Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Television in the Eighties saw a shift in tone occur in police procedurals and investigation series.  While individual series had their darker moments and character focus, the trend wasn’t picked up by competing shows.  Two series did lay the groundwork, though.  Hawaii Five-O, 1968-1980, showed that a police procedural can get involved in a longer plot, specifically, McGarrett’s quest to bring down Wo Fat.  The Rockford Files, 1974-1980, had a balance between Jim Rockford’s work and home life and included the conflicts between the two.  From that start, shows like Magnum, P.I., 1980-1988, The A-Team, 1983-1987, and Miami Vice, 1984-1990, expanded what stories could be told.  Magnum started as a detective series, but, as the seasons progressed, delved deeper into the title character’s background in Naval Intelligence during the Viet Nam War.  The A-Team started as light action-adventure, but had four Viet Nam vets and later got into how that war had changed them.  Miami Vice grew beyond the concept of “MTV Cops”* and, again, went into the relationships between the characters.  Vice also provided a stylized approach to violence, using music to set the mood of the scene.

In 1985, a new drama debuted on CBS.  The Equalizer, starring Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, combined elements from three different genres – espionage, detective, and vigilante.  McCall, a former agent with “The Company”**, advertised his services in the classified ads section of the newspaper; “Got a problem?  Odds against you?  Call the Equalizer.”  Each week, McCall would use his unique skill set to deal with problems that law wouldn’t or couldn’t be involved in.  The Equalizer’s background was never stated outright, though as the series progressed, McCall’s past returned to haunt him.  The series’ approach to violence also broke new ground.  Instead of being stylized, as seen in Miami Vice, or over-the-top, as in The A-Team, The Equalizer saw violence that was intense and personal to a degree that hadn’t been seen on television before.

Part of the change in how violence was portrayed came from a looser hold on what was allowed on television.  The Eighties saw cable television expand, with new channels available for a low, low cost.  Premium channels cost more, but added to the variety available.  With specialty channels catering to specific interests, such as MTV showing music videos and only music videos, viewers weren’t limited to watching what the major networks aired.  Prior to cable, ABC, CBS, and NBC all set their programming to maximize audience size.  Controversy would drive away part of the potential viewers to the competition, so programming was aimed at the lowest common denominator.  The advent of cable meant that the networks had to lure viewers back.  Old staples fell away as the Big Three revamped their lineups.  Since they couldn’t use some elements that cable channels had available, such as gratuitous nudity, the networks had to get creative in other areas.  Thus, Miami Vice‘s marriage of police drama and music video and The Equalizer‘s use of intense, personal, and implied violence.  The show may not have shown much, but it allowed the viewers’ imagination to fill in the gaps.

The Equalizer ran until 1989.  Edward Woodward suffered a heart attack in 1987, forcing him to reduce his workload as he recovered.  The show won an Edgar Award for Best Television Episode Teleplay in 1987 for the “The Cup”, where McCall helps Mickey Kostmeyer, his assistant through the series, protect his brother, a priest who had heard a confession about an assassination by a KGB agent.

In 2014, Denzel Washington starred in a remake movie, also called The Equalizer.  Washington plays Robert McCall, who appears to have an unremarkable life, spending time at night at a 24-hour diner and working at a hardware store during the day.  A widower, he spends his free time reading the 100 books that everyone should read, since his late wife had been doing the same, passing away before she could finish the last three books on the list.  At the diner, he befriends a young Russian woman, Adena, played by Chloë Grace Moritz, who works as a prostitute.  She shares her dreams with McCall, who tells her that all she needs to do is change her world.  McCall also has friends at work, including Ralphie, played by Johnny Skourtis, a clerk who wants to become a security guard at the store with McCall’s help.  Some of his co-workers wonder what he did before, believing he may have worked in finance.  McCall says that he was a Pip, as in Gladys Knight and the Pips.

When Adena’s pimps put her in the hospital, McCall discovers where there office is and pays them a visit.  He offers $9800 in cash to buy Adena’s freedom.  The Russian mobsters just laugh at him.  McCall starts to leave, then locks the office’s entrance.  The next thirty seconds sees McCall demonstrating why the enforcers should have taken the money.  The five mobsters are killed, with the lead enforcer shot in the neck and able to watch the action before he dies.

Viewers who aren’t familiar with the original series may suspect that McCall is far more than he appears.  An older gentleman who works at a hardware store, spends his free time reading classic novels, and lives in a small apartment should not have $9800 in cash, nor should he understand Russian, nor should he be able to kill five Russian mobster half his age.  Yet, McCall did.  Not much later, there’s an armed robbery at the hardware store.  McCall approaches the cash where the robbery is happening, aware of what’s going on.  He notes a few details of the thief, including the skull head on the robber’s hoodie zipper, similar to the skulls in the mobsters’ office, and the gang tattoos.  When the robber demands the cashier’s ring, one that belonged to her late mother, McCall appears ready to take action but is stopped when he sees a family with young children enter.  Instead, he has the cashier give over her ring, then follows the thief to get the license plate of his car.  The scene ends with McCall picking up a sledgehammer from the racks.  The next day, the cashier opens her drawer and sees her mother’s ring.  McCall is then seen wiping down a sledgehammer before returning it to the rack.

