Yes, this is a movie nominally inspired by the old ’80s TV show. And yes, it’s essentially a Liam Neeson vehicle instead starring Denzel Washington as a grumpy old samaritan/vigilante/knight errant who defends the weak and defeats the bad guys. It is, down to the R rating and inevitable shot of Washington striding in slo-mo away from an exploding orange fireball (but never looking back, because that is the law with exploding orange fireballs), exactly what you expect. There are no surprises, precisely as the intended audience desires. And for that reason, only the slow first 30 minutes hold any interest, because we’re not sure where Washington and director Antoine Fuqua—who helped him earn an Oscar for Training Day—are headed.
The initial joke is that punctilious old widower McCall lives in a tidy Boston apartment and goes to work each day—by bus, like Jack Reacher—to a big-box store called Home Mart. His colleagues love him, but he’s a polite, affable mystery. He reads a lot, though. And at the late-night diner where he befriends a teenage Russian hooker (Chloe Grace Moretz), he conspicuously mentions that his reading list includes The Old Man and the Sea and Don Quixote. This is the kind of movie where everyone’s motives are precisely spelled out, where the bad guys are naturally Russian mobsters—Marton Csokas playing their tattooed chief enforcer—who sneer when McCall enters their den wearing comfortable New Balance running shoes and dad jeans, intending to buy the hooker’s freedom.
Briefly there’s some tension to The Equalizer, some uncertainty: Is McCall, like Don Quixote, a deluded nutcase? Is his rescue plan some kind of Walter Mitty fantasy? I’m giving nothing away to say that it’s not—because, well, the TV commercials and the exploding orange fireball. After that first encounter, the movie runs entirely according to form. McCall reveals himself to be a kind of Jason Bourne with an AARP card. And, because he works in a hardware store, you know where the final showdown will take place. Excuse me, Mr. McCall, but in which aisle could I find a nail gun? Opens Fri., Sept. 26 at Sundance Cinemas and other theaters. Rated R. 128 minutes.