Washington’s character summons past skills in ‘The Equalizer’

It was pretty cool having movies starring Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington released on successive weekends. These two men have a commanding screen presence, and in Neeson’s case, his work carried an otherwise slow-paced and murky “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Washington, on the other hand, while being the major force in “The Equalizer,” had some solid backing, starting with the director, Antoine Fuqua, who teamed up with Washington on the superb “Training Day,” along with a coolly lethal foe in Teddy (Marton Csokas).

The title character is Washington’s Robert McCall. a former government operative now living a quiet life working in one of those giant hardware/home maintenance super stores. An insomniac, he spends his off hours in an all-night diner, drinking hot tea and, in a tribute to his late wife, reading classic novels.

He also is the kind of person who is giving. He is helping one of his co-workers, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) drop weight and train so he can apply for a security guard position.

Another regular customer at the diner is a young lady, Teri — whose real name is Alina — (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is employed at an escort service run by ruthless Russian gangsters. McCall and Teri strike up a friendly acquaintance, with McCall giving the young woman encouragement to pursue her dream of a singing career. He is very aware of her current status, and it is a tribute to Washington’s acting skills that you can detect in his eyes the conflict he feels in whether or not to help Teri break away from this horrible work. He knows that if he does, it will require him to summon again the deadly skills he had used in his earlier life.

But when Teri is so badly beaten by her handler that she is hospitalized, McCall no longer can stand by. McCall pays a visit to this man, Slavi (David Meunier) and his crew and tries to give them a peaceful way out. But his gesture is rudely dismissed, so he extracts a bloody revenge that leaves five men dead.

This action has implications reaching all the way to Moscow, where the head of the Russian syndicate sends his best “cleaner,” Teddy, to the U.S. to find out what happened.

It takes a little while for all of this to set up, but it is worth it. Once Teddy zeroes in on McCall, the movie becomes an intriguing game of cat and mouse between two men who are at the top of their game. Csokas is mesmerizing as Teddy, so terrifyingly soft-spoken but brilliant and calculating, and when he explodes in violence, is it truly jarring.

McCall also is quiet, and always gives his adversaries a chance at redemption, the result usually being a verbal spit in the face. That is when McCall issues his form of justice — swiftly and efficiently.

The interplay between Csokas and Washington is brilliantly executed. McCall detests Teddy but clearly respects the man’s intelligence and dedication. And Csokas, an excellent character actor, aptly conveys that Teddy, under his veneer of cool confidence, is harboring an uneasiness about going up against McCall, and maybe even grudgingly respects him.

Fuqua, as shown in “Training Day,” does not hold back on the violence. It is brutal and the film is very worthy of its R-rating. He presents a graphic movie that pits one man with a steadfast conscience against a powerful machine driven only by profit, at whatever means. It’s a match-up that can keep the audience riveted.

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