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Denzel Washington’s 'The Equalizer': An Examination Into The Everyman

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Who are you?”

“Everybody wants to know.”

Released just a month before Keanu Reeves made his theatrical debut as the unstoppable and terrifying John Wick way back in 2014, Sony Pictures made an attempt at the one-man action genre with a film that didn’t center around fantastical hitmen, hidden societies or characters that were based around Slavic folklore. Instead, this much more realistic edition focused on a lone man who liked to read classic novels while sitting alone at 24/7 diners and going about casually working forty hours a week at a local Home Depot (in the movie’s isolated universe though, this is actually called Home Mart).

At the beginning of the movie, he was in the middle of Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.

After that, he was reading Don Quixote.

At the end of the movie, he was just starting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

With respect and courtesy to those around him, the literal title of the latter is who Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall aims to be. A person who goes through each day with his mind only focused on two things: the clock and precision. He keeps track of how long it takes to get ready for work through a curated stopwatch on his wrist and goes through the process of folding a napkin over a tea bag like he is trying to perfectly swaddle a newborn baby.

Through the two hour snapshot that the audience is given into his life, we also come to learn about the few relationships that he currently keeps. McCall is not only friendly with a co-worker named Ralphie, who he is trying to motivate into shape in order to land a security guard job, but also Teri, a hooker who tends to frequent the same eatery he spends restless nights in where he rides his imagination through the pages of definitive literature.

Just like Santiago who is troubled by what wades through the deep ocean waters in Ernest Hemingway’s last major work, our main character is set aback when he witnesses the abuse the teenage girl has to go through in her own everyday life. She not only has to serve clients who are dirty and disgusting but is also half beaten to death and put into the hospital by her pimps when things don’t go exactly their way. No matter how much she was trying to grow a new path in life with ambitions toward a singing career, Teri couldn’t get away from the controlling hand of the Russian mafia. No matter how much he tried to fool his own true persona by holding a retail job and hanging out with night owls when needed, McCall couldn’t get away from what he was trained to do.

Conceptualizing and executing the everyman is how The Equalizer sets itself apart from others in the genre, including the movie that overshadowed it just a month later. With a mysterious aura that flows through the fight scenes in the first half of the movie, the audience wonders where he’s learned how to use his mind’s eye to subdue and kill the Russians that were immediately connected with Teri’s beating. The stopwatch comes into play and McCall sets a time for himself in trying to beat some old record. Flawlessly victorious, he then retreats back into his societal performance helping Ralphie’s mom with her restaurant that caught on fire. But then he switches back to a brutal and cold vigilante when he accosts the corrupt cops who threaten her every night. Back and forth, back and forth without the audience knowing anything about him just yet.

To help others seems to be his game but in doing so, he brings a sense of fog to his own name. He doesn’t want to go back to who he used to be because he promised the woman he loved that that ruthless and cold killer no longer lived. As stakes continue to rise though and numerous threats arise against him in retaliation for his personal form of justice, the midpoint of the movie is a major turning point.

Wrestling and grappling with his other side leads McCall to former Defense Intelligence Agency colleagues who now live on a cottage of sorts. The scene seems straightforward enough - he asks for information about his assailants and his old friends tell him who it is that he’s up against. The beauty of this scene comes at the end though when Susan (one of the two living here) reveals that he “didn’t come for help. He came for permission.”

The everyman is always burdened with a degree of inner conflict. Not only is Teri and Ralphie but even McCall, with all his expertise and weaponry practice. But with the decision cemented by peers of his previous life who gave him the go-ahead that he was actually looking for, the switch in the former Home Mart employee is switched and he steps into the Navy Seal mindset. With the gates of vengeance now unlocked with the right key, McCall tortures goons, blows up Russian oil tankers, hangs his enemies and literally takes a drill to the back of an enemy’s head.

With Vengeance by Zack Hemsey playing on a rough repeat that serenades through the halls of Home Mart, we see the Russian fixer named Nicolai storming the retail store and ready to take the fight to McCall. With The Equalizer setting all kinds of traps, we finally see that the everyman has been pushed to the side, respecting the cold and calculative side of himself once more.

This movie is a fascinating look into a man pushed back into his past, pulled back into a persona which he truly thought was gone for good.

Be on the lookout for my deep dive into The Equalizer 2, coming soon.

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