The Equalizer got a kicking from some critics and I couldn’t help feel some of them were upset that it was a “genre” outing. The opening gambit of the review in the Telegraph was to criticise its “threadbare plot, clichéd villains, and Denzel Washington on autopilot”. These claims are all true, but miss the point that in a fundamental way the nature of genre films is specifically to be all of those things. This is the great truth behind Hollywood’s obsession with remakes and clones: audiences tune in to get the same thing again, just as they want to get the same Starbucks-blend Coffee in Istanbul and Iowa. Robey’s most vitriolic attack is directed at Csokas, as the central antagonist, “Teddy”:
Rarely caught being subtle, Csokas goes in for the kind of drawling, aesthete’s villainy that suggests what Dale Winton might have done with the role of Hannibal Lecter. The role’s crying out for a name star – John Malkovich? Kevin Spacey? – to create a more balanced antagonism with Washington, who generally looks as if he could get supporting players fired with a snap of his fingers.
This is a completely absurd complaint about Csokas’ performance because that’s the premise of the film. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian is even more misguided with his 1-star rating based on an unfocused distaste for the basic creative space of the film:
The movie serves up the dodgiest have-your-cake-and-eat-it menu: you get to see the women brutalised and assaulted,and also the men, the second spectacle presumably justified by the first.
This is like listening going to a musical and complaining that it’s unrealistic for the characters to break into song. What’s really tragic about both of these reviews is that The Equalizer in fact deserves a good kicking because it fails on its own terms by pointing out genre boundaries and limitations without supplanting those with its own redefined iconic structure. Both reviewers get achingly close to understanding these failures, but their dismissal of the genre framework means they can’t articulate what’s really bothering them about this piece of shit.
The Equalizer is in the basic mould of the typical Hollywood revenge tale, which these days means that it feels like a clone of Taken, current king of the crop. The default revenger, the Platonic Ideal Revenger, is someone with a special-forces background. Someone close to them is hurt, and they stride out for revenge. They are not only unkillable but they are basically invulnerable. I mean, they’ll get a cut on an eyebrow or something, but untouchable in any material way. They are always reluctant heroes, always wanting bygones to be bygones in a general Karmic sense. Of course this is a completely false hope, because secretly they all enjoy the hunt and chase. They are inherently politically noxious, of course, because they almost universally regard women as entirely objects. They are almost all also ethically dubious as the means justify the ends, and actually the ends are often not that ethically desirable either. These films often stand or fall on what is essentially the quality of their choreography; alternatively they may win out through sheer charisma.
It is possible to deviate from the template. The most conscious variation in recent times was from Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill. In several of his publicity interviews he outlined the view that audiences didn’t need to actually see the events leading up to the bloody path of Revenge, because it was all old-hat. What audiences want, what the interesting part of the narrative is, is the actual violence. Love it or hate it (I hate it), Kill Bill is a stylish deviation from the formula that takes what it wants, discards the rest, and consequently largely has to be taken on its own terms. Tarantino’s key strategy for getting this reformulation to work is to double-down on the basic strategy of the Iconic hero – it is no coincidence that the only character without a name in the film is the central protagonist, The Bride. The whole art direction and structure of the film is geared toward exhibiting her iconic identity.
The Equalizer takes the opposite approach in a way. Instead of being the expression of an iconic identity, it is a film about the establishment of the identity. It is, like so many films, an origin story. The origin story is a favourite of Hollywood probably because it has an inherent structure that prevents it from becoming incoherent. The origin story of any hero also meets the criteria set out in so many “good writing” guides that characters must have a dramatic arc. The problem is that the kinds of iconic characters who populate genre fiction don’t have or need dramatic arcs. Robin Laws has already put the full argument for this elsewhere so for the intimate details I refer you to him. A casual review of our favourite revenge tales will bear out empirically that if there is a dramatic arc, it lies with either the villain or the victim. This does also help ensure that villains are in a lot of ways the more interesting character.
