Revenge is a topic awash in moral ambiguity. Particularly since 9/11 and the rise of sanctioned torture methods like waterboarding, dozens of projects — from Dexter to Zero Dark Thirty — have provoked quarreling over the vital questions: What price do the guilty pay? And what price do we? The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington as a modern-day avenging angel, lives in a world where such conversations don’t exist. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and writer Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) have taken the outline of a 1980s CBS show and turned it into one long and loathsome bore of a movie. The plot has been gerrymandered so that we sympathize with the protagonist’s plight no matter how many goons he gores through the chin with a corkscrew. But make no mistake: It’s as challenging as slaughterhouse footage — and about as watchable.
As the ex-CIA operative Bob, now demoted to cutting wood at a Home Mart, Washington can’t suppress his natural gravitas even though the role is meant for a dweebier actor. He takes a paternal shine to a Russian prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz), and after her pimp puts her in the hospital, Bob butchers an entire crime syndicate. The material cries for a twist of irony, but Fuqua stages the bloodshed with dead seriousness. When the main evildoer (Marton Csokas) chokes a call girl, a music box chimes. The gloom doesn’t even clear with cameo appearances by Melissa Leo, donning the pantsuit she always wears for studio movies, and Bill Pullman, who seems to be auditioning for the Mitt Romney role in a sequel to Game Change. We’re treated to one thug after another running into Bob’s buzz saw — carnage made literal in the movie’s hardware-store-set finale. It’s the sign of an empty, depressing experience when the only tension is over Bob’s choice to use a power drill or a weed whacker for his next kill. D