As he did, to great acclaim and an Oscar victory, in director Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, Denzel Washington plays a psychopath in Fuqua's new action thriller The Equalizer. And the most interesting thing about the movie - in truth, the only interesting thing about this laughably earnest, resoundingly foolish endeavor - is that none of its on- or off-screen participants seems to realize it.
If you've seen the film's trailers, or even its poster, or know that The Equalizer is based on the vengeance-minded CBS series that aired from 1985 to 1989, you may spend its first 30-ish minutes wondering if you've wandered into the wrong Denzel Washington movie by mistake. The actor stars as Robert McCall (or, more likely, "Robert McCall"), who's some kind of mid-level employee at a home-furnishing and building-supply superstore. Through a series of intentionally repetitive scenes, we watch the avuncular Robert in his daily routine: fastidiously tidying his one-bedroom apartment; serving as personal trainer to a hefty subordinate (Johnny Skourtis); trading friendly flirtations and jokes with co-workers. (He convinces two particularly gullible youths that he used to be one of Gladys Knight's dancing Pips.) Every night into the wee hours, Robert sits in the same booth at a neighborhood diner, working his way through literary classics while chatting amiably with a teenage prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz's Alina). And so it goes for roughly a half hour, with only a few needling questions - specifically, "Why is Robert timing every daily activity with a stopwatch?" - preventing this Antoine Fuqua thriller from suggesting a cool-tempered Tom McCarthy dramedy.
But one night, Alina enters the restaurant with a shiner, courtesy of a client. The next night, she's beaten and hospitalized, courtesy of her Russian pimp. And the next night, to much of the audience's apparent relief, all semblance of reality is ditched when Robert pays a visit to that pimp and his half-dozen henchman, and proceeds to turn the roomful of Russians into so much human borscht. This sequence really is something. With Washington (and Fuqua's camera) surveying the surroundings like Benedict Cumberbatch amassing clues on Sherlock, Robert eyeballs potential weapons - A paperweight! A corkscrew! - and mentally calculates both his attack trajectories and his victims' responses to those attacks. He then goes to town on the Russians through limb-spinning choreography that wouldn't look out of place on a particularly violent Dancing with the Stars episode, with Fuqua careful to show every execution in grisly, viscera-spewing closeup. (If you close your eyes during this sequence, don't worry about missing anything; Fuqua will replay the highlights in flashback 10 minutes later.) The scene is ludicrous, even in light of the eventual, unsurprising reveal that "Robert McCall" is a retired CIA assassin long thought dead. Yet a question lingers, and is never really addressed: Isn't this mass execution maybe a slight overreaction to a teen hooker getting punched in the face, even if she is played by Chloë Grace Moretz?
If your reply is "Hell, no!", by all means enjoy the film's concluding 90-plus minutes, a stubbornly single-minded loop in which a tattooed Russian enforcer (Marton Csokas) vows revenge on Robert, and Robert vows revenge on seemingly anyone with a Russian accent. (It's hard out here for a Pip.) If, however, you're of the mind that Robert is probably dangerously unstable - even though the movie tries desperately to convince us he's merely acting in the "best interests" of the oppressed - The Equalizer will likely come off as lazy and timid in addition to senseless, with its meant-to-be-thrilling climax in a makeshift Home Depot the source of one unintentional laugh after another. (With Robert using a weed whacker, a microwave, and even birdseed to fell his assailants, how I longed for the dead-serious Washington to be replaced by a pun-happy Arnold "Cleanup in aisle three!" Schwarzenegger.) The fine cast helps matters, even if there's not as much of David Harbour, Melissa Leo, and Bill Pullman as you might want. Yet while the finale promises sequels, or maybe a CBS series based on the movie based on the series, I'd argue that watching Denzel Washington read in a diner might prove far more rewarding than watching him exact vengeance on all of North Korea.
Witty, weird, and a little bit wonderful, the stop-motion animated comedy The Boxtrolls concerns a little boy raised by adorable monsters in London sewers, a little girl in need of a friend, and a cross-dressing villain with an unfortunate cheese fetish, considering that when he ingests it, his lactose intolerance makes his face resemble an overinflated balloon animal. That last bit was just one of many curlicues that tickled me in directors Graham Annable's and Anthony Stacchi's imaginative work adapted from Alan Snow's children's book Here Be Monsters! It's a bit on the formulaic side, but the occasional blandness is suffused with brilliant visual and aural gags (such as the perfectly timed ba-dum-ching! sound effect following some intentionally corny wordplay). And with amusing vocals provided by Jared Harris, Elle Fanning, Tracy Morgan, and frequent co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Ben Kingsley earns funniest-in-show honors for his gloriously named baddie Archibald Snatcher. Bonus points for characters, twice, responding to assaults with "You bit me! With your mouth!" It's the "twice" that makes it art.