The Russian mob isn’t happy with the loss of their gangsters.  The five men killed weren’t just pimps; they were senior members of the mob’s organization in Boston.  Vladimir Pushkin, played by Vladimir Kulich, the head of the gang, sends an investigator, Teddy, played by Marton Csokas, an ex-Spetsnaz soldier who’s capability for violence isn’t tempered by civility.  Teddy is a blunt instrument, who doesn’t care about anything except finding the men who killed the senior gangsters.  His investigation leads him to McCall, who appears to be a plain American.  Teddy’s instincts, though, tell him that everything about McCall is wrong.

Pushkin’s mob has its fingers in many pies, including protection rackets and police corruption.  That combination is why Ralphie leaves the hardware store despite his hard work to qualify for the guard exams; his mother’s restaurant was burned down after she was unable to pay a pair of corrupt cops.  McCall tracks Ralphie down to find out why he left so suddenly and notices the scorch marks at the restaurant.  He finds the corrupt cops, records them on their rounds, and forces them to return the money extorted.

After another confrontation with Teddy, McCall gets photos of the enforcer and takes them to friends who are also former agents.  The friends pass along all the information they have on Teddy, including his real name and his background.  McCall takes the information and starts a one-man war against the Russian mob.  His first stop is with one of the corrupt cops, Frank Masters, played by David Harbour.  McCall forces Masters to take him to Pushkin’s money laundering operation, which he then shuts down, paying the Chinese women sorting and bagging the money before they leave then calling in the FBI.  Masters gives up his escape plans to McCall, which include a USB memory stick filled with who was being paid off by the mob and for how much.  The FBI receives a copy of the data through an anonymous tip.  The second stop for McCall is to destroy one of Pushkin’s ships filled with valuable cargo, along with the pumping station used to fill the tanker.

With the hit to the mob’s income, Pushkin gets insistant that the man responsible be found and killed.  Teddy brings in his own people, but loses one before they can even get started.  McCall meets with Teddy, bringing the broken glasses of the Russian’s own man with him.  The point of the conversation is to give Teddy and the mob the choice of shutting down operations and leaving peacefully.  Teddy scoffs and refuses.  McCall shrugs and walks away.

Teddy has done his homework, finding where McCall works.  He has men take the store employees hostage during closing then calls McCall.  McCall now has a choice; show up in twenty-nine minutes at Teddy’s location or his friends and co-workers will be killed in thirty.  Teddy tracks McCall’s movement by using the GPS on the the American’s phone.  The bus the signal is on approaches the Russian’s location.  Teddy has a sniper ready to shoot McCall on the bus, except the bus is empty.  Teddy was tracking the phone, but the phone rode alone.

McCall, instead, is at the hardware store.  The Russians have the employees in a back room.  Teddy gives the order to kill one, but Gladys Knight and the Pips starts playing over the store’s intercom.  One of the mobsters forces Ralphie to take him to the security office.  McCall is ready and kills the mobster.  In the back room, the radio crackles and a Russian voice asks for assistance.  The other mobster is dealt with as quickly as the first.  McCall tells Ralphie to get the employees out the back, then gets ready for Teddy’s arrival.

Teddy arrives at the store.  The lights all go out as soon as he and his men are inside, the main doors locking.  Teddy and his men are armed, but McCall not only has had time to prepare but knows the layout of the store far better.  McCall sets out traps, waiting for one of the Russians to come by before triggering them.  Soon, it’s just McCall and Teddy, with Ralphie back to assist.

There were a few changes made between the original TV series and the movie.  The location moved from New York City to Boston, though that change was to take advantage of not just shooting locations but the difference in organized crime in the cities.  New York City is known for the Mafia, the Five Families with ties to Italy.  Boston, however, is more diverse, with Italian, Irish, and Russian mobs.  As well, Washington’s McCall is far more integrated with his community.  Woodward’s McCall was the outsider who lived in New York but wasn’t a part of day-to-day life.  This McCall would be called in to solve a problem.  Washington’s McCall was a part of the community, helping friends and co-workers with problems, from getting Ralphie ready to qualify as a security guard to retrieving a co-worker’s special ring.  This McCall, like Woodward’s, may have been atoning, but the approach was different.  The core of the character, though, was there.  A former agent with a skill set that could be used to help those who needed it, and a willingness to get involved.

The movie showed more violence than the TV series did, though that is more from movies having far more leeway, depending on rating, to depict violent acts than television.  The tone remained, though, and not all violence was shown.  Much more was implied.  The armed robber never re-appeared after fleeing the crime scene; all the audience sees is McCall picking up a sledgehammer, the ring in the cashier’s register, and McCall wiping the sledgehammer down before returning it to the racks.  Credit for maintaining the feel of the TV series goes to Antoine Fuqua, the director.  Fuqua, who broke into movies with The Replacement Killers and worked with Denzel Washington on Training Day, maintained the mix of everyday life and McCall’s past, using the contrast to heighten the mood.  The theatrical remake of The Equalizer keeps the tone of the original series while taking advantage of being a movie and modern technology.  The Robert McCall of both is easily recognizable, though each version is its own take on the character.

Of note, the movie performed well enough at the box office that Sony has announced a sequel, provided that Fuqua and Washington both have the time in their schedules that mesh with each other.

Next week, the April news round-up.

* Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC Entertainment, had used the term, “MTV Cops”, wanting a show that included the visual style of a music video, but that concept did not turn into /Miami Vice/. []
** The series never specified which intelligence agency and just called it “The Company”, though the implications were that it was the CIA.

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