Robert McCall has been doing bad work for good reasons almost as long as I’ve been alive. When I was a kid, that thumping Stewart Copeland electro-parp theme tune and the photo negative streets of a lawless New York haunted my dreams. Firstly because it’s a brilliant credit sequence that sets up the mean streets a lonely man must shout at and secondly because I never got to see a full episode as it started when I should have gone to bed.
A couple of decades and the internet later I’ve caught most of the show and have a good understanding of just where McCall fits in the trenchcoated, brutal Bayeux tapestry of trans-Atlantic espionage fiction. He’s a compatriot of Harry Palmer; a man who has done horrifically bad things for bosses who don’t trust him for as long as he can remember. McCall is the brass knuckles to George Smiley’s polite velvet fist; a man who kills people not just for the greater good or because he’s good at it, but because he enjoys it too. In that context he’s a compatriot of Palmer, but, perhaps, an ancestor of Dexter Morgan too.
Or at least, he was. The original take on the character, attacked with feral and articulate enthusiasm by Edward Woodward, was sprinting headlong to a bad end and wanting to take as many bad people with him as he could. The new version, played by Denzel Washington, is a much quieter man walking a slightly different path.
Firstly, this McCall retired instead of resigned in disgust. His death faked (We’re never told whether it’s by him, the Agency or just a lucky escape), he’s working in a hardware store in Boston as the movie opens. Where the original tried to change the game from within, this version of McCall realized he couldn’t and left. The first wants revolution, the second wants retirement.
That bassline of calm resonates up and down the movie and is something that Washington hangs his best moments off. His McCall is just as gifted a martial artist and soldier as the original but feels no desperate need to prove it. He’s not looking to pick a fight with the world, he’s looking to get out of the world’s way. It’s an entirely different, but no less valid, philosophy; Aikido instead of a baseball bat with a nail through the end. Calm instead of rage.
But the really interesting thing about this McCall is that he’s a hypocrite. He’s a precise, measured, controlled man who likes everything just so and uses that precision to stay alive. But the same screaming, berserker violence machine that prowled those Copeland-scored streets is still in him. This is a movie that’s best moments are sketched and one of the very best is the look on McCall’s face after the first fight. He estimates 16 seconds to kill five men in brutally effective, horrifying ways. He takes 19 and the shrug and ‘Not bad, could do better’, Washington gives when he checks the time tells us everything we need to know about this quiet man and what’s really inside him.
The reason why he contains that side of him is, like most of the best parts of the movie, sketched. Early on, teenage prostitute Alina asks McCall whether he broke his wife’s heart and, just for a second, Washington’s face crumples. There’s nothing histrionic, just the blank look of someone who’s been hit very, very hard in their weakest point. The faint smile and ‘She broke mine.’ He comes back with as much damage control as it is a response; turn the attack, move them away from you, recover, resume, escape.
It’s made explicit later on. Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, in cameos so brief they’re near subliminal, give us a little bit more of McCall’s background. Arguably the film’s best scene is a brief conversation between Leo’s character (Surely Control from the original series) and McCall where she makes it clear that he’s still the man his wife loved. Her later line to Pullman ‘He was asking permission.’ Says everything about what makes this McCall different. He’s still inside the system, still a soldier waiting for orders. The feral thing inside Robert McCall wants out and, given the order and the forgiveness he wants, it can finally be released.
The unfortunate thing is that that’s where the movie stops being as interesting. The first hour is genuinely great, especially every scene with Washington and Chloe Grace-Moretz as Alina. The two have an unforced chemistry so natural that you could happily watch them talk about books in a late night diner for two hours. Unfortunately, Moretz is shuffled off stage in a profoundly egregious piece of either editing or scriptwriting and is replaced by the Russian mafia. Marton Coskas does good work as McCall’s opposite number but is ultimately steamrolled by the script. This isn’t a story about a credible threat. It’s a story about a monster learning that it can wear a tie and pop its claws in public. The mafia never stand a chance either on screen or thematically.
In the end though, they do serve one vital purpose; delivering this McCall to the same place as the original. The final scenes see his meticulous routine disrupted, again, on his own terms. He still has the same table in the same diner, still reads the books but now, he checks email too.
He’s placed a classified ad. One that people who watched the show will find very familiar.
ODDS AGAINST YOU?
It’s comparable to the reveal on the Bat signal at the end of Batman Begins but arguably more meaningful. He’s found the peace he wanted, but in service rather than solitude. Robert McCall, doing bad work for good reasons, once again. The Equalizer, busy equalizing.
The Equalizer opened in the UK on 26th September 2014. The original TV show is available on DVD and is well worth it. Especially for the ‘lake of fire’ speech and the serial killer/paramedic episodes.