It’s been said before, and it’ll no doubt be said again, but mainstream filmmaking exists within a strange ethical bubble. Simultaneously accused of being too morally conservative by the creative forces within, and yet at the same time immoral by the critics without, it’s often easy to get the impression that Hollywood is an alien realm of thought.
Modern action cinema, in particular, adheres to a bizarre moral code, in which acts of extreme violence are permissible—if not desirable—provided the victim has enacted enough of their own violence to be seen as deserving. The already-problematic ‘stand your ground’ approach of classic Eastwood films has gradually evolved into some twisted form of territorial warfare; leaving us in the strange climate in which Liam Neeson can launch a crusade against as many foreign persons as so takes him, provided his personal effects have been rattled enough.
The extremes of this violence are constantly evolving. Films which might have been dubbed ‘torture porn’ ten years ago are now on proud display amongst the thrillers on Netflix. 35 years ago, I Spit on Your Grave was situated firmly within the underground of public taste, now it’s ilk are showing on cinema screens across the world (often with Neeson in the lead role), each justifying their violent extremities under the clarification that ‘someone else started it’.
The mainstream’s most ardent critics have, for years, lamented the continued influence of these ‘Hollywood’ ethics; not necessarily as a result of any moral outrage, but for their glaring hypocrisies. The divide between sex and violence in film, in particular, is a long-running target: the fact that you can freely display any number of objects entering a person’s body, but only provided they don’t take pleasure from the act. It’s a paradoxical and often nonsensical means of operation, and one that often steps on the feet of good filmmaking.
Released to a lukewarm reception last year, The Equalizer is a textbook victim of mainstream cinema’s confusing standards. Part ultra-violent action flick and part calculated thriller, it’s a promising piece of pulp unfortunately dragged down by its awkward attempts to prove itself wholesome.
Following the exploits of an ex-CIA agent turned vigilante, the film is a loosely plotted traipse from one action setpiece to another, intercut with some ‘gritty’ espionage work reminiscent of a modern Bond or Bourne. Denzel Washington, in the lead role, belongs to the Guantanamo school of agency work: during the course of the film he kills on a whim, saving his mercy talks for men in suits, and only rarely stopping to hear out their pleas.
Tonally, The Equalizer is situated within an awkward nether. Denzel lends his characteristic smirk to his role, sticking close to the same shtick he’s been playing since Man on Fire, however this is counteracted by a lingering drama, one that attempts to humanize his character, and situate him within a Hollywood ‘right’: often to a troubling degree. Far from the happy-go-lucky indifference of a film like The Raid, in which Gareth Edwards and his audience are unabashedly keen to revel in acts of wanton destruction, The Equalizer is hindered by the persistent shoehorning of sentimentality, trying too hard to justify its central acts of violence to a (largely theoretical) wider audience.
From a chance encounter with a down-and-out prostitute to his self-administered absolution in the presence of old colleagues, the film is insistent on establishing Denzel’s character as a nice guy, a characteristic that’s ignobly shelved the moment he first kills a man by stabbing him repeatedly with a corkscrew. The sort of violent spectacle that this film thrives on doesn’t lend itself to humanization: it is, through the ‘nice guy’ lens, largely irredeemable. As a result, both sides of the film: the gritty action and the sombre drama, end up at odds with each other. There’s a good reason why this sort of violence is usually reserved for the horror aisle, or the depersonalised protagonists of violent martial arts flicks: it doesn’t slot easily within a ‘nice guy’ ethical framework.
As Denzel’s methods of dispatching his enemies become increasingly sadistic, the film has to devote increasingly large swathes of time to giving its villain—a vengeful Russian mobster—space to prove himself even more violent. This results in an unintentional comedy of escalation in which our antagonist finds increasingly debauched ways to prove himself the ‘real’ evil of the story, if just to abide by Hollywood’s unstable moral guidelines.
Bad guys are seen extorting and murdering nice people, who, in turn, are given their own bulk of exposition if just to prove how undeserving they are as victims. The film’s entire middle act seems to be constituted of this kind of juvenile push-and-pull, with no real movement in the core action. There’s a lot of fluff that could easily be cut out.
‘Fluff’ is probably the most accurate way to describe The Equalizer. In the aftermath of the first big fight scene, our antagonist—the Russian mobster—revisits the scene of our protagonist’s crime and, through what we can only intuit to be a preternatural grasp of detective-work, relives key moments from the fight. It’s an interesting introduction to the character’s smarts, however, it’s one that wears thin once you realise that the scene isn’t going to skip time or fade to black, but instead dutifully follow his gaze as he retraces every death, in a largely silent sequence that takes longer than the fight itself, and amounts to little but a clip-show of events that happened only five minutes earlier.
As much as I would hate to get caught up criticizing the plot-driven moments of a film that ostensibly doesn’t have one (you might as well ask me to shoot the barrel containing the fish), one of The Equalizer’s more general sins is that it doesn’t respect the viewer’s time. By awkwardly combining the almost-comedic viscera of a film like The Raid with the sombre humanity of a Michael Mann thriller, it repeatedly trips over itself trying to justify its violence, running up an undeservedly long run-time. The Equalizer is a 40-minute action compilation, unmercifully stretched to a feature length.
To go back to The Raid, it’s worth considering the strengths of that film’s lead, Iko Uwais. Iko, a trained fighter, manages to make his fight scenes work in stark lighting, and often with wide-angles, with a bare minimum of editing. He lets impressive choreography and circumstances speak for themselves, with little interference from the script and direction.
Denzel Washington, on the other hand, pulls one hell of a mean face, but his action scenes seem to be shot through perpetual shaky cam, or in low light conditions, to give the brief illusion of proficiency. It works well for dramatic impact: again favouring the part of the film that clearly aspires to pack the punch of a gritty modern thriller, but gives little in the way of the visceral, emotional feedback that martial arts cinema has become known for, and to which the film seems to owe its numerous lengthy fight sequences.
The Equalizer would have been a better film had it dispensed with any trite Hollywood ideas of justice or deservedness, and doubled down on its core violence. Denzel’s character is not a good man, and given the film’s reception, I’m willing to argue that audiences are okay with that. They just want to see some vaguely-defined bad guys get it in the neck without having to play witness to the clean-up operation.