, and you fully expect to hear him reply, “I’m the Equalizer,” as a statement that can only be punctuated with a brutal coup de grace. While the coup de grace happens, the line does not, sadly, because like all modern superhero movies, the hero’s moniker must avoid being said as much as possible (similarly, Washington has no super suit, not that he needs one, since he can make a store uniform look boss). But we the viewers know better. Oh yes we do.

Washington is McCall, an unassuming employee of a Home Depot imitator home improvement chain. The first twenty minutes or so of The Equalizer are dedicated to establishing his rigid, meticulous routine. He wakes up early, does his work with no complaints, goes home, fails to fall asleep, then goes to his favorite diner, where he has a cup of tea and chats up fellow regular Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). Day in and day out, he does the same thing… until Teri fails to show up for a few days. McCall learns that the girl, who works as a prostitute, has been brutally beaten. This is where it turns out that McCall’s phlegmatic veneer masks a much more dangerous set of skills. He goes into the night to exact vengeance, and boy does he ever, but that calls the full wrath of the Russian mob down upon him, in the form of well-dressed psychopath Teddy (Marton Csokas). McCall is now caught up in an ever-escalating war. Teddy keeps drawing in new resources, while he is all alone… but that’s more than enough.

The Equalizer is not a movie. It is a delivery system for Denzel Washington to effortlessly, stylishly, and brutally murder a variety of bad men in a greater variety of means and methods. I can’t remember the last time a mainstream action film was this violent. A shot glass is put through an eye, a corkscrew graphically travels up a man’s chin and out of his mouth, a poor bastard is strangled with a barb wire noose, an even poorer bastard is repeatedly shot with a nail gun, and much more bodily dismay is visited upon many people. It’s pitched for cheers from the audience, which mine was more than willing to provide. This is a crowd-pleaser in the vein of those cheesy crime novel series aimed at baby boomers. In that respect, it’s perfectly appropriate that this is an adaptation of a television series from the ’80s. This feels like a brother to 2012’s Jack Reacher, although it doesn’t bother with a mystery plot — this is no chiller, all killer.

A lot of it is of course reprehensible. McCall, in an artlessly blatant moment of symbolism, describes the plot of Don Quixote as being about “a knight in a time where there are no more knights,” which is obviously how we’re supposed to see him. Putting aside that this sort of misses the real point of Don Quixote, this is a moral universe that is very much of the kind where knights would not be out of  place. The good people are good, and the bad people are bad. Vigilantism is to be lauded. And coming with this are much worse regressive storytelling tropes, like the numerous women either put in peril or murdered for cheap effect. It’s distasteful, but what you have to roll with if you want to enjoy the film. It certainly isn’t a bad thing if you can’t.

What really drags The Equalizer down is its awful pacing. It feels twice as long as its two-hour run time. McCall keeps diverting his attention to help out other acquaintances of his who are in need, and these subplots deflate a lot of the tension. The fact that he can do all this while also fighting a war with the Russian mob does more to make him seem boringly invincible than any of the fight scenes, in which he is all but literally invincible. But when The Equalizer gets down to the dirty business of letting Denzel Washington be his coolly assured, badass self, it is a thrill.