Okay, let's get one thing straight right at the beginning. For me, there is and will ever only be one true Robert McCall, aka "The Equalizer": British actor Edward Woodward, who originated the role in the 1980s CBS TV series. Woodward's portrayal of the haunted, world-weary former CIA officer turned freelance avenger was straight out of le Carré, and his gravitas and authority turned what might have been a routine potboiler TV show into a true morality play.
So I was understandably skeptical, not to mention downright dismissive, when I heard that Hollywood, in its bottomless thirst for recycling the past, was planning a feature-film update of The Equalizer. At first Russell Crowe was attached to the project, which made it seem at least somewhat credible; I could see him assaying a decent McCall. But Crowe left the project, and rumors of other actors abounded, even including for a while the late Woodward's son Peter, an accomplished actor in his own right.
Finally, the film was greenlighted with Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, reunited with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. No slouches there in the talent department, of course. But, I feared, another definite indication that this production promised to have little in common with the original TV show other than the title.
As it happens, I was correct. At first blush, the Washington/Fuqua feature flick currently in theaters bears little if any resemblance to the Woodward TV series. For starters, the film is set in Boston, not New York City. And quite unlike Woodward's character, a sophisticated and apparently independently wealthy Brit who drove a black Jaguar XJ6 and lived in a posh Manhattan condo, the film version of McCall is a decidedly low-key sort of guy who dwells in a spartan apartment in a working-class Boston neighborhood, buys his groceries at the corner store, and works as a clerk in a big-box home improvement store.
Not an avenger
Happily, it turns out that the differences don't matter much. Fuqua, Washington, and screenwriter Richard Wenk didn't bother to retread the New York streets of the 1980s series so much as they simply revamped McCall for a 21st-century audience, keeping the essence of the character while discarding most of the original television trappings. While the details may be different, Washington still understands and conveys the conflicted soul of Robert McCall, a man who finds some redemption of past misdeeds by helping others, who sees himself as not really an avenger but as a force for good who balances — or "equalizes" — the scales for those who can't do so for themselves.
And it works, pretty much. As one would expect in a Hollywood action flick, Denzel's McCall is decidedly more athletic and action-oriented than Woodward's version. Whereas the TV McCall would often use deception, subterfuge, psychological manipulation, and other espionage-based techniques against his foes, turning to violence only as a last resort (usually), the 21st-century McCall is harder-edged and more lethal, prepared to kill with cool and creative efficiency when necessary. And of course, since this is a Hollywood action movie, it's necessary quite often.
A quiet man
Yet Washington's portrayal and Fuqua's stylistic touches manage to lift The Equalizer to a level somewhat above the usual shoot-'em-up/blow-'em-up actioner. It begins quietly, letting us glimpse McCall's solitary, mundane existence at home and work. Fuqua's rainswept streets and moody nocturnal tableaus are pure Edward Hopper, particularly the all-night diner where an insomniac McCall whiles away the wee hours reading Hemingway. McCall seems settled, almost resigned, to this under-the-radar lifestyle, until an unlikely friendship with fellow diner denizen Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz) leads him to reconsider his aloof disengagement, when she turns out to be a teenaged hooker brutalized by a Russian mob pimp. Much like Liam Neeson's character in the 2008 film Taken, McCall is a man with a very specialized skill set that he's reluctantly induced to bring back into play.
Fuqua and Wenk can't resist trotting out a few of the tried-and-true action movie tropes. While McCall's no wiseass quipster like Die Hard's John McClane (Bruce Willis) — mostly he stays deadly silent before, during, and after dispatching his enemies — he still manages a post-kill bon mot now and then. There's the obligatory nonheroic friend-of-the-hero who ends up helping to save the day (Johnny Skourtis), and of course, the inevitable hero-walking-in-slow-motion-away-from-a-background-explosion shot. But these are mere formalities, to be expected in a Hollywood big-budget production. And they don't detract from the satisfaction of watching Washington’s intense, restrained performance and his final struggle with main bad guy Teddy (Martin Csokas).
So while this new Equalizer will never replace the one and only original for us Woodward fans, it's a worthy reboot, or perhaps an alternate-universe version, of the basic concept. Perhaps thanks to the presence of Equalizer co-creator Michael Sloan as an executive producer, there's a nod to the old fans at the end of the film, a little fillip to set things up for a possible sequel (which reportedly is already in the works). As a man who always found a way to keep his options open, Edward Woodward's Equalizer would no doubt have approved.