The problem with the origin story and iconic identity established in the film is that it is bland and bordering on incoherent. Think about (the completely unnecessary) Batman Begins for a second. The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and the lack of justice in Gotham leads Wayne to assume the mantel of the revenger armed with Ninja training, a host of special gadgets and, crucially, a bat-inspired costume to protect his identity. We can forgive and even embrace the lazy cliches and structural crutches that Nolan uses in his film because at the end the process spits out perhaps the most iconic of Iconic Heroes. McCall in contrast has two kind-of-iconic ticks – his use of a stopwatch to time his violence and a reliance on apparently non-lethal objects to deliver his equalization. These scenes are filmed in a version of Guy Richie’s fight-preview slow-motion from the two Sherlock Holmes movies, making the stopwatch feel like an attempt to give the scenes kinetic impact without having to actually have high-kinetic fight choreography. The improvised-weapon schtick is done better in just about every Hong Kong-style film emerging from the East.
Where the origin story almost becomes interesting is the trip in the middle of the film where McCall goes to visit some former colleagues, who deliver an unhealthy dose of plodding exposition both about McCall and his foes. What makes this almost interesting is the comment by his former handler that McCall hasn’t come for assistance or information in any meaningful way – he’s come for permission. This is a potential major inversion of the Platonic Ideal against which the audience is measuring McCall. From Die Hard to Taken, revengers are always reluctant, but this central scene implies that McCall’s just been looking for an excuse.
Quite a few reviewers complained that the female victim that McCall is ostensibly revenging is a minor character, without much personality and that the relationship between them is too weak to sustain the lengths to which McCall goes. I read that as a central and deliberate strategy of this film to differentiate itself from others of its ilk. In Taken, the orgy of violence is prompted by the hero’s love for his virgin daughter and the film endorses that single-minded perspective throughout. In The Equalizer, the willing revenger is just looking for an excuse. The irrelevance and the tenuousness of the connection is a key departure from the genre template, and in the right hands would form the spine of a critique from within the genre. Unfortuntely, the film doesn’t know what that critique would look like and, amidst its gentle probing of the genre boundaries, occasionally lapses into genre stereotypes.
The combination of what turns out to be an underwhelming origin cycle with a lacklustre iconic identity and a deliberately weak emotional connection with the central victim drains the film of interest or energy. This puts the onus almost entirely on Teddy, the film’s villain, to inject life, energy, and interest. I have gotten used to talking about the iconic hero, but his adversaries often have a similar kind of structure. The leitmotif of Batman’s rogue’s gallery is a penchant for chaos. The Joker, the Riddler, the Mad Hatter, and the Scarecrow are all a similar mix of puzzles, outlandish publicity, and the invocation of fear as a primary modus operandi. Two Face adds a mirror of the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy to his brand of chaos. They represent chaos partially as a mirror, an inversion, of Batman’s adherence to order. This is echoed in the comics by the occasional accusation levelled at Batman that he creates his own rogue’s gallery. In logical terms this is not exactly a strong argument, but in thematic terms it’s dead right. Whether mirrors, inversions or tranmogrifications, the iconic identities of villains is a response to the iconic identity of the heroes.
Teddy then, is an Iconic Villain defining himself in opposition to the most ill-defined and lacklustre Iconic Hero. McCall is quiet and unassuming. He enjoys literature and plays softball with his workmates. Teddy is constructed as his opposite, wearing a suit, talking loudly, expressing disdain for his subordinates, and the motivelessness of many of his outbursts reflect McCall’s own ill-defined motivation. The trouble, again, is that none of this is very fun or very interesting, but amidst a film signalling genre defiance it needs to be. Commando gets away with its cliched villains because it’s grabbing the revenger template with both hands and really running with it. It never questions for a second the basic premise of the formula and it never flinches from its excesses. Teddy’s huge extravagant violence contrasted with the stoney indifference of the hero just feels a bit silly.
What we have then is a film whose aspirations really aren’t all that high, but whose creative decisions point that out. We have a film which tacks on a 25 minute pause in the middle for the main character to “get permission” to be the vigilante hero whose existence is the premise of the film, a pause taken after the first revenge set-piece. We have someone with a kind of motiveless heroism just looking for an excuse to do some good, but the film makes a half-attempt to show some real and specific connection with a bland and unremarkable female victim. We have a primary villain who exists purely as a series of character ticks and quirks, but whose exposition and demeanour are supposed to suggest clinical business-like efficiency.
What we have, really, is a film that’s trying to hedge its bets. I think you can see that in it’s 15-certificate here in the UK. 15 is just violent and sweary enough that it can’t be confused with a kids film, but clearly that’s also holding back. It can’t quite commit to being a straight-up genre actioner, it can’t quite commit to breaking genre defaults. That makes it incoherent rather than cliched and tedious rather than threadbare. It deserves a kicking, just not the one it got.