Soft-spoken Mac (Denzel Washington) pays a visit to the Boston lair of Russian gangster Slavi (David Meunier) with a modest offer: $9,800 to free young Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) from the grinding abuse she has suffered at the vicious pimp's hands. Slavi and his four heavily armed, elaborately tattooed henchmen give Mac's proposal a big harsh laugh — their last. In a minute or two of spectacularly choreographed violence that might leave Quentin Tarantino drooling with envy, Mac takes out the whole gang with dazzling fisticuffs, whirling gunplay and the innovative application of a champagne corkscrew. Slavi should have accepted the $9,800 — not just to stay alive but also to keep the sleeping beast inside Mac from stirring to confront the worldwide Russian mob.
Bad as it is for Ukraine, the revived reputation of post-Soviet Russia as the world's most thuggish aggressor state is a boon for action movies. Not since Rosa Klebb of SMERSH took on James Bond in From Russia With Love a half-century ago has Hollywood been able to revel with cause in the villainy of Eastern European tyrants. In director Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer, which opens the fall action-film season with a resounding, R-rated bang, the Moscow-based Mr. Big of the Russian drug cartel is code-named Pushkin; it may as well be Putin. His bad luck: the gentleman opposing him is not Barack Obama but Denzel Washington.
For much of this exemplary thriller, written by Richard Wenk, Mac is the quiet, friendly employee at Home Mart, solicitous of his coworkers and protective of his past. When quizzed about previous employment, he says, "I was a Pip," and mimes, not too convincingly, the dance steps of a Gladys Knight backup singer. His life is monastic, his emotions post-mortem. The film's first shot, a labyrinthine backwards track from a view of East Boston through Mac's obsessively tidy apartment, reveals shelves of the hundred great books and little else. At night he reads alone in his flat or in the diner where he met Teri. He has nearly finished The Old Man and the Sea, and the viewer may wonder if Washington, who turns 60 in Dec., is like Hemingway's Santiago, "too old to hook the big fish."
But we wouldn't be invested in Mac — aka Robert McCall, a top government agent living incognito since he “died” decades earlier — if he were to withhold his skills and anger forever. He's like a bomb, of nuclear thrust, waiting to be detonated. That one kind gesture to the teenage Teri triggers his old talents and leads to an epic tangle with Pushkin’s prime enforcer, a purring cobra named Teddy (Martin Csokas, whose death-mask face suggests a more muscular Kevin Spacey). Every mob in town, Russian and Irish, along with a cordon of cops on the take, wants to kill Mac. The world against one man; that seems fair odds, when Washington is The Man.
No memories of the 1986 TV series, starring Edward Woodward as McCall, are needed to enjoy this virulently lively thriller. Fuqua, who steered Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, creates tension by mixing extreme closeups with elegant tracking shots. The viewer alternately counts beads of sweat on a gunsel’s face and gets an Old Testament God’s-eye view of a corrupt city that’s not too big for one righteous man to bring down or blow up. Mac's job and his calling will entwine in a Home Mart showdown to trap Teddy and his gang. As the bad guys storm in, the loud-speaker system plays "Midnight Train to Georgia."
That superstore climax is both dramatically implausible — Teddy should have brought reinforcements by the hundreds, not just a handful, to battle the un-take-downable McCall — and goofily overextended. But it provides a superb showcase for a movie hero's abilities, both preternatural (hypervision, lightning reflexes) and practical (using sand bags and trip wires to trap his foes). It also suits Washington, in the dour-deity mode he paraded in his last truly cool film, The Book of Eli. Nobody else can bring such coiled menace, such glowering intelligence, to the simple act of watching.
If The Equalizer is the hit it should be, it will give this veteran action star his very first movie franchise. In the sequel, Denzel-McCall could make things right in Ukraine as Obama's Secretary of Defense and one-man army.