Monday, 28 December 2009

Need help? Call The Equalizer

Equalizer,McCall,Edward,Woodward,New York,spy,action thriller,crime,uzi,gun
I’ve just finished watching my cheaply bought DVD of The Equalizer season one.

For those not in the know The Equalizer was a US TV show set in New York that ran for four seasons from 1985 to 1989 and starred the wonderful Edward Woodward as retired super spy Robert McCall. McCall, disenchanted with his former work in international espionage, decides to give his time and abilities (mostly free of charge) to those most in need. Often utilising irregular contacts from his old life as well as in local law enforcement, McCall helps ordinary people who are being victimised or persecuted and for whatever reason have nowhere else to turn. Basically he’s a one man A-Team who offers his services anonymously through an ad in a major New York paper that simply reads 'Got a problem? Odds against you? Need help? Call - The Equalizer'

I didn’t remember that much about the show having only seen it when it was originally on the box over twenty years ago. However I did remember loving it as a kid - especially McCall’s satin black Jag he uses to tear around the Big Apple. And I remembered the wicked cool title sequence and the awesome theme music by The Police’s Stewart Copeland (see below.)

What I didn’t remember, though, was quite how violent and grim The Equalizer is.

Above I compared it to The A-Team. But that’s not fair. It’s pretty much the anti-A-Team having far more in common with Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Frank Millar’s or Chris Nolan’s Batman. The tone of the series is deadly serious. It is grim and chilly. The New York setting is used to its best and constantly evokes a worn and dangerous urban world where something nasty is lurking around every street corner, be it uptown or downtown. In The Equalizer people are stabbed, shot, beaten, raped – all sorts of nasty things. People get hurt, suffer and die. This ain’t the comic book shenanigans of Hannibal Smith and BA Barracus, no sir. Sure, the show trots out the usual formula plots you always get in shows like this: the obligatory hostage drama with McCall stuck at a wedding reception as a gang of Middle Eastern terrorists take it hostage. A siege drama with McCall and his son staying in an isolated log cabin having to fend off a gang of locals after McCall’s son rescues a girl who the gang was trying to kidnap. Familiar plots, yes, but nicely tense and quite brutal – especially for TV. But other plots are not quite so clear cut, often mixing in elements of McCall’s past, or him reluctantly taking on a job for his old friend and ex-boss, Control, played by the granite faced Robert Lansing.

It is notable that the show used a lot of talented actors throughout its run borrowing heavily from the local New York theatre scene. In this season alone I spotted Tony Shaloub, Will Patton, Lori Petty, Bradley Whitford, Keith Szarabajka, Saul Rubinek, Jon Polito, Jim Dale, Burt Young, Jasmine Guy, Patricia Clarkson, Fred Williamson, a very young Melissa Joan Hart as a little girl McCall protects from her abusive father. And…drum roll please…the legend who is The Guzman. Yes, Luis Guzman. Love that guy. The behind the camera talent is a whose who of 70’s and 80’s TV including stalwart producer/writer Maurice Hurley and director Richard Compton. But ‘new’ talent pops up as well. There is an episode called ‘Lady Cop’ about a young female police officer who is being pressured by murderous colleagues in to corruption. It’s a very good episode with good acting (Will Patton amongst others) and a story co-written by none other than Kathryn Bigelow who went on to do her own lady cop movie, Blue Steel, with Jamie Lee Curtis.

The Equalizer is a great show but far from perfect. Although grim, violent and serious it is also a little too formulaic and very much a product of the neon lights and Flock of Seagulls haircuts of the 80’s – many of which are very amusing to see. But it has one single brilliant thing going for it that more than cancels out its shortcomings:

Edward Woodward

As Robert McCall, Woodward is tremendous. He oozes charisma, confidence, capability and a taut steely menace. When he grabs a lowlife, roughs him up and yells in his face repeatedly: “I DO NOT FORGIVE!” You believe him. McCall is a stone cold badass. Despite being grey haired and bit on the portly side, you really do believe he could go medieval on a whole bunch of young punks and send ‘em home crying to mommy. The dude is scary. The overriding phrase I had stuck in my head while watching The Equalizer was ‘You don’t wanna fuck with McCall.’ But then being the ace actor Woodward was he also exudes a world-weary warmth and fatherly concern to almost all of his clients – especially the youngsters. Woodward also brings something rather mournful and lonely to McCall’s character. He doesn’t seem happy or fulfilled. It’s as if he has lost out on a real life of his own. He is a long time divorced and is fairly well estranged from his son. And we go on to discover that he and his ex-wife also lost a baby daughter. His ‘friends’ are all business related contacts and he spends almost all of his time working, helping people through his unique abilities, as if to fill a void in his life and to make up for things he may have done (or not done) in his past. I see a familiar format here. I think Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt must have been fans of The Equalizer when they spun off Angel in to his own show, as it’s pretty much the same format. Angel is a supernatural Robert McCall, helping the helpless and searching for redemption.

The Equalizer is a compelling, adult and very watchable slice of 80’s TV, far better than most of its ilk. But it is Edward Woodward who really makes the show, who kicks it up a gear in the entertainment stakes. He is fabulous. Watching him in action you wish that every big city had its very own Equalizer to balance the scales when things get to be really bad. Shame they never released season 2 as it is supposed to be the best of the lot.

R.I.P. Edward Woodward. You were a class act, sir.

1 comment:

  1. Equalizer is awesome. One of the best themes for a tv series ever and Edward Woodward. He was the Horatio Caine of the 80s. Whenever he lectured someone in the series (at least once per episode) we used to cheer him on in my student corridor (we all loved The Equalizer). Those were the times...