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First Posted: 9/29/2014

“The Equalizer,” based on the 1985-89 TV show, wants us to think it’s smart and sophisticated. It is not. It wants you to look at its title character’s thorny past and vengeful purpose as being special. They are not.

Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and writer Richard Wenk are not interested in how Robert McCall, the stoic killing machine played by Denzel Washington, reaches that point. It gets in the way of McCall using a power drill to lethal effect or offing a henchman with a corkscrew.

But it’s OK! McCall rarely uses a gun, so he’s just like us! That’s the logic this ugly, stupid movie operates on.

Let’s meet Robert McCall, the hero of America’s number-one movie. He takes the bus to work, where he sports a cheerful, can-do attitude. He lives alone in an apartment, loaded with books, that’s a model of Spartan tidiness. An insomniac, he walks to the local greasy spoon every night, sitting at same corner table to interact with another classic novel.

Among the regular denizens is Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz, who needs to talk with her agent now), a high-end prostitute with dreams. After she is savagely beaten by her pimp, Robert tries to reason with the oily gangster. It doesn’t work, so Robert kills the pimp and his goons in about the time it takes to start your car. (That’s where the corkscrew comes in.)

Robert’s past has emerged to stay. The men Robert killed not only run Boston’s underworld, they have ties to a powerful Russian warlord. Said warlord sends his sadistic, well-tailored henchman, Teddy (Marton Csokas), to investigate. As Teddy peers under the shadows looking for McCall, our stoic hero performs more brutal acts of kindness. Example: when the Lowe’s-like hardware store where he works is robbed, McCall apparently evens the score with a sledgehammer.

Fuqua paints McCall—in clumsy strokes—as a patient intellectual. He breaks down situations before he attacks, a la Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. Washington, a terrific but mirthless actor, isn’t one for whimsy. So we need to know the purpose behind McCall’s new path. All we get is a sloppy pile of glossy, vague qualities to show he’s a man of substance. McCall is a widower, a workplace mentor, a badass with ties to the CIA, a sage with a maxim for every occasion, a listener, and a tortured soul.

Some may call that vagueness an attribute. I say it’s a way of passing the work to the audience—find a quality to validate the bloodshed, folks—instead of Fuqua and Wenk doing the job themselves.

Except when Washington fashions that glum expression where he looks like he’s trying to solve advanced calculus in his head, we’re not privy to what causes McCall’s switch to flip. For all of “The Equalizer’s” gruesomeness, its violence is clinical. It’s not an expression of a person’s twisted, desperate soul. It’s not Dustin Hoffman in “Straw Dogs” or Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence.”

Robert McCall is a borderline sociopath who can use a hardware store as an armory. That Fuqua tries to sell us McCall’s antics as meaningful reveals he is either the smartest man in the room or a filmmaker of stunning shallowness.

I’m not sure I want to know.